TUSCALOOSA, Ala. --- The forecast for Alabama's 2011 season should become significantly clearer within the next month.
At least three of the Crimson Tide's biggest stars -- wide receiver Julio Jones, tailback Mark Ingram and defensive end Marcell Dareus -- are juniors who are regarded as likely first-round NFL draft picks if they declare themselves eligible.
The deadline for that is Jan. 18.
"I think there are a lot of guys who are ready to come out now," said quarterback Greg McElroy, a senior. "Whether or not they do, they have to weigh their options."
And coach Nick Saban has modified his standard advice somewhat for underclassmen with thoughts of turning pro to take into account the NFL's uncertain labor situation.
"Typically, if guys are first-round picks I tell them I support them going out in the draft," said Saban. "With the unknowns this year, I've kind of reduced that to guys that are a top-15 pick or they don't have a chance to move up in the future."
He wouldn't discuss individual situations, but it's pretty evident the Tide has some hot commodities in that junior class. Dareus especially is mostly projected as a top-10 pick in mock drafts.
That doesn't even take into account two-time All-America safety Mark Barron, who is out for the Capital One Bowl against No. 7 Michigan State with a torn pectoral muscle, or third-year sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower.
It seems likely that at least Jones, Dareus and Ingram would get their status evaluated by the NFL Collegiate Advisory Committee.
"Coach Saban says it's a good idea to get evaluated," Dareus said. "Other than that, wait and see."
Three Tide teammates have parlayed an early jump into the first round the past two years. Offensive tackle Andre Smith went sixth overall to Cincinnati in 2009. Last season, the Raiders picked linebacker Rolando McClain (eighth) and Houston took less-heralded cornerback Kareem Jackson at No. 20.
"It's just different for every individual," McElroy said. "You look at a guy like Kareem Jackson last year, who probably if you would have asked, we all would have said, 'Yeah. Maybe play another year. Not sure where you're gonna go.'
"He ends up going the 20th overall pick, signing a big contract and now he's starting for the Texans. I think that's something that has to be weighed individually by the players, what their needs are, where they are in their academic requirements and just what they want to accomplish."