The 2006 NFL draft was a banner year to be an underclassman. Twelve of the first 32 selections, including the first three choices and six of the first nine overall picks, were players that declared early for the draft. In recent years, only the 2004 draft, when the names of 15 underclassmen were called out in the first round, was better in terms of percentage of declared juniors who were selected in the initial round.
So what do those numbers mean as we head into the beginning of the postseason evaluation of 2007 draft prospects?
Well, expect a steady flow of common and many unknown names being thrown about. They could be All-Americans, all-conference performers or even just players who have read their names on some Internet draft board.
The information flow on senior-eligible prospects is consistent in the sense that area scouts have compiled their lists since late last spring, reviewed tapes over the summer and spent the fall tracking each player's performance by taking in practices and games. However, that is not always the case when it comes to underclassmen.
"When I was with one team, our director would send us a list of kids that had asked for their grade," one retired NFL scout explained. "He would just ask us for our initial opinion of the player so that we could have a rough idea of a round grade on him. (But) if (a player) went ahead and declared, that is how much time we would spend further evaluating him."
Over- or under-evaluating underclassmen who enter the draft in early January is one of the easiest ways to make a mistake in the scouting world. Everywhere you look, there is a chance to misread or even become overly excited by a young prospect's talent. You look at much less game film, so the outside collection of information on a player can sometimes lead you down a path towards having expectations that do not match the prospect's actual level of play or production.
Take for instance the recent disastrous results by former Georgia defensive tackle Jonathan Sullivan.
Sullivan was a big-bodied kid that showed good quickness and the ability to shed blockers and make plays in the backfield, but away from the field, he had been a bit of an underachiever until the start of his junior year. Also, several teammates noted that he was a bit quiet and kept to himself. Still, Sullivan's stock underwent a meteoric rise between the NFL combine and the morning of the 2003 draft.
While Sullivan's agent believed his client could go as high as the top 10, I had him steady at the 15-to-20 pick range. Sure enough, the New Orleans Saints made a major draft-day trade to jump up and select Sullivan, as they felt Minnesota, Baltimore, Seattle or St. Louis would steal him before their picks at Nos. 17 and 18. The Saints dealt both of their selections to Arizona for the right to select Sullivan at No. 6. What followed were three tumultuous seasons with Sullivan, who was plagued by a constant weight problem while failing to live up to his lofty draft status.
The lesson in the Sullivan case is that, while many of these soon-to-be-declared underclassmen will seem more impressive than a no-name, four-year starter, the two worst errors you can make in evaluating players is "thinking" you see something in a prospect. You either do or you don't. The two things that don't lie are your eyes and the film.
Secondly, a prospect's motivation should jump out at you. How he carries himself in his postseason evaluation should grab a hold of you. You don't always want guys to play with reckless abandon on the field, but they better demonstrate that they want the opportunity to play in the NFL more than you want them to succeed in your scouting reports.
- Massachusetts running back Steve Baylark has been a great example of how a lesser-known prospect has taken full advantage of his time in the spotlight. The Minutemen's run to the Division I-AA championship game has given the senior the chance to showcase his skills before more talent evaluators. He enters Friday's national championship contest against Appalachian State with 1,827 rushing yards, his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard campaign. Area scouts have recognized Baylark's toughness, ability to fight for yards after contact and improved hands out of the backfield. What he lacks is game-breaking speed, and there are also some concerns about his future durability as he may have some tendonitis in his right knee.
- SMU defensive tackle Adrian Haywood will miss the postseason due to a dislocated shoulder suffered in the Mustangs' Nov. 11 loss to Houston. The school informed several all-star games that the senior's injury will require surgery, which could sideline him for several months. At roughly 6-foot-2 and 285 pounds, the former junior college standout from Tyler, Texas, earned All-Conference USA status this season, using his quickness and ability to shoot the gap and make plays in opposing backfields. Haywood reportedly ran in the 5.00 range in the 40, while his J.C. coaches say he hit 37 inches in the vertical jump. Recovery from reconstructive shoulder surgery can take three to four months, so it is likely Haywood will now earn more of a priority free agent grade.
- Arizona State tight end Zach Miller will have roughly three weeks to consider his options following the Dec. 24 Hawaii Bowl against Hawaii. The junior is expected to closely examine the idea of entering the NFL draft early, but school officials hope the naming of former NFL head coach Dennis Erickson to replace the departing Dirk Koetter will sway Miller towards completing his final year of eligibility. With 143 career receptions (including 14 touchdowns), Miller is seen as the Sun Devils' best tight end prospect since All-Pro Todd Heap.
