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March 10, 2012TUSCALOOSA | Less than a year ago, the University of Alabama broke a school record when four of its players were chosen in the first round of the NFL draft.
In less than two months, the NFL draft's foremost expert believes that record will fall again.
According to ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., five Alabama players - running back Trent Richardson, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, safety Mark Barron and linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower - will all go in the first round.
And while Kiper's projections are subject to further change before the April 26-28 draft, his most recent first-round prognostication has all five UA players being claimed by pick No. 24, eight choices before the first round even ends.
"Definitely Trent Richardson, we knew that. Mark Barron, I have him (being picked) at No. 14 even though he has the hernia thing," Kiper said. "Courtney Upshaw's situation, I think his stock dropped a little after the combine. I moved him from 10 to 16 to the Jets. I have Kirkpatrick going 17 to Cincinnati and Hightower going 24 to Pittsburgh."
Last year, Alabama had four first-round picks for the first time: Marcell Dareus (Buffalo), Julio Jones (Atlanta), James Carpenter (Seattle) and Mark Ingram (New Orleans).
Richardson is expected to be the first Alabama player chosen this year, with Kiper projecting him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the No. 5 pick. If the Bucs pass on Richardson, the next team with a clear need at running back could be the Kansas City Chiefs at No. 11.
According to Kiper, Hightower's improvement in 2011, after a knee injury ended his 2009 season and limited him in 2010, has vaulted him into first-round status.
"Had he come out last year as a third-year sophomore, we wouldn't be talking about him in such glowing terms," Kiper said. "He had the year he needed to have. ... Now, he's back to full strength and put together the big-play numbers. He didn't have the sacks, the interceptions, the big plays were limited (in 2010). But this year, you saw that again. I think for Hightower, it fell into place."
Kiper said decisions by Crimson Tide offensive lineman Barrett Jones and safety Robert Lester to remain in school for another year were the right ones. Kiper said Jones would likely have been a third- or fourth-round pick had he made himself eligible for the 2012 draft. As for Lester, Kiper rates him the fourth-best NFL prospect at the safety position for the 2013 draft, behind Southern Cal's T.J. McDonald, Georgia's Bacarri Rambo and Oregon's John Boyett.
Reach Chase Goodbread at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0196.