TSX: Around the League (Part I)

Even though the lockout is still in effect, there is still plenty to talk about in the NFL. Len Pasquarelli of The Sports Xchange discusses all of the news from around the league.

Blackout

In most pursuits, "doubling up" on something, increasing the numbers by 100 percent, would be viewed as a positive situation. That wasn't necessarily the case, however, with the NFL draft and the selection of prospects from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) last weekend.

Of the 254 players chosen, four were from HBCU programs: defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis (Hampton, by the New York Jets, third round), offensive tackle Johnny Culbreath (South Carolina State, by Detroit, seventh round), defensive tackle Frank Kearse (Alabama A&M, by Miami, seventh round), and cornerback Curtis Holcomb (Florida A&M, by San Francisco, seventh round). It marked twice the number of HBCU players selected in 2010, when the two-player class represented the lowest ever in the era of the common draft, but was still a modest amount.

"It's not like we've quit going to those schools, but they've just stopped (producing) 'draftable' players," one prominent AFC general manager said. "There are a lot of reasons, but the numbers don't lie."

The Sports Xchange has detailed some of the factors in the past - the impact of integration at the major football schools, recruiting, economics, level of coaching, among them - and the situation isn't likely to improve anytime soon. This marked the 11th year in a row that the HCBU schools had single-digit prospects selected, and the eighth time in that period that there were five or fewer. The last time the HBCU programs had more than eight players chosen was 2000, when there were 13.

In the 11 drafts since then, only 51 players from HBCU schools were chosen, and 24 of those were in the sixth or seventh rounds. There's been only one first-rounder, Arizona corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Tennessee State, 2008), in that period, and just 14 players taken in the first three rounds.

"You just feel like you have to work harder, but, if you do, they'll find you," said Holcomb, the first player drafted from FAMU since 2000. "But it's not easy."

Ellis, in fact, was the lone player chosen from an HBCU school among the top 200 picks. And, the fact is, Ellis would not have been at Hampton were he not dismissed from the South Carolina program for off-field indiscretions.

Said Ellis: "I'll always be grateful for the opportunity they gave me (at Hampton) to play there. I won't forget that."

Seems that increasingly, though, the league has forgotten about the HBCU schools.

Early birds, no worms

Of the 56 underclass players who forfeited their remaining college eligibility to enter the draft, 14 were not chosen last weekend, and remain in that uncomfortable state of limbo with the rest of the undrafted prospects. They can't return to school to resume their careers, and can't be signed as undrafted free agents until the lockout issue is resolved, kind of a double whammy.

"You kind of hammer home to them that they've got to stay in shape, that it's no time now to slack off . . . and you continue to do your homework, to check on rosters and see where the best fit is for them," said agent Pat Dye Jr., who represents former Georgia Tech safety Jerrard Tarrant, a player most observers felt would be drafted. "But, yeah, they're in a tough position."


FB Henry Hynoski
Andy Lyons/Getty

The roster of underclass players includes some prominent names such as Auburn wide receiver Darvin Adams, Florida safety Will Hill, Wisconsin tailback John Clay, Pitt fullback Henry Hynoski, and Tarrant.

Said Hynoski, who many ranked among the top two fullback prospects: "All you can do is keep the faith."

Unlike most of the undrafted underclass prospects, Hynoski has earned his degree, in business administration, and figures that, at worst, he might be able to attract an internship for the fall. He'd prefer, though, to be in an NFL camp in the summer, but, like most of the players, has not yet considered the possibility of signing with the UFL as an alternative.

Green Akers

It probably didn't help that he missed 34- and 41-yard field goals in the team's loss to Green Bay in the playoffs, but sources contend it was some quiet off-field bickering that could end the long career of kicker David Akers with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Even though the Eagles designated Akers a transition player earlier in the spring, the team invested a fourth-round choice last weekend on Nebraska kicker Alex Henery. The former Cornhuskers' star has some issues with kicking off, but the Eagles might be able to live with that, more so they can the big, one-year contract they will have to pay to retain Akers.

A 13-year veteran who has been with Philadelphia since 1999, Akers already is among the game's highest paid kickers, and prefers a long-term deal. At 36, he isn't likely to get one. And there is a decent likelihood, NFL sources insist, that Philadelphia will rescind the transition tag and go with Henery instead.

Staying in school?

As reported by The Sports Xchange earlier in the week, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, dismissed from the University of Florida squad last Tuesday after his second marijuana-related arrest in three months, is seriously considering transferring to a lower-division program, where he would be eligible to play in 2011.

