In a crowded draft class of tight ends, USC's Xavier Grimble could have benefited from another season in college.
The outcome of the 2014 NFL draft will inevitably be disappointing for some of the underclassmen who have declared for early entry into this year’s class.
Though the NFL’s official list of early entrants will not be released until Sunday, unofficial lists compiled by SB Nation and CBS Sports have counted more than 95 players who are forgoing at least one season of college football eligibility in order to turn pro.
With only 73 early entrants in last year’s draft class, 17 underclassmen went undrafted, according to SB Nation. With a list nearing triple digits for the 2014 draft, there is not going to be room for all of them among this year’s 256 selections.
There are many different reasons why a college football player might have decided to declare for this year’s draft early. While many do so with the expectation they will be early-round draft selections, some get pushed to declare early for financial, academic or other off-field reasons.
Still, the whopping inflation suggests that the allure of playing in the NFL is as strong as it has ever been.
The decision to declare early could backfire for some players. While each of them decided that moving on to the NFL was the correct move for their futures, their draft stocks fall short of where they might have been with another year to improve.
There have been an average of just under 23 running backs selected in each of the last five NFL drafts. With at least 18 underclassmen running backs declared this year, many running backs could free-fall down into the late rounds or potentially out of the draft altogether.
After surprisingly declaring on Wednesday, California’s Brendan Bigelow is one such running back on the fringe.
Bigelow is a dynamic athlete with big-play ability as a running back, receiver and return specialist. However, the third-year junior did not help his draft stock much this season with just 425 rushing yards and 700 all-purpose yards.
A role player at California, Bigelow is going to have to fight his way onto an NFL roster as a third-down back and special teams contributor to make it in the league. The undersized (5’10”, 180 pounds) speedster is unlikely to be selected earlier than the sixth round this year. He would have had a much better chance with a productive senior season.
That said, Bigelow was one of five California players who opted to go pro early this year, a clear sign of concern regarding the direction of a program that won just one game in its first season under head coach Sonny Dykes.
While redshirt sophomore tight end Richard Rodgers should at least be a solid mid-round pick, three California defensive prospects—defensive tackle Viliami Moala, linebacker Khairi Fortt and cornerback Kameron Jackson—could all very well go undrafted after leaving school early.
While Brendan Bigelow’s pure upside might be enough to get him drafted despite his lack of production and size, the same might not be true for UAB’s Darrin Reaves, a surprising draft entrant who could be shuffled out of a deep draft at his position.
Reaves has not done much—aside from his surprising decision to leave school—to stand out among a plethora of options.
The third-year junior had 1,965 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns between his final two seasons and is a tough downhill runner. That said, there are many similar options in this year’s draft class who have better burst, speed, elusiveness and/or power.
Reaves’ decision was made based on his expectation to get drafted. Reaves’ father told Drew Champlin of AL.com that his son received a fourth-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Committee.
The committee might be onto an interest from the NFL unseen by the mainstream draft media. However, it more likely might be an overestimation of his talent combined with underestimating the number of running backs who ultimately declared.
If Reaves ends up being a fourth-round selection, his decision to declare will look smart, but he looks to be on the draft bubbles as of now.
Other early-entrant running backs at risk of going undrafted include San Diego State’s Adam Muema, Notre Dame’s George Atkinson III and Syracuse’s Jerome Smith.
It is easy to see why any Alabama player would want to get to the NFL as quickly as possible, considering that the Crimson Tide have had 22 players, including 11 first-rounders, selected in the past three drafts.
Declaring for the draft, however, might not have been the right decision for third-year junior defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan. While some of his teammates are projected first-round picks, he is likely to only be a Day 3 draft pick.
A 6’4”, 290-pound defensive end with a solid combination of strength and quickness, Pagan has good upside for teams that run 3-4 defensive schemes.
That said, he was solid, but far from outstanding, in his first year as a starter on the Crimson Tide defensive line. His pedestrian junior season might leave teams wondering how well Pagan can perform outside of the Alabama defense, a unit that consistently had the advantage in talent over its offensive opponents.
Pagan is reportedly not the only projected Day 3 pick to be entering the draft from Alabama’s defense.
Safety Vinnie Sunseri, who missed the final six games of the 2013 season with a torn ACL, is also said to be entering the draft, according to Marq Burnett of the Anniston Star. However, neither Sunseri nor Alabama had confirmed his declaration as of 5 a.m. ET Thursday.
