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January 15, 2008

NFL Draft Spotlight

The Bears have had numerous players taken in the NFL draft over the years and although Cal finished the season on a colossal collapse losing six out of its last eight games at least five players are expected to be selected by a pro team come April.

Under the six-year reign of current Cal coach Jeff Tedford, the Golden Bears have had 18 players taken in the NFL draft - 11 of whom were offensive players, including last season's 12th overall pick Marshawn Lynch (Buffalo Bills) and 2005 second round pick J.J. Arrington (Arizona Cardinals, 44th pick overall).

This year, as many as 10 players will get drafted during the annual much-hyped weekend of April 26-27, which depends largely on their performances in various all-star games and combines. Here is a quick run-down of each NFL prospect.

DeSean Jackson

2007 stats: 65 catches, 762 yards, 6 touchdowns, long reception of 44 yards

Cal's most recognizable national name hasn't officially even announced that he will be in the NFL draft as many had predicted as of yet. Although it's still likely that the former Rivals.com five-star athlete will indeed announce his intentions to officially go pro come Tuesday which is the last day underclassmen can declare for the draft weirder things have happened and its also entirely possible that the dynamic wide out will indeed return to school.

Jackson ended what was an up-and-down junior campaign on a high note, as the explosive wide out hauled in five balls for 81 yards and a touchdown in Cal's feel-good 42-36 victory over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl.

Jackson's TD grab, a spectacular diving catch in the back of the end zone from the arm of quarterback Kevin Riley, was replayed on highlight shows all over the country. The catch was one of the highlights of a standout collegiate career so far for the former Long Beach Poly High School All-American.

After the contest, Jackson described to the press that Riley's performance (16-of-19, 269 yards, 4 touchdowns) gave him something to think about when it came to the decision of whether to declare for the draft or not.

"With (Kevin) Riley's performance today, it's going to be a really hard decision," Jackson described to the San Francisco Chronicle. "I could come back and get like 100 catches. The way he played gives me something to think about."

Either way, whether he returns to school or not, Jackson's NFL stock will be sky high whenever he decides to come out.

Arguably the fastest pass catcher in the country this past season, Jackson has been rated as the No. 1 junior wide out by most draft experts for quite some time now. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. has Jackson rated number one as well, one spot ahead of Oklahoma standout Malcolm Kelly.

The 6-foot, 179-pound Jackson is also the top wide out on the board regardless of class as rated by Scouts Inc., right ahead of Texas' Limas Sweed. Meanwhile, nfldraftcountdown.com who has predicted the first round of the draft fairly accurately over the years has Jackson going in the middle of the first round three spots behind Kelly.

Lavelle Hawkins

2007 stats: 72 catches, 872 yards, 6 touchdowns, long reception of 64 yards

Statistically, "The Hawk" had a much better year for the Bears offense than Jackson. A player that was highly rated coming out of high school and who began his career at LSU, Hawkins finally showed the consistency game-in and game-out that has him on all draft boards going into April.

With defenses focused on Jackson, Hawkins became Cal's first option and thrived in the role. Hawkins' draft stock peaked midway through the season with Jackson in a lull, as the 5-foot-11, 186-pound Stockton native routinely caught balls over the middle, converted big third downs and stretched the field for the Bears attack.

Kiper Jr. had Hawkins rated as the top senior wide out in the country midway through the year and although Hawkins' stock has somewhat fallen since then, it's probably a sure bet that he'll go somewhere in the upper rounds after all the individual workouts and combines are finished. A handful of NFL scouts have stated to BearTerritory that Hawkins will likely be a first-day draft choice, and that the Jackson-Hawkins duo could even be a double first-round combo from Cal.

Hawkins must show in the next couple months that he has the foot speed to play in the NFL and also needs to show more crispness in his route running. Hawkins does have a ton of competition in this year's draft however, as Kiper Jr. has at least 10 receivers ranked higher than Hawkins as of this week, including former LSU teammate Early Doucet.

Thomas DeCoud

2007 stats: 116 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 4 pass deflections, 2 forced fumbles

Where DeCoud goes in the draft comes down to simply one issue. Coverage skills. Standing 6-foot-1, 196-pounds, DeCoud might be the best overall "little guy" athlete in terms of measureables in the entire draft, so figuring out whether he's physically fit to play in the NFL will not be the question.

Whether Cal's former special teams standout can show enough skill in covering NFL wide receivers is another issue. DeCoud led the Bears in tackles this season and has shown throughout his career that he is willing and talented enough to help with run support near the line of scrimmage.

In fact, Air Force standout quarterback Shaun Carney told the Colorado Springs Gazette after Cal's win in the Armed Forces Bowl that, "I've never seen anybody run that fast from the secondary."

DeCoud is projected as a late round pick so far but expect that to get bumped up to a possible and maybe even likely middle round projection once DeCoud begins to run through the gauntlet of individual drills in workouts and combines throughout the next couple months.

