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Drafting underclassmen in first round can be a real gamble

The NFL Draft is a week away and there are about 18 underclassmen ready to be selected in the first round. I've been involved with selecting an underclassman in the first round and it didn't work out for our club or the player. (Pat Kirwan was a former director of player administration for the Jets).

Maturity issues, NFL readiness and asking a kid to handle the pressures and expectations of the first round may be too much to ask. Although if the right situation presents itself, these hurdles are not impossible to overcome.

The position the underclassman plays is a critical factor, which we will take a close look at. The club that selects the player is also an important component to predicting success. The maturity and people that surround the candidate is absolutely an issue. There is a lot of risk involved in selecting underclassmen, and the question becomes does your team really want to take that chance?

Mock drafts

In his latest, two-round mock draft,'s Pat Kirwan says that the Lions appear poised to take Matthew Stafford with the No. 1 overall pick. Where do other players land? More...

Here's a look at the positions that have junior (or redshirt sophomore) candidates with first-round grades and the 10-year history at the position.

Each position will be graded on a risk scale, with 1 representing extreme risk and 10 symbolizing the lowest risk.


This year, there are three candidates penciled in as first-round picks. There has only been one draft in the past 10 years with two junior quarterbacks taken in the first round. That was in 2005, when Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers went in Round 1. Here's a look at the first-round signal-callers since 1999 who entered the draft as juniors: Smith, Rodgers, JaMarcus Russell, Vince Young, Ben Roethlisberger, Rex Grossman, Michael Vick and Tim Couch. Outside of Roethlisberger, and maybe Rodgers, the rest of the group shows there are plenty of reasons to avoid a junior quarterback in the first round.

This year, Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman will most likely hear their names called early in the draft. The later they go in the first round, the better chance they have of going on to a successful NFL career. The later they have to go out on the field, the better chance they have of having a long career.

A general manager's take: "If I had a two-year starter on my roster I would take one of these guys late in the first round, something like Green Bay had with the 24th pick and (Brett) Favre on the roster."

Risk grade: 4

Running back

There have been 15 underclassmen running backs chosen in the first round since 1999. The list is impressive, and barring injury it is reasonable to expect production from a rookie runner. Those 15 juniors (or redshirt sophomores) selected since 1999 should give you some confidence that if your team selects Knowshon Moreno, Chris Wells or Donald Brown in the first round, your team will see results early. Edgerrin James, Jamal Lewis, Michael Bennett, William Green, Willis McGahee, Kevin Jones, Steven Jackson, Laurence Maroney, Reggie Bush, Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson, Rashard Mendenhall, Felix Jones, Jonathan Stewart and Darren McFadden were all drafted as underclassmen.

A general manager's take: "This is an easy pick to make if the player has the skills, and this year's class makes the grade."

Risk grade: 8

Wide receiver

The 2009 NFL Draft has upwards of six underclassmen ready to be selected in the first round, which exceeds any of the last 10 drafts. That number presents a yellow flag. In 2007, four non-senior wide receivers were drafted in Round 1, with Calvin Johnson, Ted Ginn, Robert Meachem and Anthony Gonzalez all being first-round picks. Most years, however, only one or two underclassmen receivers are selected in Round 1.

What category will Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Hakeem Nicks and Kenny Britt fall under? The disappointing, such as Meachem, Troy Williamson, Mike Williams, Reggie Williams, Michael Clayton, Charles Rogers, Ashley Lelie, David Terrell, Koren Robinson, Donte' Stallworth and Freddie Mitchell? Or, the successful, such as Gonzalez, Calvin Johnson, Santonio Holmes, Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson? Getting with a very good quarterback is critical for most of this year's wideouts.

A general manager's take: "If six go in the first round, it will be split three and three."

Risk grade: 5

Offensive linemen

This is a limited group in the past 10 years, with only nine underclassmen selected. However, the success rate has been pretty good, led by last year's pick by the Broncos, Ryan Clady. This draft has two underclassmen destined for the first round, Andre Smith and Eben Britton. Here's the list teams have to look at if they are wondering about a junior (or redshirt sophomore) offensive lineman: Ryan Clady, Brandon Albert, Shawn Andrews, Chris Spencer, Jeff Faine, John Tait, Damien Woody, Kwame Harris and Kenyatta Walker. Keep in mind that offensive linemen usually stay in school for four seasons, but we will start seeing more and more consider coming out early in the next few years.

A general manager's take: "You can hide or help a lineman early in his career, and the two kids this year have the skills to play early."

Risk grade: 7

Tight end

it is too bad that there are no underclassmen tight ends graded for the first round because this has been a more successful selection than most would believe. Here are the underclassmen tight ends taken over the past 10 years: Greg Olsen, Vernon Davis, Heath Miller, Kellen Winslow, Dallas Clark, Jeremy Shockey, Jerramy Stevens, Todd Heap and Bubba Franks. Four of these guys were from the University of Miami.

Defensive end

This has been a limited group over the past 10 years, and it has been hit-or-miss. This year, Everette Brown and Aaron Maybin are the candidates, and one or both might wind up as outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense. If they go to a 4-3 team, however, there's some history in the first round. On a positive note, Mario Williams, Julius Peppers and Jevon Kearse. On a questionable note, Jarvis Moss, Derrick Harvey, Jamaal Anderson, Kenechi Udeze, Charles Grant and Justin Smith. The best of the group have size and speed, something Brown and Maybin don't truly possess.

A general manager's take: "One-dimensional speed-rusher types struggle in the NFL, and until these two young kids develop, they could be invisible on the field."

Risk grade: 4 as DE, 6 as OLB

Defensive tackle

There are no junior tackles with a first-round grade and there hasn't been a junior tackle selected in the first round since 2006, when the Ravens took Haloti Ngata.


The top-ranked backers are seniors and that's a good thing if you think about Vernon Gholston last year, or even Andy Katzenmoyer back in 1999. But there have also been plenty of success stories, when you consider Jerod Mayo, Jon Beason, Lawrence Timmons, Ernie Sims, Shawne Merriman and Terrell Suggs.


This looks like a year that no junior (or redshirt sophomore) safeties will be selected in the first round, but the ones that have been selected have done well. Kenny Phillips, Reggie Nelson, Donte Whitner, Thomas Davis, Sean Taylor and Roy Williams were all underclassmen who were first-round picks.


This is a very popular position to find underclassmen selected. In fact, 16 underclassmen cornerbacks have been picked since 1999. This year, Vontae Davis and possibly D.J. Moore make it to the first round, but it is conceivable neither one hears his name called until the second round. History says this can be a fertile area to take a chance on an underclassman, but it can be a disaster as well. Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Johnathan Joseph, Champ Bailey and Nate Clements were all taken in the first round. But, so were Pacman Jones, Willie Middlebrooks and Ahmad Carroll.

A general manager's take: "If either one actually goes remains to be seen, but neither one is in the class of Bailey, Revis or Clements. They will struggle."

Risk grade: 2

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