Smith projects as first round pick

Highly-regarded ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. released his first mock draft of the year Wednesday, projecting USC offensive tackle Tyron Smith to be selected No. 22 overall.

Smith, a junior, announced in December that he would forgoe his senior season to declare for the draft after an impressive 2010 campaign.

“We wish Jurrell and Tyron the best as they move on to a professional career and we thank them for their great contributions to the Trojan football program,” said coach Lane Kiffin in a statement last month regarding Smith’s decision to leave, as well as junior defensive lineman Jurrell Casey. “We realize there are many factors that go into a player’s decision to leave early or stay in school, and we’ll always support the decision that he and his family make.”

Kiper has noted that Smith, who measures in at 6-foot-5 and 280-pounds, could become the “top tackle” before April’s scheduled draft.

Other services project Smith as a first-round pick as well, including ESPN’s Scouts Inc., which ranks him as the 16th-best prospect for the 2011 draft and eighth amongst underclassmen.