No position is sending more early entrants to this year's draft than at wide receiver. With 19 underclassmen in the mix, the talent volume could cause projected mid-round picks, like Indiana’s Cody Latimer, to plummet down draft boards.
Latimer is a solid wideout with the skill set to be a productive NFL pass-catcher. He is a long strider with good size (6’3”, 215 lbs). He glides to the ball, naturally makes grabs in his hands and can make plays against even tight coverage.
His game could be considered underwhelming, however, when compared to most of the other receivers who are making early moves to professional football.
Latimer does not exhibit great speed or quickness, and could struggle to separate at the next level. He is not going to make many defenders miss in the open field.
Latimer's game at the next level will likely be limited to playing as an intermediate possession receiver. His production and technically sound game make him worth a Day 3 draft pick, but how early he goes could largely depend on how quickly other receivers—which could be as many as 15 to 20 ahead of him—come off the board.
While Cody Latimer should at least be among those players drafted among this year’s bevy of wideouts, some of the other lower-tier underclassman receivers might not be so lucky.
New Mexico State’s Austin Franklin is among those prospects at risk, and the most likely among them to have benefited from another year in college.
The Aggies’ leading receiver each of the past two seasons, Franklin is a good athlete who has the speed, quick route breaks and leaping ability to be a playmaker at the next level.
Franklin’s junior season was not as good as it could have been, however, because he was suspended for the first four games due to academic issues. He will also have to overcome subpar size (6’1”, 184 pounds), a challenge that even NMSU head coach Doug Martin acknowledged to Teddy Feinberg of the Las Cruces Sun-News.
"When you're at Austin's size as a wide receiver, you need to really be able to return punts, which he was never really able to do,” Martin told Feinberg.
Franklin has enough upside to warrant a late-round draft pick, but that might not be enough in such a deep wide receiver draft class. Other early entrants at the position who are at risk of going undrafted include Oklahoma State’s Josh Stewart, Ball State’s Willie Snead and Vanderbilt’s Chris Boyd.
Tight end is another position with an unusually high number of early entrants in this year’s draft. Considering that it is a position that has averaged only slightly more than 16 draft picks in the last five years, it is unlikely that all 11 underclassmen tight ends who have entered the draft pool will actually have their names called.
Some of those tight ends’ decisions were likely made because of age (Utah’s Jake Murphy, New Haven’s Mike Flacco) or off-field issues (McNeese State’s Nic Jacobs, Tennessee State’s A.C. Leonard). One whose decision really could backfire, however, is USC fourth-year junior Xavier Grimble.
Listed at 6’5” and 250 pounds by USC’s athletics website, Grimble is a big target over the middle and a solid blocker. He is an effective red-zone receiving weapon and a solid run-blocker who can drive opponents off the line and pick up blocks.
Grimble doesn’t have the same dynamic athleticism, however, as the top tight ends in this draft class. While he is reliable and a strong pass-catcher, he struggles to separate downfield and does not project to be a big-play threat at the next level.
Though Grimble was unlikely to emerge as an early-round pick due to his athletic limitations, he could have bolstered his draft stock steadily into the middle rounds with a productive senior season under new USC head coach Steve Sarkisian.
That coaching change, of course, might have influenced Grimble’s decision to leave school. He was one of five Trojans to declare this year. Among the others, center Marcus Martin and defensive lineman George Uko also could have greatly benefited from another year of college football.
Still, the tight end who has never had more than 29 catches or 316 receiving yards in a season is the one among them who stands the strongest chance of going undrafted.
Some players, such as Darrin Reaves, might have gotten inaccurate advice in making their decisions to declare for the NFL draft. Bethune-Cookman safety Nick Addison, on the other hand, chose to go against the advice that he received.
A third-year junior, Addison is a two-time all-MEAC performer who has been a standout in Bethune-Cookman’s secondary. He is going to have to make a huge impression in his pre-draft workouts, however, to get selected.
Addison received a “sixth, seventh round or free agent” grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Committee, according to Brent Woronoff of the Daytona Beach News-Journal. Addison, who was also advised by his coaches to stay for his senior season, told Woronoff he felt it was time for him to take the next step:
My coaches really didn’t give me the feedback I was looking for. But I thought why not shake things up and change some minds.
In such a deep class of underclassmen, Addison is one of the biggest long shots to get his name called.
He isn’t the only safety to declare who might get left out among the draft selections. Jacksonville State’s Pierre Warren and Western Kentucky’s Jonathan Dowling are also likely to be late-round picks at best, or go undrafted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.