NFL draft: Grading the underclassmen by round

Since the CBA went in effect in 2011, more and more underclassmen have entered the draft early. That's no guarantee of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: This year's draft includes a record 98 underclassmen; a scout said perhaps one-third of those won't be selected and we have the projected grades for those that will.

As of Friday, the league had 98 underclassmen confident in their ability to play at the next level. That list does not include four other underclassmen that have graduated ahead of schedule. Like most of the recent drafts, scouts are anticipating that a good portion of these athletes will be in for a huge disappointment when their names are not called on draft day.

The high amount of "not ready for prime time" athletes has raised serious concerns for scouting directors and general managers throughout the league. Yet, the NFL has only itself to blame for the recent influx of talent bolting the collegiate ranks for greener pastures. In 2011, the new collective bargaining agreement greatly limited the amount of money a rookie would receive in his initial pro contract, as wage scale limits prevented teams from doling out big bucks for untested talent.

During the 2011 draft, 56 players with college eligibility left their respective teams with hopes for playing in the NFL. Forty-three of those early entrants were drafted (76.79 percent), with Auburn quarterback Cam Newton making it the third consecutive year that an underclassmen was selected with the first choice.

Since non-seniors were first eligible to be drafted in 1990, 15 first overall picks (including seven of the last eight drafts) had been players who entered the draft early. Eight of the first 10 players chosen in the 2011 draft were non-seniors, which broke the record of six set in 1997 and matched in 2006. Defensive rush end/linebacker Von Miller of Texas A&M (second selection by Denver) and quarterback Jake Locker of Washington (eighth pick by Tennessee) were the only two seniors among the first 10 draftees that year.

A total of 15 underclassmen in the 2011 draft heard their names called in the first round. Eleven more were taken in Round 2, followed by five that went in the third round, including New England using back-to-back picks for a pair of Southeastern Conference performers in tailback Stevan Ridley (LSU) and quarterback Ryan Mallett (Arkansas).

The only notable performer among underclassmen to be selected after the 2011 second round was Kansas City using the 70th pick for linebacker Justin Houston. Rounds 4 through 7 produced nine more underclass selections, but to date, none of those athletes have been anything more than depth on the roster chart.

The following year, the league saw a then-record 65 underclassmen announce their intention to forgo their remaining NCAA eligibility and become eligible to be selected in the draft. Of those 65, 47 (67.69 percent) were drafted. When the Indianapolis Colts chose Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, it marked the fourth consecutive year when the first overall selection was an underclassman.

Eight of the first 10 players chosen in that draft were non-seniors, which matched the record set in the previous draft. Alabama safety Mark Barron (seventh choice by Tampa Bay) and Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill (eighth selection by Miami) were the only two seniors among the first 10 draftees in 2012. A total of 15 underclassmen went in the opening round, followed by eight more in Round 2.

The third round saw seven more hear their names called, not including Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor, who was taken by the Raiders during the supplemental draft, forfeiting their choice in the regular phase of that round for making that selection. Miami might have unearthed a blue-collar ball-carrier when they took Lamar Miller in Round 4, as the running back was one of five underclassmen taken in that round. Rounds 5 through 7 brought just five more players selected from the underclass crop.

In the 2013 draft, 21 of the 73 underclassmen who attempted to go to the NFL went undrafted, with many later signing low-cost free agent contracts. Of the 52 to be selected (71.23 percent), just three heard their names called among the top 10 choices – offensive tackle Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M (second to Jacksonville), LSU's rush end Barkevious Mingo by Cleveland (sixth overall) and Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, taken by the Jets with the ninth pick.

A total of 17 underclassmen went in the first round of the 2013 draft, including nine among the last 12 selections. Eleven more went in Round 2, including the Pro Football Writers of America's Offensive Rookie of the Year, tailback Eddie Lacy of Alabama, scooped up with the 61st pick by Green Bay. Round 3 featured 10 more underclass choices, led by San Diego's standout receiver, Keenan Allen, taken 76th overall.

Eddie Lacy was the writers' Rookie of the Year. Jeff Hanisch/USA Today Sports

In the fourth round, nine more underclassmen were selected, the most notable being the 109th choice by Green Bay, as offensive tackle David Bakhtiari saw himself thrust into the starting lineup when Bryan Bulaga was hurt in a scrimmage. In the next round, just five more were chosen, as receiver Kenny Stills (144th overall) saw considerable action in the second half for the Saints. LSU running back Spencer Ware (194th) was the only underclassmen taken in Round 6 (by Philadelphia) and the final round added three more to the draft class, with Chicago using the 236th pick to take receiver Marquess Wilson as the final underclassmen in the draft phase.

