Lee, Martin lead USC's NFL draft hopefuls

The NFL draft will begin on Thursday with a strong possibility that USC will add to its total of 77 first-round selections, more than any other school.

Wide receiver Marqise Lee is widely projected to be picked in the opening round, although there are mixed opinions on where he could land, and there are even rumblings that center Marcus Martin could be a surprise first-day pick. Both players will be in New York at the draft after Martin got an invite last week.

When this year’s draft process started there was a lot of thought that Lee was the second-ranked receiver on the board after Sammy Watkins but as the process has gone along Mike Evans has moved into that spot, with guys like Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandin Cooks even moving ahead of Lee on the most recent mock drafts for both Mel Kiper and Todd McShay.

If those projections hold true, the reality is that Lee could have fallen a few spots -- both Kiper and McShay have him going No. 23 to the Kansas City Chiefs -- but he would still be solidly in the first round and going to a quality team. Many of the knocks about Lee have to do with sub-par numbers in 2013 and some critical drops. There is nothing that can be said about the drops but there were also so many things that Lee did right last year in a turbulent season that included two injuries and a mid-season coaching change. The guess here is that a healthy Lee will become an instant contributor at the next level.

When Martin originally declared for the draft there wasn’t a lot of fanfare about his decision but his stock has steadily risen during the process to the point that he is projected to be the first center off the board. One concern is the health of his knee, which was injured in the regular-season finale against UCLA, but his aggressive style of play and versatility have impressed the NFL evaluators. Martin started at both guard and center at USC so the ability to potentially play multiple positions is a valued trait with limited roster spots.

After Lee and Martin are selected there could be some time before the next USC player is picked. There is a group of players who were very productive at the college level, notably Dion Bailey, Devon Kennard, Kevin Graf, Morgan Breslin and George Uko, but it remains to be seen how they will fare in the NFL selection process.

Bailey is likely to be the first off the board from that group. At one point Kiper had him ranked as the No. 5 safety and one recent draft projection had him as a possibility to the Dallas Cowboys in the third round, but there are also rumblings that he could slide due to a lack of ideal measurables. His situation is somewhat reminiscent of former USC safety Sammy Knight, who went undrafted in 1997 yet went on to a 12-year NFL career and was inducted into the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the savvy Bailey have a similar-type of longevity and impact, no matter where he is drafted.

One of the bigger surprises this year as far as Trojans are concerned is the lack of buzz surrounding Kennard and Breslin. After being moved around so much in his career, Kennard seemed to have finally found a home last season. The scouts love the way he uses his hands and he has an NFL pedigree with a father who played in the league but there are concerns about his instincts. With Breslin, there are worries about his ability to stay healthy and a limited body of work at USC, he was a junior college transfer who only played five games last year as a senior due to injury. In his 18 games for the Trojans, however, he had 17.5 sacks, which would seem to indicate the ability to rush the passer, a skill which is highly valued in the NFL.

Graf was a three-year starter at right tackle and the scouts like his straight-line blocking but they wanted to test his athleticism in the draft process. Uko is a big body who is quick off the ball, he may not end up a high pick but he should get a chance to make a roster.

It appears as if the most likely route for Silas Redd, Xavier Grimble, John Martinez and Demetrius Wright would be as undrafted free agents.