ESPN analyst Mel Kiper thinks next week will be a good week for Kansas State’s draft hopefuls.
He projects as many as three former Wildcats to be selected.
Kiper, long considered a leading expert on the NFL Draft, predicts offensive lineman Cody Whitehair to be picked in the second round and fullback Glenn Gronkowski to follow somewhere in the first five rounds. He also expects return specialist Morgan Burns to get a look in the late rounds.
K-State could produce three draft picks in the same year for the first time since 2013 and for the second time since 2007. It last boasted four draft selections in 2003. The Wildcats have produced at least one draft pick in 22 consecutive years — the longest active streak in the Big 12 and 14th longest nationally — but they have more volume than usual heading into this draft, which begins April 28.
Whitehair should get them off to a good start.
“I think Whitehair goes second round,” Kiper said earlier this week during a media teleconference. “Mr. Versatility at Kansas State, he played tackle, guard and may play center in the NFL … You could make a strong argument that he is the best guard in the draft.”
Whitehair played left tackle as a K-State senior, anchoring the offensive line with powerful blocks that earned him all-conference honors. But his future appears to be at guard, where his 6-foot-4, 305-pound frame is typically utilized by NFL teams.
He was once thought to be a potential first-round selection, and still could hear his name called on the first day, but his stock slipped when he bench-pressed 225 pounds just 16 times at the NFL Combine. His strength ranked 44th out of 45 offensive linemen that attempted the lift.
“I thought he would test out a lot stronger than he did, only doing 16 reps,” Kiper said. “But he is a good football player, and he has got that versatility.”
Whitehair could become the earliest offensive lineman to be picked in K-State history. Todd Weiner was picked 47th overall in 1998.
K-State coach Bill Snyder won’t be surprised if Whitehair is an early selection.
“He will fit in great in the NFL, so that is going to make him a high draft pick,” Snyder said. “The thing they will find out about Cody, and most of them have already found out, is he is a great young guy with a tremendous value system. He is always going to do right.”
Where Gronkowski goes is more of a mystery. The fullback bypassed his final year of college eligibility to enter the draft and is considered by most to be a middle-round pick.
Gronkowski is one of the few players to run, catch and throw for a touchdown at K-State, piling up 420 yards from scrimmage for the Wildcats. But he is best known for his last name. His older brother, Rob, is a Pro Bowl tight end with the New England Patriots. Gronkowski is on track to become the fourth member of his family to play in the NFL.
That bloodline, combined with his skills, should lead to good things next week.
“It is a good fullback year,” Kiper said. “A lot of fullbacks in this draft are going to play. There are five that have potential to get drafted. He is right there at the top of that list. I expect him to go in the first five rounds of the draft, at worst first six rounds.”
While Kiper thinks Whitehair and Gronkowski are both locks for selection, he is less certain about Burns.
The Trinity Academy product was an All-American kick returner at K-State, returning 34 kicks for 1,138 yards and four touchdowns as a senior, and he ran the 40-yard dash in an impressive 4.38 seconds at his pro day. Burns recently visited the Green Bay Packers, and Kiper describes him as one of the “top-five return men” in the draft.
“That could get him drafted,” Kiper said.
But Burns brings little value away from special teams. Projections have him as high as a fifth-rounder and as low as an undrafted free agent.
“Everybody is intrigued by his speed,” Snyder said of Burns. “That is a key element for the league. He will find a place or a place will find him. I’m not sure who it is going to be yet or when it is going to take place … But he can help anybody.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett