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Understanding Underclassmen

Posted Feb 24, 2011

Teams have small window to learn about non-seniors

Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell takes part in the 2008 Scouting combine.


INDIANAPOLIS – Calais Campbell declared for the NFL draft after his junior year, and that meant the Campbell dossier for most teams was slim.

It wasn’t that they didn’t know about the defensive end from the University of Miami. But he didn’t dominate for the Hurricanes, and there were questions of where he’d fit in the NFL. When he got to the combine – still a first- or second-round prospect – everyone wanted to dissect him.

“I met with 27 teams which is more than most guys,” Campbell said in a text message. “The meetings were very important for me (because) it gave the teams a chance to get to know me.”

A total of 53 underclassmen are at the annual Scouting combine this season, each carrying with them a bit of the unknown. The seniors coming out have been scouted all season. Teams make trips to college campuses and talk to coaches and have at least an idea of what potential players are about.

The same can’t be said about those who declare before their eligibility is up. College coaches are loathe to talk about players they are hoping will stay in school. The learning curve before the draft for NFL teams is steeper for such players.

“We are just getting to know them,” Cardinals director of player personnel Steve Keim said. “Our window with the junior prospects is extremely small and the bad thing, as you have seen, 70 or 80 percent of the (draft’s) first three rounds are (usually) made up of underclassmen. That becomes difficult in a two-month, three-month span to learn about the junior prospects and then mesh how they fit against the senior prospects we already feel good about.”

That’s one of the reasons that, for instance, this year, it is difficult to get a handle on how the Cardinals evaluate top quarterback prospects like Auburn’s Cam Newton, Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett and Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert. Both are underclassmen who have yet to meet with teams. Watching video of their play has been done, but interaction – “It’s an opportunity to get knee-to-knee and eyeball-to-eyeball with these guys,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said – is crucial.

(That’s when Newton will be asked about things like his quote to Sports Illustrated: “I see myself not only as a football player, but an entertainer and icon.” Said the NFL Network’s Michael Lombardi Thursday, “Cam Newton is a very talented player … but he’s going to have to prove to NFL people he’s committed and willing to work hard. He’s really not an icon yet.”)

Many of the names at the top of the draft are underclassmen, like Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, Georgia receiver A.J. Green and LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson.

It isn’t just about the interviews. With teams unable to look into such players until they declared, key statistics like a 40-yard dash time or even height and weight have yet to be verified in many instances, leaving teams “working on rumors and estimates,” Cardinals general manager Rod Graves said, until official measurements are done.

Why a player is coming out also factors in – Campbell remembers it being his most frequently asked question. “It gave me a opportunity to explain my reasoning and gave the decision makers a chance to see if I was ready or not,” Campbell said.

In Campbell’s case, Keim said, meeting and talking with the player – and later, the staff at Miami – allowed them to feel comfortable the 6-foot-8 Campbell had both the work ethic and ability to put on some extra pounds to become the player the Cardinals envisioned.

That peace of mind allowed the team to feel good enough to make Campbell a second-round draft pick.

“You could see you could grow this player,” Keim said. “That was a sign for us there were big things to come.”
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