Mike Gibson

Two-year starter, All Pac-10 honoree, anchor of one of the best O-Line's in the country

Going into the 2006 season, it was still up in air who would protect the backside of quarterback Nate Longshore. Gibson stepped right in during Fall Camp and solidified that position over the next two years.

In fact, Gibson did not only solidify the position, he cemented the Bears line as one of the best in the country. During his senior season, Cal ranked as the No. 18 yards per carry team in the country, averaging nearly 5.0 yards per carry (4.89). During his junior season, Gibson and his cohorts finished at the No. 12 position with 4.96 yards per carry. On top of those numbers, Gibson protected the front and blind side of Cal quarterbacks Nate Longshore and Kevin Riley about as well as you can. In 2006, the Bears allowed the third lowest sacks in the country less than 1.0 per game at .85. During his senior season, the Bears backed up that impressive total by finishing third once again breaking even at just 1 sack per game.

An All-Conference selection in 2006, Gibson didn't allow a sack in his career until week eight against UCLA this season when Bruins' All-American Bruce Davis beat the 6-foot-5, 305-pound tackle off the edge.

Overall, the Cal offensive line has been outstanding in protecting the quarterback over the last two seasons and Gibson was a big reason why.

"Mike has met so much to our program," well-respected Cal offensive line coach Jim Michalczik said. "He's been a pleasure to coach."

Under Tedford, four offensive linemen have been selected in the draft, with the highest selection coming in 2004 when tackle Mark Wilson was picked by the Cleveland Browns in Round 5. Ryan O'Callaghan (5th round, New England), Marvin Philip (6th round, Pittsburgh) and Aaron Merz (7th round, Buffalo Bills) were the other Cal o-linemen to get picked in the draft over the last couple years.

Gibson probably has the skills to stick in the league, but must show that he can stay healthy. Not as big as O'Callaghan or as tall as Wilson, Gibson has battled a myriad of injuries during his collegiate career.

Justin Forsett

2007 stats: 305 carries, 1546 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns, long run of 58 yards

One of the Bears' senior leaders this season, Forsett was simply outstanding. Many pundits wondered whether the 5-foot-8, 183-pound ball carrier could handle the full-time load as a starter but Forsett put those questions to rest very early in the year.

Forsett led the Pac-10 in touchdowns, became the fifth Cal running back to rush over 1,000 yards in the last five years and ended up carrying the ball more than any other Bears' player in school history. Forsett battled an ankle injury all throughout the season but showed tremendous grit and determination, didn't miss one game, rarely missed a practice and recognized by teammates as one of the harder working athletes on the roster.

Forsett showed that he was durable enough to take the physical pounding inside the tackles this season and quick enough to break runs to the outside. Although probably not an every-down 'back in the NFL, Forsett has the skills and smarts to stay around as a third down and situational player.

"He's been the heart and soul of the running backs throughout his career here," Cal running backs coach Ron Gould said.

Probably a late round pick come April, Forsett will likely join Adimchinobe Echemandu, Lynch and Arrington as former Cal running backs under Tedford who has gone on to the NFL ranks.

Robert Jordan

2007 stats: 47 catches, 689 yards, 3 touchdowns, long reception of 52 yards

The cousin of Marshawn Lynch and last season's No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell, the 6-foot, 170-pound Jordan is no stranger to the NFL draft.

A player that quite honestly was overlooked his entire collegiate career, Jordan is no doubt the most consistent receiver the Bears have had under Tedford. Jordan broke into the program with a bang his freshman season against Arizona State (catching two touchdowns) and finished his career as the school's all-time leader in consecutive games with at least one reception.

Much like Forsett, Jordan has the speed to play in the NFL but size will be an issue. Standing 5-foot-11, 173-pounds, Jordan has shown throughout his career to have great hands and has been described by Cal coaches as "the best route runner on the team."

Very few wide receivers of Jordan's size make an impact in the NFL however, so durability is the key issue with "R.J." Jordan's postseason stock got off to a great start this past weekend however, as the wide out impressed scouts with his performance in the Hula Bowl in Hawaii. Jordan led the West team with four catches for 84 yards and caught his team's only score of the day.

Considering the fact that more and more NFL teams are turning to pass oriented offenses however, plus the recent success of "little guys" such as New England's Wes Welker, don't be surprised if Jordan sticks in the league as a slot receiver for quite some time.

Other Notables

Craig Stevens, Tight End: 2007 stats: 17 catches, 304 yards, 3 touchdowns, long reception of 23 yards

Matt Malele, Defensive Tackle: 2007 stats: 16 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 1 quarterback hurry

Andrew Larson, Punter: 2007 stats: 61 punts, 41.1 average, 21 punts inside 20-yard line, long punt of 73 yards

Tom Schneider, Placekicker: 2006 stats: converted 15-of-20 field goals, 8-for-8 39 yards & under, long of 55 yards



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