2023 NFL Draft: Where Will Anderson Jr. stacks up among Alabama’s top prospects during Nick Saban era
Will Anderson Jr. has been dominant in his first two seasons at Alabama, and the Crimson Tide star finished fifth in last season’s Heisman Trophy voting. The spectacular start to his collegiate career got us thinking, where does Anderson rank right now among draft prospect from Alabama during the Nick Saban era, which began in 2007.
Below you’ll find my top 10 list, including an honorable mention.
Important to remember here: This is how these players were universally viewed as prospects, factoring in off-field and maturity issues. Their NFL careers had no bearing on these rankings. Let’s go!
Honorable Mention: Patrick Surtain II, CB (2021)
With NFL bloodlines by way of his father with the same namesake, from the jump, Surtain was almost universally viewed as ready for an outside cornerback role at the professional ranks. Now, there were a few lapses downfield in coverage, when he couldn’t find the football and it led to big plays for the opposition. But everything else, from size to sharp technique in all phases to effortless speed and three years of quality production in the SEC, Surtain was widely regarded as one of the safest cornerbacks to enter the league from Alabama during the Saban era.
10. Mark Barron, S (2012)
A late riser during the 2012 pre-draft process, it ultimately got out that Barron was the quarterback of Saban’s defense, quite the stamp of approval for a prospect. That revelation sparked the safety’s meteoric rise to No. 7 overall in the 2012 draft, ahead of two future Defensive Players of the Year (!) Luke Kuechly and Stephon Gilmore. Barron averaged right around 70 tackles and four interceptions per year in his final three seasons in Saban’s defense. While he fell short of staggeringly lofty expectations in the NFL, Barron did have an adequate, nine-year playing career and was one heck of a safety prospect.
9. Quinnen Williams, DT (2019)
Had we seen more of Williams for the Crimson Tide, he probably would’ve been higher on this list, because his lone season as a full-time starter in Saban’s defense was unlike any we’ve seen from the long line of dominant defensive linemen at Alabama. Seriously. In 2018, Williams registered 56 pressures on 344 pass-rushing snaps, which equates to an ungodly 16.2% pressure-generation rate. Williams was a wall against the run, too, totaling a ridiculous 19.5 tackles for loss in his final college season. The “one-year wonder” label was the only negative on Williams’ draft profile.
8. Rolando McClain, LB (2010)
McClain’s freshman season coincided with Saban’s first in Tuscaloosa, and McClain soared with the Crimson Tide’s new, defensive mastermind roaming the sidelines. His statistics improved in each of his three seasons, and McClain’s grasp of Saban’s pro-style defense — yes, that’s a thing too! — generated rave reviews among analysts and NFL decision-makers during the 2010 draft cycle. Also, McClain looked the part of a classic middle linebacker at 6-foot-4 and 249 pounds, a frame then viewed as ideal for a second-level defender. McClain’s NFL career was a wild, roller coaster ride, which started with disappointment in Oakland, a retirement before his 23rd birthday, then finished with a resurgence with the Cowboys after a year away from football. Before Dont’a Hightower and C.J. Mosley, there was McClain as the gold standard of Alabama linebacker prospects in the 21st century.
7. Minkah Fitzpatrick, S/CB (2018)
Fitzpatrick was the do-everything safety who was becoming popular in the NFL after the 2017 season. As a five-star recruit, he was expected to have a dazzling career at Alabama, and did with nine interceptions — four of which were returned for touchdowns — to go along with 24 pass breakups and a grand total of 19.5 tackles for loss across three seasons with the Crimson Tide. There was some debate about Fitzpatrick’s position in the NFL — was he a safety or corner? — which is probably why he wasn’t a top 10 selection. But there were no qualms about him being picked by the Dolphins at No. 11 overall. All he’s done to date in the NFL is land on the All-Pro first team twice in four seasons.
