Following each of the first two seasons of the Butch Davis era at North Carolina, the Tar Heels sent players that were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft---Kentwan Balmer in 2008 and Hakeem Nicks a year ago.
That particular streak came to an end Thursday night as no Tar Heels were selected in the opening round, but this year's crop of Carolina pros includes some sought-after defensive linemen that teams could wind up taking as early as Friday's second and third rounds.
The likeliest former UNC player to hear his name called in that second round is Cam Thomas, a hulking defensive presence who fits the modern mold of the NFL 'nose tackle.'
The 6-4, 340-pound Thomas would fit well as an inside 'shade' against offensive centers and guards in a 4-3 scheme, but with his size and ability to take on multiple players, he could also be an ideal fit in a 3-4 scheme.
"It's a blessing (to get the chance to play in the NFL)," said Thomas. "Ever since you're little you dream about this, and I'm actually here now, so it's a blessing. It feels good. God gave me this talent right here, so I'm just working with it."
While Thomas isn't going to dazzle anyone with his pass rush, his fundamental ability to help teams in run support is attractive enough to ensure he likely won't get past the first 60 or 70 selections.
ESPN and Fox Sports both currently project him at the No. 40 selection of the second round to the San Diego Chargers, while the Arizona Cardinals might also be interested in selecting Thomas with their second or third round selection based on an article in the Arizona Republic.
"I love guerilla warfare, baby," Thomas said at the scouting combine according to the Arizona Republic article. "That's where you earn your stripes. I got my stripes. I can anchor that thing. Not everyone can play that position."
Thomas's solid record at North Carolina and his enthusiasm and engaging personality have certainly been an aid for him despite his lack of eye-popping statistical numbers as a collegiate player (just one career sack and only 2.5 tackles for loss as a senior).
"I feel like people like my personality," Thomas said. "I'm a clown. At the Combine I was taking recorders and stuff out there like it was Monday Night Football. That's just me---that's just my personality and people love it. There's no act. This is all me."
Savvy NFL people know that a player like Thomas can change the game from a defensive perspective with his ability to consistently tie up two offensive linemen---theoretically providing a 10-on-9 advantage for the defense.
While he'll probably never get more than two or three sacks a year at most in the NFL, Thomas could help make a Pro Bowler out of some of his future linebacker teammates---which is again why he won't have to sweat out the weekend like a lot of prospects.
Two of Thomas's former teammates, Aleric Mullins and E.J. Wilson, fall a little more into the 'unknown' category in terms of where they will be selected.
Mullins had another year of eligibility at UNC that he could have used to improve his Draft stock, but he elected to go ahead and go this year and utilize the wealth of information available through Coach Davis and his staff's extensive pipeline of NFL contacts to get himself into the league.
He didn't have a dominating showing at the scouting combine---which hurt his chances of being a Thursday or Friday selection this week---but it's difficult to see the 6-1, 320-pound defensive tackle not get taken at all considering he's versatile enough to play the 'nose tackle' or the 'three' technique' defensive tackle position.
"(The scouts say) I'm very athletic to be my size," Mullins said. "They say I'm athletic enough, and I feel that I can play 'either or ('three technique' or 'nose tackle'), so it really doesn't matter," Mullins said.
Mullins could get taken as early as the third round Friday night, but if the teams that are looking for defensive tackles get who they need earlier in what is a big-time Draft for defensive linemen, he could realistically fall into the fourth or fifth round on Saturday.
"I don't really want to know (where I'm going to get drafted)," Mullins said at Pro Day.
Wilson's experience as a three-year starter for the Tar Heels, along with his background working alongside respected coaches like Davis and John Blake, is certainly helping increase his chances of hearing his name called sometime on Saturday.
"I have the athleticism it takes. I know the game of football. I have the consistency that it takes, and I have the hard work and the compassion to play the game at the next level," Wilson said.
The other Tar Heel senior who has a chance of getting drafted is left tackle Kyle Jolly, who would be a Saturday selection (fourth through seventh rounds) if he's taken.
Even if they're not drafted, both Jolly and Wilson will almost certainly sign free agent contracts and get invited to NFL training camps, so each of these players are going to get an opportunity to live out their professional dreams.
UNC NFL DRAFT PROFILES
Cam Thomas (DT---Eagle Springs (N.C.)), 6-4, 330 pounds, 34 ¾ inch arm length, 10 ½ inch hand size (Scouting Combine numbers)
Strengths (NFL.com): Possesses ideal height and is thickly built. Fires low off the ball to get good leverage and has a wide base which makes him difficult to move. Engages quickly with his arms and drives opponents backward, making him an effective bull rusher.
