Pitt has a rich history of producing NFL players, but the pipeline dried up some in the past 20 years as the Panthers have produced five first-round picks since 1990. Three of those have come since 2004.
This year's group of eligible players might not have a sure first-round pick like Darrelle Revis (2007) or Larry Fitzgerald (2004), but it could be the largest amount of Pitt players drafted since 1990, when the Panthers had 11 players selected in the first seven rounds, including three first-rounders.
"I think that Pitt has a lot of very good players," local NFL scout Joe Butler said. "And that is what Pitt needs to do in order to take the next step as a program -- continue to crank out these classes of five, six, seven draft picks and make it a place where NFL scouts know they need to visit. That's what sets the best programs apart."
Two players -- wide receiver Jon Baldwin and defensive end Jabaal Sheard -- could sneak into the first round, which starts tomorrow night.
Baldwin, from Aliquippa, is the most interesting prospect because of his natural ability and measurables (6 feet 4, sub 4.4 speed, 42-inch vertical leap). He was the top performer among wide receivers at the NFL Scouting Combine in vertical leap, broad jump (10 feet, 9 inches) and bench press (20 reps of 225 pounds).
But there are many questions about his attitude and his work ethic, and that's why scouts are so divided on where he should be ranked among wide receivers.
ESPN scout Todd McShay, for instance, wrote that Baldwin was "the biggest risk" among high-ranked receivers. Russ Lande of Sporting News called Baldwin a "bust" based on his pro day performance and wrote he has "zero elusiveness" after the catch as well as "zero quickness or acceleration."
"He is a top 100 player," Butler said of Baldwin, "and where he ends up will depend a lot on who needs what and who is looking for what he can bring. His speed and size is not a question and so he could go anywhere from the late first round to the third round."
Sheard played defensive end at Pitt, but he could play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
Two other Pitt players who have a chance to be drafted in the first three rounds are tailback Dion Lewis, who, according to multiple reports, had an excellent pro day at Pitt for scouts, and offensive lineman Jason Pinkston, from Baldwin High School.
Lewis is small -- 5-7, 190 pounds -- but he proved to be durable during his two seasons at Pitt. Pinkston is athletic and versatile enough to play both guard and tackle.
"When people talk about size at running back, it isn't the height that is a question -- it is the body type," Butler said. "And Lewis has a very solid body and has proven he can take the pounding."
Two players who are wild cards in this draft are defensive end Greg Romeus and fullback Henry Hynoski.
Romeus is 6-5 and athletic, but his senior season was wiped out by back and knee injuries so there are questions about his health.
Hynoski is ranked as the top player at his position by a number of services, but fullback is a dying breed in the NFL.
"Henry is a really good player, he catches the ball well, he blocks well, but fullbacks are spot players, so he has to fit into a team," Butler said. "Romeus will get picked on his physical skills alone, but he's a risk in the eyes of teams because of his injuries, so it won't be nearly as high as he would have been before he got hurt."
Safety/linebacker Dom DeCicco also has a chance to be selected.
DeCicco, who was not invited to the combine, has drawn interest because of his ability to play two positions as well as his strength as a special teams player.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com or 412-263-1720