- Oregon wide receiver James Finley has shown a fair amount of character during a tormenting senior campaign. He entered fall drills as one of the Ducks' primary weapons, but a series of injuries, including a concussion and sprained knee, kept him from ever getting fully on track this year. Finley has just 14 catches after making an immediate impact on the team as a J.C. transfer in 2005, when he had 57 receptions and showed ideal hands to match his impressive size/speed ratio (6-2 and 210 pounds, mid-to-late 4.4 range in the 40). Finley has also displayed fine strength both as a receiver and downfield blocker. He may not receive too much attention between now and the early portion of the postseason, but keep an eye on him at the NFL combine (should he receive an invite) or at his pro day. Finley plans to train at the same place Chad Johnson and Steve Smith worked out in hopes of reviving his mid-round draft grade.
- Vanderbilt offensive tackle Brian Stamper is still awaiting word from the NCAA regarding his petition for a fifth year of eligibility. The senior started 36 straight games in the SEC until a back injury sidelined him in early October and forced him to have surgery to repair a herniated disk. The nearly 6-5, 300-pound right tackle has added close to 20 pounds of bulk/strength over the past few years, and most area scouts said he had moved himself into mid-round consideration. Returning to the Commodores' starting lineup next season could really help Stamper's chances of impressing NFL teams.
- All-Big Ten cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu of Wisconsin has been suspended indefinitely after he and his twin brother Bill, who plays at Northern Illinois, were charged with burglary and criminal trespass. Both players have maintained their innocence, but the Badgers do not plan to have Jack on their roster for the Capital One Bowl. The redshirt sophomore's next court appearance is scheduled for January 17, which comes a few days after players can declare for the NFL draft. If he is told or feels he may not have a place to return to next season, it is possible he will roll the dice and jump into the draft.
SMALL SCHOOL WONDERS
- Missouri State defensive tackle Renard McDaniel is not a household name by any means, but that could change once the senior hits the postseason.
McDaniel earned All-Gateway Conference honors this year, his second full season back on the defensive side of the ball after being initially recruited out of Grand Rapids J.C. as an offensive tackle. The nearly 6-4, 326-pound Michigan native took a little longer to get going at the college level as he took a year off to work, but he earned all-league honors while playing for a local minor league football team called the Grand Rapids Thunder. He then joined the Bears as an offensive lineman before converting to defense two summers ago.
Widely known in both of his regional spots as athletically gifted (former coaches made note of that multiple times during recent conversations), McDaniel has run in the 4.90 range in the 40 and posted 25 to 30 repetitions while bench-pressing 225 pounds. He is very active off the snap, having recorded 53 tackles, eight tackles for loss, three sacks and one forced fumble, and he has matured greatly on film throughout the season to become a formidable prospect.
- Senior wide receiver/return man Jonathan Hawks of Bemidji (Minn.) State caught only 30 passes this season and is just 5-8 and 168 pounds, so why would he be getting any attention in this category? Well, the 4.30-second 40 times he has posted for the school's staff and 31.8-yard per kickoff return average, which included a 100-yard touchdown against Northern State, would be reason enough. He is not only one of the nation's leaders in kickoff returns, regardless of level of competition, but also a standout sprinter on the team's track and field team. Return specialists have obviously come back into the spotlight thanks to the unprecedented season by Chicago Bears rookie Devin Hester, so look for Hawks to earn a free-agent shot in someone's camp next summer.
POSTSEASON ALL-STAR GAME UPDATE
Magnolia Gridiron Classic – The second annual game will once again be held in Jackson, Miss., and the festivities begin Monday with three days of practices leading up to the afternoon kickoff on Dec. 23. The game's format pits a small school team made up of Division I-AA prospects against a squad of Division I-A players and a handful of Division II and III players. One interesting name that jumps off the Division I-A roster is Buffalo senior tight end Chad Upshaw, who is the nephew of NFLPA president and Pro Football Hall of Famer Gene Upshaw. Meanwhile, the I-AA squad is led by Appalachian State senior pass rusher Marques Murrell, Northwestern State senior defensive tackle Tory Collins and North Carolina Central senior running back Greg Pruitt, Jr., the son of former NFL running back Greg Pruitt. Last year's MVP, Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Steven Jyles, was signed by Edmonton of the CFL.