Drafts produce junior risks

Every pick in the NFL draft is a risk, but juniors can be every bit as risky as the seniors, despite being talented enough to declare early for the draft. The past decade of draft evidence shows very mixed results from the first-round juniors.

As far a drafts go, the 2009 draft is pretty much right down the middle. It isn't overly laden with talent, but it isn't devoid of it either. But, if not for a strong underclassmen group, this could have been one of the worst drafts ever.

The 2009 draft may rival 2004, when 15 of the 32 first-round picks were underclassmen. There is a chance that number could be duplicated or potentially exceeded. This is especially true at quarterback and wide receiver. Without juniors Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman, there may not have been a QB taken until the third or fourth round. At wide receiver, without underclassmen Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Hakeem Nicks and Kenny Britt, the Class of '09 would have been pretty dismal.

There is something to be said about getting young players that haven't been burned out in college, but do they make as big an impact as their early draft status indicates. We looked back over the last decade to see the hit-and-miss rate of first-round underclassmen. It isn't always pretty.

2008 – It's still too early to tell, but of the 11 underclassmen drafted, more than half had little to no impact. Darren McFadden (4th overall) struggled to live up to the "Next Adrian Peterson" tag, Vernon Gholston (6) never got off the bench and Derrick Harvey (8) held out and registered just four sacks. On the flip side, Jerod Mayo (10), Jonathan Stewart (13) and Branden Albert (15) more than lived up to expectations.

2007 – The draft produced two superstars early in Calvin Johnson (2) and Adrian Peterson (7), along with solid performers in Marshawn Lynch (12), Greg Olsen (31) and Anthony Gonzalez (32). But of the 14 underclassmen taken, more were busts than booms, including top pick JaMarcus Russell, Ted Ginn (9), Jarvis Moss (17), Reggie Nelson (21) and Robert Meacham (27).

2006 – A total of 12 underclassmen came out, including the top three picks. Mario Williams (1) was scoffed at when Houston took him first overall, but he has far exceeded the contributions made by Reggie Bush (2) and Vince Young (3). Vernon Davis (6) has been injured and in and out of the coach's doghouse, Laurence Maroney (21) has been in and out of the starting lineup and John McCargo (26) was known only in upstate New York. The best players out of this class have been Ernie Sims (9), Haloti Ngata (12), Antonio Cromartie (19) and Santonio Holmes (25), but the problems at the top make this a suspect class.

2005 – Perhaps never has a top 10 been so hideous. This ugly draft class included top pick Alex Smith, Pacman Jones (6), Troy Williamson (7) and Mike Williams (10). While it did include superstar Shawne Merriman (12), only he, Aaron Rodgers (24) and Heath Miller (30) can be viewed in hindsight as success stories among the juniors.

2004 – A record-setting 15 underclassmen were drafted in the first round and, once again, the results were 50/50. It had its share of stars in Larry Fitzgerald (3), the late Sean Taylor (5), Kellen Winslow (6), DeAngelo Hall (8), Ben Roethlisberger (11), Tommie Harris (14), Vince Wilfork (21) and Steven Jackson (24). But it also had its share of duds, including Reggie Williams (9), Michael Clayton (15), Kenechi Udeze (20), Ahmad Carroll (25) and Kevin Jones (30). All in all, there were more hits than misses and quite a few game-changers that year.

2003 – Only 10 underclassmen were taken in the first round and, of those, only three became big-time stars – Andre Johnson (3), Terrell Suggs (10) and Willis McGahee (23). How different might Detroit be if they had taken Johnson instead of Charles Rogers (2)? Teams traded up to get defensive tackles Dewayne Robertson (4) and Johnathan Sullivan (6) and neither panned out. The Bears hoped to solve their quarter-century QB woes by taking Rex Grossman (24), but we know how that turned out. It was a bad year to take a chance on youth.

2002 – There were more hits than misses here. Julius Peppers (2) and safety Roy Williams (8) became defensive stars, as did Albert Haynesworth (15). There were some offensive stars as well, including Jeremy Shockey (14), but there were many more offensive misses – like Donte Stallworth (13), William Green (16) (instead of Clinton Portis, who played for the Browns' head coach in college), Ashley Lelie (19) and Jerramy Stevens (28). It wasn't a good year for offense in '02.

2001 – Thirteen wasn't a lucky number for underclassmen that year. The only star-quality players to come of that draft were Justin Smith (4) and Nate Clements (21). Until his dog-fighting scandal, Michael Vick (1) made the list as a success story, but no more. This rogue's gallery includes Gerard Warren (3), David Terrell (8), Koren Robinson (9), Willie Middlebrooks (24), Freddie Mitchell (25), Michael Bennett (27) and Ryan Pickett (29). Yuck!

2000 – There were only seven underclassmen that year and the hit percentage was as high as any since. It included LaVarr Arrington (2), Jamal Lewis (5), Plaxico Burress (8), Bubba Franks (14), Sebastian Janikowski (17) and Rashard Anderson (23). While some of their talents relative to their draft position can be argued, the only true dud of the bunch was former Viking Travis Taylor – taken 10th overall by the Ravens.

1999 – Just another example of the hit-and-miss nature of drafting underclassmen. That year saw Tim Couch go No. 1 and stink the joint out, but on the positive side, it also produced Edgerrin James (4), Champ Bailey (7), John Tait (14) and Jevon Kearse (16). However, aside from Couch, it also had David Boston (8), Damien Woody (17), Reggie McGrew (24) and Andy Katzenmoyer (28).

If anything, a decade of evidence has shown us that, while as many as half of the teams in the first round will end up taking an underclassmen in the first round, their success rate in the NFL is slightly under 50 percent – making them more of a risk than they may appear on face value.

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