6. Chance Warmack, OG (2013)
Regarding Warmack in a Slack conversation on this topic, CBS Sports senior editorial director Adi Joseph chimed in with “thought he’d be what Quenton Nelson is” and that absolutely encapsulates how just about everyone viewed Warmack in the 2013 draft process. Of course, Nelson came after Warmack, but you get what I mean. Warmack was considered an elite, offensive line changing guard prospect who emphatically checked every box for the position. He went 10th overall to the Titans but never became that Nelson-esque perennial All Pro.
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5. Marcell Dareus, DT (2011)
Two years of Dareus is all the NFL needed to see to have him land at No. 3 overall in one of the most incredible first rounds we’ve seen in league history. After Cam Newton and Von Miller went to begin the 2011 draft, the Bills called in the Dareus pick immediately. And it was viewed without criticism. At all. He had 20 tackles for loss and 11 sacks as a 6-3, 320-pound defensive tackle at Alabama. His most famous play came in the national title win against Texas as a sophomore when he intercepted a pass and ran it 28 yards for a touchdown, which showcased elite mobility for his size. Once a first-team All Pro, Dareus never quite met expectations in Buffalo or Jacksonville but was a seen as a high-floor, high-ceiling defensive tackle prospect.
4. Trent Richardson, RB (2012)
Richardson became the ultimate cautionary tale for the selection of a running back (early) in the first round, but let me tell you, back in 2012, in a draft class with Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, the consensus opinion was that the Browns were making the right selection picking the rugged, super-productive Richardson at No. 3 overall. In three seasons at Alabama, Richardson averaged 5.8 yards per carry, scored 21 touchdowns in his final season and had back-to-back seasons in which he averaged over 11 yards per reception. He was thick in the lower half, chiseled up top and ran away from SEC defenders on a regular basis. Forget about Richardson being a colossal flop in the NFL. He was a spectacular prospect.
3. Amari Cooper, WR (2015)
Cooper was one of the most squeaky clean receiver prospects — not just from Alabama — we’ve seen in a long time. Without a first-round caliber quarterback throwing him in the football, Cooper went over 1,000 yards twice in run-prominent offenses with the Tide. His release package — beating press at the line — was NFL veteran-caliber. He ran crisp, sudden routes, had 4.42 speed and was so incredibly young for a player with his level of production. He went No. 4 overall in the 2015 class. Cooper didn’t turn 21 until the summer before his rookie season and has been one of the league’s most technically sound wideouts since his rookie campaign.
2. Will Anderson Jr., EDGE (2023)
I see Khalil Mack while watching Anderson, the No. 1 weakside defensive end recruit in the country in the high school class of 2020. There’s Cornelius Bennett-esque hype for Anderson because he hit the ground running as a 19-year-old true freshman on Saban’s defense with seven sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. Then, he built on that season. In 2021, Anderson had 82 total pressures on 482 pass-rushing snaps, good a 17% pressure-creation rate, absurd given the volume at which he rushed the passer. Anderson looks like an NFL defensive end on film with quality strength, length and pass-rushing moves, plus he routinely sets a sturdy edge against the run and hustles on those plays, too, as evidenced by his 31 tackles for loss (!) last season. With a strong junior year, Anderson will likely ascend to No. 1 on this list.
1. Julio Jones, WR (2011)
Jones was one of the first enormous recruits Saban landed at Alabama, and this was a recruit who hit. As a freshman in 2008, he had over 900 yards with John Parker-Wilson as his quarterback during a season when Glen Coffee had 1,300-plus yards and Mark Ingram went for over 700 on the ground. There was a minor dip in his sophomore campaign before an eruption as a true junior, when Jones accumulated 1,133 receiving yards on a still run-heavy offense that featured Mark Ingram, Richardson, and Eddie Lacy. Then the combine happened, and Jones blew the roof off Lucas Oil Stadium. He measured in at a strapping 6-3 and 220 pounds, ran 4.34 with a 38.5-inch vertical and an had obscene 6.66 time in the three-cone drill. All that precipitated the Falcons to move all the way from No. 27 overall to No. 6 overall in a trade with the Browns to draft Jones. He has met or exceeded the hype in all stages of his football-playing career. Julio is the best Alabama draft prospect in the Nick Saban era.