The NFL’s annual coming-out party is always a lousy event for a few dozen college football coaches and more than a few fans, and this one seemed lousier than most.
It didn’t help that the college game lost two of its biggest stars on the same day, glamour-boy quarterback Matt Sanchez of Southern California and all-purpose back Percy Harvin of Florida, nor that those two were just a fraction of what is likely to be the biggest exodus of underclassman ever. But people, take a deep breath and relax.
We’re still talking about five dozen kids or so, and while that number has been steadily rising, we’ll never see them exiting the way their counterparts in basketball routinely do now. That’s because they’re just that, kids, and as the guys already holding those jobs in the NFL never tire of reminding people, pro football is a game played by men.
“Think about this right off the bat,” San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith said Thursday. “We’ve got four preseason games, 16 in the regular season and if you’re lucky enough to be on a playoff team, you’re approaching double the number of games you’ve played in college. So the rigors and mental preparation right off the bat is tougher, even before we get out a tape and start measuring.
“Talent is talent,” he added, “but you’d be remiss not to take a longer look at a younger guy.”
NFL rules prohibit executives from discussing specific draft choices, but Smith has no problem talking about the process, and in his case it’s a decidedly unsentimental one. He doesn’t scout early-entry prospects until draft declaration day is officially over — it is now — figuring it’s easier to catch up than try to track every kid who thinks he’s got NFL skills.
“We can get all the film we need in a heartbeat and computers make crunching the numbers easy. By the time these kids have appeared at the combine and pro days and taken a battery of psychological tests, we’ve got information and plenty of time still left to decide.
“The only thing that tilts with these kids,” Smith concluded, “is that the fewer games they’ve played in college, the more you lean on your instincts.”
The NFL started keeping numbers in 1989, the year after Barry Sanders won the Heisman Trophy and elected to turn pro before his senior season at Oklahoma State. In the first dozen years, an average of 40 underclassmen volunteered for the draft and 22 were picked. Since 2001, those figures are 51 and 33. What hasn’t changed is the number of underclassmen going in the top 10 — between three and seven.
This year’s top 10 should come in near the high end, but the whole issue is generating even more attention than usual because it’s unusually deep in quarterbacks. Besides Sanchez, most mock drafts rate Matthew Stafford of Georgia, Josh Freeman of Kansas State and Nate Davis of Ball State — all underclassmen — ahead of Graham Harrell, the senior QB from Texas Tech.
If longtime NFL talent Gil Brandt had his way, there wouldn’t even be a discussion. He still tracks the draft after working almost 30 years as an executive and chief talent scout for the Dallas Cowboys, and he sees virtually no upside in players leaving college early for the pros.
“The player that stays gets more experience, is a better football player right away, and makes more money over the long haul,” Brandt said.