February 16, 2010
Here's how fast South Florida pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul has rocketed up the totem poll in the eyes of the pro scouts: After just five years of organized football -- only one of them at the I-A level, as a JUCO transfer on an unremarkable defense on a Big East also-ran -- a player most college football fans have probably never heard of can be plausibly labeled as "overrated" by a professional observer. In this case, that's the judgment of the Sporting News' Matt Hayes, who wrote that Pierre-Paul is the most overrated defensive end in the upcoming NFL draft, and who in fact may have no unique insight whatsoever into the fate of future draft picks.
But he does hit on the most glaring non-Tebow mystery of the first round, from a college perspective: How did Pierre-Paul go from the classic "underrated" college player -- a good but obscure athlete appreciated almost only by the scouts and opposing coaches, who made him a first team All-Big East pick -- to one of the more obscure (and potentially overhyped) top-15/20 prospects of the Mel Kiper-fueled, draft-as-theater era?
Even as a first-year transfer, Pierre-Paul wasn't nearly as off-the-radar as, say, Baylor's Jason Smith in last year's draft, if only because South Florida got some national TV play against Florida State and in Thursday night games against Cincinnati and Rutgers, where Pierre-Paul was singled out as an up-and-comer. He also had a good year statistically (45 tackles, 16.5 for loss, 6.5 sacks, one interception returned for touchdown) and was a first team All-American by the scouts at Pro Football Weekly. There's a good chance he would have joined Texas A&M's Von Miller at the top of quite a few preseason All-America lists in the fall if he'd decided to return, and the average fan would have been more than familiar with the name by September.
None of which impresses the next level nearly as much as the scouting report: Tall (or, if you prefer, "long"), fast (an alleged 4.6 in the 40-yard dash), agile, long arms. Plus, invariably, raw. On paper, Pierre-Paul's a football player, and when the pros get their hands on him, they'll polish him into a real one on the field. If he dominates the big/fast/strong tests at next week's combine, as expected, the hype over his physical potential will reach Mamulan heights. Even with two cautionary tags -- "workout warrior" and "one-year wonder" -- the vast majority of mock drafts have Pierre-Paul going in the top 20 in April, if not the top 15, which would make him the highest-drafted player in USF history. The latest projection from ESPN's Todd McShay pegged Pierre-Paul as the third overall pick to the locals, Tampa Bay. Cue the "overrated" backlash: Who is this guy, who didn't play football until he was a junior in high school and wasn't certain to crack the USF depth chart at the start of the season, to be a top five pick all of a sudden?
Two other likely first-rounders -- Idaho guard Mike Iupati and Maryland offensive tackle Bruce Campbell -- are in a similar position, as top draft prospects (because of their size) that even the most obsessed college fans likely know only as top draft prospects. But neither has rocketed up the boards with quite the speed of Pierre-Paul, but now seems destined to stand as the latest test case in the scouts' eternal question, "When does potential trump production?"