When the Cowboys drafted Zack Martin on Thursday night, it marked the third consecutive season a Notre Dame player was selected in the first round. It was also the first time since the early nineties (1991 to 1994) that the Irish had first rounders in back-to-back-to-back years. This is a great thing for Brian Kelly and company to point to in recruiting (although it's nothing compared to Miami's 14-year run from 1995 to 2008), but that streak could be coming to an abrupt end next year.
But maybe not. If someone had told you prior to the 2011 season that Harrison Smith would have been a first round pick in the following year's draft, you would have laughed in that person's face. Martin wasn't even projected as a first rounder through most of the 2013 season even as he dominated the competition due to scouts claiming his wingspan was too slight. All it will take for the Notre Dame first rounder run to continue will be one monster performance and/or one NFL team to fall in love with an Irish player.
What follows is a very, very rough attempt to predict which 2014 Notre Dame player might get his name called in the first 32 picks next spring. Many of the following players will have eligibility remaining and could very well be on the Irish in 2015, but considering the slim number that would have predicted Troy Niklas entering the draft a year early, I'm going to consider any player three years removed from their high school graduation as fair game. It doesn't mean their leaving school would be the best decision, only that it's a decision that's in play.
The savvy vet
8. Cody Riggs
Riggs is an undersized defensive back at 5'9", but he was a four-star recruit and played all 12 games for a solid Florida defense last season, coming in fourth on the team in tackles and third on the team in tackles for loss. If he shows the ability to be a productive jack-of-all-trades in the Irish secondary, NFL teams could gamble on his versatility, especially when you consider how many defensive backs went in the first round over the weekend.
The redemption story
I thought we had reached a point in the NFL where teams would stop caring about the height of their starting quarterbacks but then you have Teddy Bridgewater tumbling to the end of the first round with one of the knocks against him being his height. If Golson puts together the big season we think he's very much capable of while his NFL doppelganger Russell Wilson keeps on rolling you could see a team falling in love with the idea of Golson, a winner (fingers crossed) with a big arm and the ability to make plays outside of the pocket. His size will probably keep from going anywhere near the first round,
Potential front seven breakouts
5. Sheldon Day
Two guys who will be featured players in a new aggressive front seven. Two guys who have shown flashes before. Two guys with really good-to-great recruiting pedigrees that show the talent is there to perform at the next level. Both of them will need to be on the field consistently, but NFL teams are always looking for some athletic front seven folks to get to the quarterback. A healthy, disruptive season from either of these young men could shoot them into the first round conversation.
Potential receiver breakouts
3. Ben Koyack
Two extremely talented receivers who will have a chance to run up some numbers with Golson under center. Daniels looked liked he was making the leap at the end of 2012, but he had a disappointing '13 that was followed up with an academic suspension, but a big 2014 (and NFL dad) could easily make front offices forget about those minor blips. Koyack is next up in a ridiculous run of draft success that's seen Irish tight ends going in the first two rounds going back nearly a decade to Anthony Fasano. Tyler Eifert was the only one of that group to make the first round, but it's very possible Koyack gets in that conversation.
The offensive line cornerstone
Stanley is a very large, very talented human being who looks to anchor the tackle position for two consecutive seasons (he started all 13 games in 2013). You can picture Mike Mayock spending some time during Notre Dame home games talking up dominant performances by Stanley (a la Smith and Martin) and giving him a kickstart in the evaluation process. When you factor in how teams view massive tackles as an investment that's both necessary and safe, Stanley could pancake block his way onto a few draft boards.
The junior corner is a four-star athlete who's started from day one, combining production (fifth on the team in tackle last season, three career picks, ten career pass breakups) and some flair (the pick against Marqise Lee in 2012, a dominant Pinstripe Bowl appearance in December). No position was more popular in the 2014 Draft than defensive back, and Russell has the chance to be a defensive captain and lynchpin for an attacking defense that could leave him plenty of chances to impress scouts while making plays on an island.
All right, that is my very rough list. Did I miss someone? Do you think there's an obvious answer here? Who do you think has the best chance to hear their name called in the first round?