Pitt's streak of having at least one player selected in every NFL draft since 2000 likely will continue this year, although its senior class seems to be loaded with players who are more likely to sign as free agents.
That isn't necessarily a bad thing: Former Panther Dom DeCicco won a job as a backup linebacker for the Chicago Bears despite being passed over in the draft last year.
As many as four or five Pitt players and as few as one could be selected. NFL talent evaluators have many questions about their size, speed and suitability for certain positions.
"I think Pitt has some very good players," said Joe Butler, a football scout based in the area. "But some of them may not fit in exactly as they have a few guys who are sort of in between a few positions. The thing about the group is, they are all tough, hard-nosed kind of football players and those kinds of guys often find their way into camps. But, as far as being drafted, it is often a numbers crunch."
Pitt's top prospect is offensive lineman Lucas Nix, who, at 6 feet 5, 317 pounds, has the size and is athletic.
Nix, a Thomas Jefferson High graduate, is a good run-blocker but missed five games of his senior season with a knee injury. Despite that, most scouting services project him as a mid-round pick and a few have him as high as a third-round selection.
The position Nix is projected to play may hurt his draft value. He played tackle most of his Pitt career, but scouts see him as a guard in the NFL and, Butler explains, guards aren't generally a high draft priority.
"If you look at the numbers, on average, over the past four years, there have been roughly 11 or 12 guards taken each year in the draft," Butler said. "That's it, 12 guards a year, so that's what makes it tough to project where Lucas will go, but someone will definitely draft him because he has a lot of potential.
"He comes off the line extremely well. He is big, he moves around pretty well -- there are a lot of good things about him, and that's why he'll probably get drafted in the middle rounds somewhere."
Nix is ranked among the 10 best guards in the draft by a number of scouting services, and he was one of four Panthers to be invited to the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February. The others were defensive lineman Chas Alecxih, defensive end Brandon Lindsey and cornerback Antwuan Reed.
Butler said that Reed and Lindsey are the most likely to be selected after Nix, mostly because of their positions. Lindsey, from Aliquippa High School, was a defensive end for the Panthers and is an edge rusher, an ability always valued in the NFL. Cornerbacks also are highly valued, but Reed's speed seems to be hurting his stock.
Reed ran the 40-yard dash in 4.63 seconds at the combine, on the slow side for the position, according to most scouting services. On the plus side are Reed's cover skills and the fact that cornerbacks are always in high demand.
"If you look at corners, there have been 30 or more drafted in each of the last four drafts," Butler said. "So a guy like Reed, who has started for two years and who has been productive, will have a chance. [Lindsey] is a decent pass-rusher, but, for him, it is about finding the right position -- defensive end in a 4-3 or maybe an outside linebacker in a 3-4."
Alecxih, like Lindsey, is considered to be a "tweener." Some project him as a defensive tackle, others as an end, depending on the defensive scheme. Scouts project him as a late-round pick or free-agent signee.
Another Panther who caught the eye of scouts because of his pro day workout last month is cornerback Buddy Jackson (6-0, 180 pounds).
Jackson put his athleticism on display at Pitt's South Side training facility, running the 40 in around 4.3 seconds (one scout had him as fast as 4.26), showing a 40-inch vertical leap and an 11-foot-8 standing broad jump -- three inches longer than the NFL combine record of 11-5 held by Justin Fargas (2003) and Scott Starks (2005).
"Obviously, with that kind of athleticism and speed, he is going to be intriguing, especially at corner, " Butler said of Jackson, who might be a late-round pick.
The other Pitt seniors who likely will find their way into NFL camps include offensive linemen Greg Gaskins and Jordan Gibbs; running back Zach Brown; linebackers Greg Williams, Tristan Roberts and Max Gruder; defensive tackle Myles Caragein; and defensive end Justin Hargrove.
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @paulzeise. First Published April 21, 2012 5:00 PM