Notre Dame: Is Stephon Tuitt's draft stock slipping?

Notre Dame: Is Stephon Tuitt's draft stock slipping?
February 17, 2014, 2:15 pm
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Stephon Tuitt has plenty at stake when the NFL Combine begins in Indianapolis this weekend.

The defensive lineman, who passed on returning to Notre Dame for his senior year in favor of entering the NFL Draft, has slipped to the end of the first round or out of the first round entirely by a few pre-Combine mock drafts. Two of CBS Sports' four draft analysts have Tuitt being selected (with picks 29 and 32, respectively), while Rotoworld's Josh Norris doesn't have Tuitt among the first 32 picks.

With five days before the Combine, NFL.com draft guru Mike Mayock -- who's also an NBC Notre Dame football broadcaster -- didn't rank Tuitt among his top five defensive ends heading into this weekend.

[MORE: Nine former Notre Dame players earn NFL Combine invites]

But all four of NFL.com's mock drafters have Tuitt in the first round, with two analysts projecting him to go as high as No. 23 to Kansas City. Yahoo has Tuitt a spot higher, coming in at No. 22 to Philadelphia. 

That Tuitt is all over the place in these projections isn't too surprising. He hasn't had the benefit of a showcase game in which to play -- ex-Irish tackle Zack Martin rocketed up draft boards with an impressive showing at the Senior Bowl last month -- so the Combine will be his chance to make a good impression.

Tuitt's 2013 season began slowly, as offseason sports hernia surgery left him out of shape in September. But he came on strong in October and November, though wasn't able to make as great of an impact as he did in 2012.

Heading into last season, Tuitt was viewed as arguably the second-best defensive end at the college level behind South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney. Mayock's top five ends for the Combine show who he's slipped behind: Clowney, Kony Ealy (Mizzou), Dee Ford (Auburn), Scott Crichton (Oregon State) and Trent Murphy (Stanford).

But Tuitt, depending on which team drafts him, could wind up playing defensive tackle in the NFL. Mayock ranked Louis Nix as the top defensive tackle heading into the Combine, followed by Timmy Jernigan (Florida State), Aaron Donald (Pitt), Ra'Shede Hageman (Minnesota) and Dominique Easley (Florida).

[MORE: Notre Dame not looking for NFL-minded recruits]

It's far too early to make any sweeping conclusions about Tuitt's future, or his decision to leave Notre Dame a year early. But if Tuitt can't solidify himself as a first-round pick in Indianapolis or over the next two and a half months, it'll only strengthen Brian Kelly's argument against his players declaring early for the draft.

"I just have to do a better job of educating our own players on the NFL and what it means to be a first‑round draft pick versus a second or a third," Kelly said on signing day earlier this month. "(For example) when an agent says let's play for your second contract, how ridiculous that is. That's a whole different argument."