Home > Draft, NFL > NFL Draft 2011: Senior Bowl Reaction and Underclassman Update

NFL Draft 2011: Senior Bowl Reaction and Underclassman Update

This is a little late for me to post a senior bowl reaction, so we’ll consider this more of a senior bowl review, since I’m not reacting to stuff I saw, instead, I wanted to speak on the strength of a senior class coming off a year where the 2010 NFL Draft class was probably the strongest in the last five years, and the rookies did not disappoint.

This year’s NFL Draft class, like pretty much every other class, is littered with names of underclassmen at the top.  For example, here are the top ten overall rankings at NFL Draft Scout at the current moment:

  1. Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
  2. Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
  3. Da’Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson
  4. A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
  5. Marcell Dareus, DE/DT, Alabama
  6. Robert Quinn, DE/OLB, North Carolina
  7. Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M
  8. Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska
  9. Julio Jones, WR, Alabama
  10. Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
  11. Aldon Smith, DE/OLB, Missouri

There are two four year college players in that group: seniors Von Miller, and Prince Amukamara.  Amukamara didn’t play at the senior bowl, leaving Von Miller there by himself to wow scouts.

This isn’t an abnormal spread of underclassmen to seniors at the top of the draft, but it’s also why highly drafted seniors have a propensity to overachieve their draft status compared to underclass counterparts.  There are, undoubtedly, some NFL studs among the 9 underclassmen who are expected to go in the top fifteen picks.  But the dearth of elite talent at this year’s senior bowl is a good thing for the pocketbooks of Amukamara, Miller, and of Cal DE Cameron Jordan, who are all steals by the 10th pick in the draft, as the best seniors in this class.

Then there’s the fallacy of 9 of the top 11 prospects being underclassmen.  If, in five years, we look back at this draft class, it’s unlikely that we would say that 9 of the best 11 players from the class were underclassmen.  It’s never occurred that way.  But we do know that some of the highly ranked underclassmen will be among the very best players in the class, so based on that and a proper understanding of risk principles, underclass-heavy rankings make sense, historically.

For an illustration, here’s a linked version of Mel Kiper’s Big Board for the 2007 draft.  He had 6 underclassmen in his top 10, and this was an early board, so it didn’t account for Alan Branch’s deep fall after his pro day (Branch quietly had his best pro season in 2010, quietly because the Cardinals were horrible), a fall that took him into the second round.  8 of the first 15 picks in the 2007 draft were underclassmen.  The stars in this draft were in that group: Calvin Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Lawrence Timmons, and Darrelle Revis were all underclassmen, as was Marshawn Lynch (who has, believe it or not, been elected to a pro bowl), Jammal Anderson, JaMarcus Russell, Justin Harrell, Jarvis Moss, and Ted Ginn Jr.  The highly drafted seniors were a much better bet.  Joe Thomas is a many-time pro bowler, as is Patrick Willis and Leon Hall.  LaRon Landry had a bumpy early career, but should be a pro bowler before long.  Gaines Adams was probably underrated in his time with the Bucs, and was a shrewed acquisition by the Bears, but passed away tragically at time last year.  Amobi Okoye’s development has been slow, but he’s still very young as he approaches the last year of his contract.

The 2007 draft is an excellent example of the reason why seniors tend to be properly valued: the ones in the draft that were highly rated and didn’t develop (S Reggie Nelson and QB Brady Quinn) dropped in the draft as underclassmen were picked ahead of them.  But the underclassmen that went with the first two picks (Calvin Johnson and JaMarcus Russell) have been slow to meet expectations in Johnson’s case, and are out of the league in Russell’s case.  Johnson, the second overall pick, has had a very similar career to Dwayne Bowe, the 23rd overall pick.

But since at least 6, and probably 7 or 8, of the top 10 picks in this draft class will be underclassmen, it’s worth pointing out that the biggest busts of this draft class are likely to come from this group.  To me, one of the most interesting comments made by the crew calling the Senior Bowl was Mike Mayock’s assertion that he had never seen so much talent on the lines at the senior bowl (as well as his praise for all 6 QBs at the game), because when I look at the underclassmen at the top of the draft, my biggest concern is for the linemen, particularly on the defensive side.

I believe in AJ Green, I believe in Patrick Peterson, I believe in Marcell Dareus, and I believe in Blaine Gabbert.  But I’m not a believer in some of the other highly rated defensive linemen: Nick Fairley, Da’Quan Bowers, and in particular, Robert Quinn.  Those three are among the highest rated players in the draft this year, but I wouldn’t take them over defensive front players who dominated the senior bowl such as Cameron Jordan and Von Miller.  Fairley and Bowers are both going to end up in the top ten, and one of the two could go first overall, but both were not highly rated prior to this year, and had their share of quiet moments this season.  Quinn didn’t even play this year, which should have depressed his value, but apparently he’s still being looked at as a top ten pick, which is scary.

In this draft, I feel like the 8-10 range would be a bad place to select.  Or at least it would, if all the teams had perfect information.  However, since Bowers and Fairley can be easily projected as top six selections, there are going to be good players around at the ninth and tenth picks for the Cowboys and Redskins to select.

Lets try to project the top five picks: Fairley (CAR), Miller (DEN), Gabbert (BUF), Bowers (CIN), Peterson (ARI).  We also then have a situation where Cleveland gets a guy near or at the top of their board (Green).  San Francisco and Tennessee can pick the direction of the draft at that point.  SF can go anywhere, but lets say they go consistent with value (over need for a passer), and take Dareus.  Tennessee would not be expected to take a QB anyway despite a need.  Their primary need is linebacker help, but probably can’t find that help here.  We’ll give them Jordan to pair with last year’s first round pick, Derrick Morgan, on the pass rush.

Dallas still has Amukamara available at no. 9, which is a nice pick given their CB concerns.  That’s three seniors and six underclassmen in the top 9 picks.  This would give Washington the first difficult pick of the draft, having to choose between a few QBs, a pair of top rated defensive underclassmen (Robert Quinn, Aldon Smith), and a highly rated WR (Julio Jones).  Cam Newton may be the consensus pick there, but Newton and Jones both have the same problem in my mind for the Redskins: you’re getting second day (2nd/3rd round) value for a top ten pick.  For the Redskins, this would be a tough pick.

Fortunately for the Redskins, it’s highly unlikely that they won’t have a shot at any of the nine players in this mini-mock, and they’re probably sitting very pretty at no. 10.  It’s a little bit dicier for teams like Houston, Minnesota, Detroit, and St. Louis, who pick below Washington, and might need to be a bit more aggressive to get a cream of the crop player.

It’s my prediction that there will be two or more busts in the top eight or ten picks, which isn’t normally worth noting, except that the top eight picks in last years draft all had nice rookie years.  We could see an unprecedented 75% hit rate in the 2010 first round.  Things don’t look so certain this year, and in particular, teams picking outside of the top 10 will seemingly be picking in a very uncompetitive environment, with exception to the available quarterbacks, who may start to generate a lot of trade interest if only Gabbert is gone after the 10th pick.

That may be the story of this year’s NFL draft: there will be a lot of new names called between picks 11 and 17, and the longitudinal grades of about 1/4 of the front offices in the NFL will depend on their performance in those selections.

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