Weaknesses (NFL.com): Lacks good initial quickness. Despite his size he does not possess the explosive power to consistently collapse the pocket. Does not have the lateral agility and range to make plays in space. Gets winded easily and loses effectiveness. Slow to react and follow plays making him susceptible to screen passes.
Overview (NFL.com): A two year starter for the Tar Heels, Thomas primarily was a run stopper in the Carolina defense. He has a huge body but lacks great quickness, lateral agility and speed. He rarely makes a play out of the tackle box and appears to lack conditioning throughout the contest.
He isn't an explosive player but is tough to get movement on when defending the run. He lacks an expanded pass-rush package and only flashes the ability to push the pocket when bull rushing. He is an inconsistent reactor as blocking schemes unfold and needs to improve in this phase of the game. Thomas is clearly a two-down player who could be limited as a nose tackle at the next level, but players with his size and strength are hard to find.
Aleric Mullins (DT---Wendell (N.C.)), 6-1, 321 pounds, 32 ¼ inch arm length, 9 3/8 inch hand size (Scouting Combine numbers)
Strengths (NFL.com): Thickly built with very good speed. Has a good first step and the lateral agility to make plays in space. Possesses a strong upper body and rips and swims effectively when pass rushing. Displays good awareness and gets his hands up to knock down passes.
Weaknesses (NFL.com): Average power for his size and does not generate a good initial pop. Does not consistently fight to the whistle and finish plays. Pad level gets too high at times and he can be pushed around in the running game. Struggles to keep his weight down.
Overview (NFL.com): Mullins was in the rotation along the Carolina defensive line but never really was a full-time starter. He has good size with decent quickness, balance and lateral agility. He only flashes as an effective pass rusher but appears to have enough athleticism to improve in this area.
He can penetrate gaps with good initial quickness, especially when in a stunting mode. He has active hands but is inconsistent to utilize them to shed vs. the run or counter as a pass rusher. He should be more powerful for his size and gives too much ground as an interior defender.
Mullins has the raw talent to develop into a solid contributor at the next level but technique, strength and inconsistent effort are concerns.
E.J. Wilson (DE---Lawrenceville (Va.)), 6-4, 286 pounds, 32 ¾ inch arm length, 10 inch hand size (Scouting Combine numbers)
Strengths (NFL.com): Wilson is a strong defensive end capable of holding up at the point of attack. He has been a productive player in college. Has the work ethic necessary to get the most out of his ability. Plays with impressive pad leverage. Displays very good instincts when diagnosing in the running game. Is a durable performer.
Weaknesses (NFLcom): Wilson is only an average overall athlete for the next level. He lacks the quickness to shoot gaps and penetrate against the run or come off the edge when rushing the passer. Only uses the bull rush at this point and must broaden his pass-rush package to be an every-down guy.
Overview (NFL.com): Wilson was a productive, three-year starter for the Tar Heels. He is a tough, competitive player but has below-average athleticism. He understands how to leverage blockers with good pad level and hand use. He reacts to blocking schemes well to press back and restrict running lanes.
Wilson doesn't have good initial quickness or speed to penetrate gaps and shows little range out of the tackle box. He only flashes as a power rusher and will need to expand his moves and counters to contribute in this phase of the game. Wilson is an overachiever who wins with toughness, instincts and technique and may struggle at the next level.
Kyle Jolly (OT---Powhatan (Va.)), 6-6, 311 pounds, 33 ½ inch arm length, 10 ½ inch hand size (Scouting Combine numbers)
Strengths (NFL.com): Great height and bulk with a large frame. Prepares well and has textbook technique. Keeps good balance with a wide base, understands how to maintain leverage, and takes precise blocking angles. Plays with a mean streak and is consistent and durable.
Weaknesses (NFL.com): Jolly is limited athletically and does not possess adequate speed. Lacks foot quickness and may be exposed by more athletic defensive linemen. Struggles with blocking in space due to poor lateral agility and is susceptible to counter moves. Does not generate an explosive punch when blocking.
Overview (NFL.com): Jolly is an experienced lineman who has started 38 consecutive games at left tackle for the Tar Heels. He is a smart player that gets by with limited athleticism and foot quickness thanks to excellent technique and a good understanding of blocking angles and leverage.
He is more of a mauler than an explosive hitter and often ends up leaning on opponents rather than jarring them off their base. He has very limited lateral range in pass protection and struggles when trying to react and recover against a good counter move when out on an island.