- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 6, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The Auburn Tigers will have a significant presence in the NFL draft for the first time since Cam Newton left.

Alabama’s NFL pipeline, meanwhile, is still flowing strongly as ever.

The Tigers’ Greg Robinson is projected as a Top-5 pick on Thursday while defensive end/linebacker Dee Ford is considered a likely late first-rounder. Tailback Tre Mason is expected to follow a round or two later.

It’s another major turnaround for a team that played for a national championship immediately after an awful season. Auburn has had only one player drafted each of the past two years, both third-rounders, since Newton and Nick Fairley went No. 1 and No. 13 overall in 2011.

The renewed draft presence could be a boon, especially in selling the program to recruits.

“Recruits want to go places to have a chance to win championships and go to the next level,” Tigers coach Gus Malzahn said Tuesday. “When you establish yourself as one of those teams, it does nothing but help.

“We’ve got a handful of guys that have an opportunity to be drafted. Some will sign (as free agents). This will be a deep group.”

Nobody’s outdone the Tide in the draft in recent years and Nick Saban’s team could set a program record for most total picks, including projected first-rounders Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, C.J. Mosley and Cyrus Kouandjio and probable early-round pick quarterback AJ McCarron.

Alabama has at least a dozen players deemed candidates to be picked somewhere amid the seven rounds, though some could wind up free agents. The Tide’s previous high was 10 draft picks in 1945.

Alabama has produced 14 first-rounders and 33 overall picks the past five years, while winning three national titles.

Part of the draft depth is because three underclassmen who aren’t projected first-rounders joined Clinton-Dix and Kouandjio in leaving early.

Eleven of the 13 who previously skipped their senior seasons under Saban have been taken in the opening round.

The only question for Clinton-Dix and Mosley seems to be at what point in the first round they’re picked. Kouandjio’s opening-round status is less certain, partly because he faced some questions about his surgically repaired knee at the NFL combine. He has maintained it’s a non-issue.

There seem to be mixed views on McCarron, too, who is projected in the early to mid-round range. ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said McCarron is a good pick for a team looking at a long-term horizon.

“McCarron’s production speaks volumes: 36 wins, four losses, all-time record holder at Alabama in a lot of different categories,” said Gruden, a former Raiders and Buccaneers head coach. “He doesn’t have the flashy statistics that some of the other quarterbacks do because of the system he comes out of. Alabama comes out of a huddle. They only throw the ball 26 plays a game, which is about a 100th in college football. But he takes care of the ball. He has a big-picture understanding of the game. He’s been well-schooled. He’s disciplined. He’s durable.

“I don’t think he has tremendous athletic ability. His arm is not off the charts, but he can play quarterback and manage an NFL system.”

McCarron said before the Tide’s spring game that “the whole process has been great. I’m loving it. It’s a lot of traveling, seeing places I’ve never seen before, so I’m having fun with it.”

At Auburn, Robinson, Ford and Mason all had huge final seasons. Ford also drew rave reviews at the Senior Bowl and had a strong pro day, where he was clocked at 4.53 in the 40.

“Those three guys are great competitors and they’re extremely talented and they’re team guys,” Malzahn said. “All three have a bright future at the next level, in my opinion.”

Cornerback Chris Davis and fullback Jay Prosch are also potential picks in the later rounds.

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