Conventional wisdom since Jenkins was banished by new UF coach Will Muschamp has been that the three-year starter would either enter the NFL supplemental draft in the summer or perhaps attempt to force his way into the league by challenging the draft's legality in court. Both of those remain possibilities, although the lockout could force the NFL to cancel the supplemental draft, typically held in July. Two sources told The Sports Xchange, however, that Jenkins is leaning toward delaying his entry into the NFL, and that he may prefer to rehabilitate his image before attempting a pro career.

"It's about 50-50 right now that he tries to find a (college) place to play and convince scouts that he's really serious about an NFL career," said one of the sources.

The other source termed it a "long shot" that Jenkins would attempt to play in a pro league, such as the UFL or Arena Football League, other than the NFL. Although Jenkins has sought advice from a number of agents in recent days, and has been approached by a number of player representatives, including a few who told him that litigation might force the NFL to accept him, he has not yet signed with an agent, The Sports Xchange has confirmed. So, at least to date, his remaining college eligibility has not been compromised. Jenkins, 22, is currently the No. 3-rated cornerback prospect for the 2012 draft by NFLDraftScout.

UFL-bound?


QB Jerrod Johnson
Aaron M. Sprecher/Getty

One undrafted player who does figure to sign with the UFL, although not an underclass prospect, is former Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson. The top overall pick in the UFL draft earlier this week, Johnson was rendered ineffective by a shoulder problem as a junior and then lost his starting job as a senior.

"He has to prove to people he's healthy again, and the only way to do that is play, and they're the only game in town right now," agent Jimmy Sexton said. Johnson was chosen by the Hartford Colonials, coached by Jerry Glanville, and the team doesn't really have an established starter right now. Glanville said that 2010 starter, Josh McCown, "couldn't" give him an answer about returning for the coming season, and so he had to move in a different direction. Sources close to McCown told The Sports Xchange that the much-traveled quarterback prefers to gauge his NFL opportunities.

The standard UFL contract calls for a salary of $5,000 per game, but it's believed that starting quarterbacks can earn as much as $12,500 per outing. Players can make an additional $5,000 for qualifying for the championship game, and $6,000 for winning the title.

The experience might be beneficial for Johnson, who is adamant about wanting to play quarterback. A few scouts told The Sports Xchange that Johnson might have had a better chance of being drafted had he not been so insistent about playing quarterback. The onetime Aggies standout was 6-feet-5 1/8 and 251 pounds at the combine, and ran a 4.80 time, and some felt he could perhaps make a team's practice squad as an H-back candidate.

Line dance I

When the Indianapolis Colts made tackle Anthony Castonzo of Boston College their first offensive line choice in the first round since 1997, it didn't take long for franchise officials to anoint him as the team's new starter on the left side. Some wondered how the team could reconcile having a rookie protect the blind side of Peyton Manning, who figures at some point in the offseason to become the richest player in NFL history.

But the Colts have had a habit in recent years of depending on relatively inexperienced players to escort Manning, and Castonzo, who might actually be the most starter-ready of the half-dozen tackles chosen in the first round last weekend, could be the most talented of all them. In fact, since the abrupt retirement of Tarik Glenn following the team's Super Bowl XLI title in 2006, Indianapolis will have used three different starting left tackles to open a season.

Assuming Castonzo stays healthy and is the starter, he will follow Tony Ugoh and Charles Johnson at the left tackle position. Ugoh, who is now out of the game, started as a rookie in 2007. Johnson had very little experience at left tackle when he moved in as the starter in 2009.


T Anthony Castonzo
Jason O. Watson/US Presswire

"I know it's a critical job . . . but I feel like I'm up to it," Castonzo said.

The selection of Castonzo and of Benjamin Ijalana in the second round - the first time the Colts have used their top two choices on blockers since taking Glenn and Adam Meadows in the first and second rounds, respectively, in '97 - could prompt a reshuffling of the line. Johnson could move inside to guard, and longtime right tackle Ryan Diem could face a challenge as well. The Colts like Jeff Linkenbach, an undrafted free agent in 2010, who was pressed into action at times at left tackle, and feel he can be a force on the right side. Ijalana is most apt to move to guard.

Line dance II

Since the Miami Dolphins didn't choose a quarterback at all last weekend, the job for now belongs to much maligned incumbent Chad Henne, and the plan appears to be to improve his supporting cast. The refurbishing figures to begin up front, where first-round pick Mike Pouncey will probably move right in at center, even though some clubs felt that guard was his best position.

Pouncey is the third lineman chosen by the Dolphins since 2004 - the others were tackles Vernon Carey in 2004 and Jake Long in '08 - and coaches seem to feel the line will be the best blocking unit Miami has cobbled together in years. It may have to be since the odds are long that neither of the team's two veteran tailbacks, Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, will return. The plan for now is to turn the position over to rookie Daniel Thomas.


Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.


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