Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins leads a new crop of potential NFL stars who hail from New Jersey.
Certain places are known as breeding grounds for NFL players. Western Pennsylvania and Ohio come to mind, as do Florida, Texas and California. But this year, New Jersey might be added to that list.
The Garden State has produced its share of NFL stars, but this year’s draft-eligible group is one of the most talented I can remember coming out of the state. Up to five former New Jersey high school stars could be taken in the top 10 picks in April’s NFL Draft, and as many as seven might go in the first round.
Eugene Monroe, a graduate of Plainfield High School, was one of the nation’s top offensive line recruits when he went to the University of Virginia. The prototypical left tackle in terms of his size, Monroe has a unique combination of strength and athleticism that allows him to handle bull rushers and speed rushers. An All-American as a senior, Monroe won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the best blocker in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and he could be one of the first three players off the board in the draft.
Another potential top-five prospect is Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, who hails from Piscataway, N.J. Jenkins, who led his high school team to three consecutive state championships, won the Thorpe Award as the best defensive back in the country last year. He had just three interceptions in 2008, but that number had more to do with the opposition’s desire to keep the ball away from Jenkins than any shortcomings on his part.
Jenkins is a physical, lockdown cornerback who can run with just about any receiver. He has excellent ball skills and is a threat to make plays after interceptions. He’s also strong in run support, which will be a big part of his job in the NFL.
Boston College’s B.J. Raji, a product of Westwood Regional High School, was the most dominant defensive lineman in the country in 2008, despite facing constant double teams. He added to his reputation with a strong week at the Senior Bowl.
At 6-foot-2 and 334 pounds, Raji is big, strong and nearly impossible to move off the ball, but he also has a great burst that is uncommon for a player his size. That combination of skills will allow him to line up in any scheme, with the size to play nose guard in a 3-4 defense and the burst to penetrate as a 4-3 defensive tackle.
The first running back taken likely will be Knowshon Moreno. The former Middletown South High School star has been timed in the low 4.4-second range in the 40-yard dash, but it’s his elusiveness and lateral movement that allowed him to rush for 2,734 yards and 30 touchdowns in his final two seasons at the University of Georgia.
Moreno is a top competitor who wants the ball in a big spot, and in addition to his ability to outrun defenses, he is a confident inside runner who attacks the hole and usually doesn’t go down after initial contact. He’s also a reliable receiver, which would allow his NFL team to use him in many ways, including as a split-out receiver.
Finally, there is linebacker Brian Cushing, who was a star at Bergen Catholic High School. While his numbers at USC weren’t staggering (10.5 tackles for loss and three sacks as a senior), Cushing is a stellar athlete who might be one of the most versatile players in the draft.
Cushing has experience playing outside linebacker, middle linebacker and defensive end. He was an intimidating presence on the Trojans’ defense, a big hitter who can do so much more in terms of playing in coverage, rushing the passer and tackling in the run game. He’s an ideal candidate to play outside linebacker in an NFL team’s 3-4 defense.
There are two other New Jersey prospects to watch near the end of the first round. Running back Shonn Greene, from Sicklerville, N.J., ranked second in the country with 1,850 rushing yards at Iowa last year, and he gained at least 100 yards in every game. Kenny Britt, from Bayonne, N.J., owns most of Rutgers’ receiving records and is the Big East Conference’s career leader with 3,043 receiving yards. He is big and tall (6-4, 215) with deep speed, and he can work out of the slot or on the edge.