With 98 (plus four) on board for the 2014 draft, most teams agree that this record-high amount does not bode well for the talent base in college for future drafts. Over the years, the once-prestigious college all-star games have been greatly affected by the dearth of talent to choose from. Under an agreement by those bowls and the NCAA, in order for those games to be sanctioned, only seniors or juniors who have graduated are eligible to play in those games.

That edict has been largely responsible for the demise of the Hula Bowl, among other all-star contests, along with an obvious scrambling to find quality passers for the Senior Bowl. The once highly watched East-West Shrine Game has seen their viewership sink to an all-time low, as just those hoping to catch the eyes of scouts as a late-round selection seem to litter the East-West rosters.

Even the Senior Bowl, the grand finale for outgoing elite college talent, has seen the quality of players available dwindle to just a few. Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage just doesn't see how the NFL is going to be able to accommodate the record number of underclassmen who declared for the May draft.

In a recent interview, the executive director and former NFL GM and scouting director was open in voicing his concerns.

"I think it's an issue and something for the good of the game both at the college level and the NFL level that's going to have to be addressed, one way or the other. When you see almost 100 underclassmen come into the draft, and there are 250-some odd slots, there's going to be a lot of kids that have been sold a bill of goods come the first week of May. Personally, I think it's bad for college football and I think it's bad for the NFL, because players are coming into the league after three years of college and they're not ready."

Still, league hierarchy continue to play the "Three Monkeys" (see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil) in allowing the system to run rampant. Many talent evaluators see up to 16 of the 2014 underclass crop going in the first round of the draft. Another 22 received second-round projections and 15 more are targeted as third-round types. Thirty-five from this class are seen as having little to no opportunity for being selected during the three-day draft process.

First-round targets could be (listed in alphabetical order) Kelvin Benjamin-WR-Florida State; QB-Blake Bortles-Central Florida, vying to be the top pick; Teddy Bridgewater-Louisville, competing with Bortles and Johnny Manziel-Texas A&M to be the first quarterback chosen; DE-Jadeveon Clowney-South Carolina, said to be coveted by Houston with the first pick; DE-Kony Ealy-Missouri; Manziel's favorite target, WR-Mike Evans; TE-Eric Ebron-North Carolina; Alabama OT Cyrus Kouandijo; and WR-Marqise Lee-Southern California, coming off an injury-plagued junior campaign.

They are likely to be joined in the first round by Manziel; nose guard Louis Nix III-Notre Dame, who missed a good portion of the second half of 2013 due to a knee injury; Greg Robinson-OT-Auburn, who quite a few teams prefer over more heralded senior blocker, Jake Matthews-Texas A&M; Ohio State OLB-Ryan Shazier, Nix's buddy, Fighting Irish DE-Stephon Tuitt; Sammy Watkins-Clemson, expected to be the first wide receiver taken and Stanford OG-David Yankey.

Those that can be selected in the second round of the draft are WR-Davante Adams-Fresno State, TE-Jace Amaro-Texas Tech; WR-Odell Beckham-LSU; TB-Ka'Deem Carey-Arizona; SS-HaHa Clinton-Dix-Alabama, whose injuries and off-field issues could keep him out of the first round; WR-Brandin Cooks-Oregon State, the Biletnikoff Award winner (nation's best receiver); DE-Scott Crichton-Oregon State; NG-Ego Ferguson-LSU, who most scouts liken to the Jets' 2013 first round find, Sheldon Richardson; and another standout DT-Tim Jernigan-Florida State.

They will likely be joined in Round 2 by LSU WR Jarvis Landry; Auburn RB Tre Mason, the star of the BSC runner-up Tigers; Notre Dame TE-Troy Niklas; FS-Calvin Pryor-Louisville; Colorado WR Paul Richardson; OT-Antonio Richardson-Tennessee; CB-Marcus Roberson-Florida; CB-Bradley Roby-Ohio State; the sleeper of the draft class TB-Bishop Sankey-Washington, along with his teammate, Mackey Award winning TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins; TB-Lache Sistrunk-Baylor, rising star QB-Brett Smith-Wyoming and UCLA OG-Xavier Su'A-Filo.

Projected breakdowns, round-wise, among the 2014 underclassmen sees fifteen as possible third rounders, nine more in the fourth round and 15 targeted between Rounds 5 through 7. The rest are nothing more than free agent/camp player material.

Longtime NFL Scout Dave-Te' Thomas is the editor of the NFL Draft Report and, through his Scouting Services Inc., serves as a personnel consultant for the league and most its teams.

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