More underclassmen declared early entry into the 2013 NFL Draft than any draft before it. The 73 such entries breaks the old record that was set in 2012, which broke the record set in 2011, which…well, you get the idea.
The proliferation of early entries floods a market that, frankly, has little demand for the product. Cultural changes in the NBA during the last decade changed how scouts and GMs evaluate prospects, and today, staying in college for four seasons is almost a detriment. But experience is still worthwhile for NFL prospects. Supremely gifted underclassmen aren’t at a disadvantage, but it’s only those upper echelon players among the many early entries that make draft weekend waves.
NFL franchises rarely want to take on projects. Show up ready to contribute immediately, that’s the philosophy around the league. Talented quarterbacks are the exceptions, but even that mindset was challeneged in 2012. Rookies Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Lindley, Ryan Tannehill, Russell Wilson, Brandon Weeden and Nick Foles all got starts.
NFL GMs draft the best player available, at the position their franchise has the most pressing need. Period. Sure, some will take flyers on projects in later rounds, but the first two and oftentimes three rounders are spent on game-ready prospects.
Fact is, not every early enrollee in this class is prepared to contribute immediately. Pro clubs are not in the business of development, particularly those who needs
There are obvious entries who should be selected early come April’s draft. Texas A&M Luke Joeckel is among the most talented offensive linemen in a class rich with them. On the opposite side of the line, Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson is earning high praise from experts. Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner is another likely first rounder, and Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones should go first for teams seeking a capable blitzing presence at outside linebacker.
But there are only 32 selections in the first round, and another 32 in the second. GMs could draft nothing but underclassmen — which will never happen — and there would still be holdovers into the third round.
Obviously, some of these underclassmen will go undrafted. Last season, a staggering 25 of the then-record 69 underclassmen draftees were left without a seat in the spring’s annual game of musical chairs. Now, going undrafted isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Those who slip out of the first three rounds are often in a better position to land somewhere their services are needed as undrafted free agents.
But of the 25 not selected a year ago, some were left out of the NFL completely. Some become success stories, like Arizona State product Vontaze Burfict, who excelled in his debut campaign with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Then again, Burfict was initially regarded as a first round talent who slipped for other reasons. There were no shortage of early declarations who had no business joining the fray. North Carolina defensive end Donte Paige-Moss, for example, played for the Toronto Argonauts this season.
Some declare early out of necessity. Tyrann Mathieu is the prominent example in this class. Off-field issues sidelined the 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist for the entire 2012 season. A series of drug-related problems denied Mathieu his goal of returning to LSU. His best option now might be trying to wow scouts at the Combine with his natural abilities, while memories of his outstanding 2011 season are still relatively fresh.
Mathieu flirted with a transfer to FCS McNeese State. A move to a lower division might have still been a possibility. Others have used FCS and Division II as bridges over troubled waters en route to the NFL, the most notable example being 2012 rookie standout Janoris Jenkins.
Former Florida State cornerback and kick returner Greg Reid considered a similar move, but a knee injury prevented that from happening. Rather than exercise his remaining season of eligibility, Reid is enterting the draft. He has the same kind of uphill as Mathieu.
The conveyor belt system the league employs with running backs renders the time of those plying the trade precious. Racking up too many miles in college diminishes backs’ value. Players like Giovani Bernard and Le’Veon Bell won’t go in the first round now, but probably never will. There’s not much upward mobility with their stock, so the iron is at its hottest now.
Other running backs making the leap include LSU’s Michael Ford and Spencer Ware, who were the Tigers’ No. 3 and No. 4 rushers. Jeremy Hill emerged as a clear top option in Les Miles’ backfield, and Kenny Hilliard finished with the second most yards. The third and fourth backs are unlikely to wow draft pundits, but what other option did they have? Hill and Hilliard are back in Baton Rouge for 2013, and the team’s original featured rusher, Alfred Blue, returns from injury. Thus, it’s not as if either Ford nor Ware would be able to considerable improve his draft stock next season.
South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore suffered a devastating knee injury midway through this past season, his second in as many years. Lattimore is testing the waters, eligible for entry this time around. Lattimore is both an argument for special exemptions for freshman and sophomores capable of making the jump — Lattimore could have been a first rounder after his debut season — and a cautionary tale.
And yet, this only accounts for a few groups within the multitude of early entries. Some believe there are outsiders offering up bad advice. Whether those are agents, friends, or draft analysts, they are going to tell players what they want to hear.
The flip side of the discussion are those highly coveted juniors who return, only for their stock to slip. The quintessential example is USC quarterback Matt Barkley. Now, Barkley may have been exposed in the Combine and pre-draft workouts, but his faults would have had to have been glaring to cause the same damage a disappointing senior season wrought. A year ago at this time, Barkley was mentioned in the same discussion as Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.
Today? Barkley’s stock might have fallen below Mike Glennon and Ryan Nassib. Ironically, this is a weak crop at quarterback — analysts have their doubts about Geno Smith, yet the West Virginia product could go No. 1 overall — and there’s still only one early entry: Tennessee’s Tyler Bray. Others like Logan Thomas and Aaron Murray opted for another year of collegiate seasoning.