Duke was able to break its 18-year bowl drought this year, but as the Blue Devils head into the offseason following the Belk Bowl Dec. 27, they will set their sights on another streak to break—producing an NFL Draft pick for the first time since 2004.
Although the draft remains several months away, ESPN College Football Analyst and NFL Draft Expert Mel Kiper, Jr. offered some early insight on Duke football's pro prospects in a conference call Tuesday morning.
Kiper said that with a skillset that translates well to the professional level, wide receiver Conner Vernon will likely be the first to break the streak.
"I think in terms of what we're seeing now in the NFL with the slot receiver being such a key entity and a guy like Conner Vernon who doesn't drop many at all during his career," Kiper said. "He was an outstanding player, I would say there is a chance that he could be playing in the Senior Bowl. Obviously postseason all-star games will be important."
Kiper also gave the ACC's all-time leader in both receptions and receiving yards a lofty NFL comparison in New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker.
"As a slot guy there's always been those comparisons to Wes Welker—a slot receiver that has that kind of ability and that quickness and that initial burst once he gets his hands on the football," Kiper said. "[Vernon is] a strong kid with very deceptive speed. This guy has caught a ton of balls, he's sure-handed and a great, great, great competitor. Unbelievable competitor who knows how to get open."
ESPN's draft guru also had high praise for redshirt senior quarterback Sean Renfree, who he said could be a late round pick of a priority free agent, as was the case with former Duke safety Matt Daniels in the 2012 NFL Draft.
"Physically, he has some of the things you look for. Playing for David Cutcliffe obviously helps him," Kiper said. "He understands this type of offense which is very conducive to transitioning to the pro level pretty effectively. He's been there a long time at Duke and played a lot of football. He had Conner Vernon and some other guys there to catch the football around him, the talent level got better and he leads them to their first bowl since back in 1994."
Although postseason all-star games, offseason workouts and a potential trip to the NFL Combine may await Vernon, Kiper said that he can already see a reasonable draft range on the horizon for Duke's superstar wideout.
"I think Conner Vernon when you get into the fifth round area would be a guy to take a good, hard look at," Kiper said. "Conner Vernon is the one that I would say fifth round, maybe best-case fourth round."