8 NFL Rookies That Made a Major Mistake Declaring for the Draft

Andrew GardaFeatured ColumnistMay 20, 2014

8 NFL Rookies That Made a Major Mistake Declaring for the Draft

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    Mary Ann Chastain/Associated Press

    This year saw a record 95 underclassmen declare for the NFL draft, per AL.com's Mike Herndon, and to nobody's surprise, many were left looking for work post-draft.

    There has been a lot of arguing about who is at fault—most of it silly and petty—but whatever the reason, a lot of young men seem to have made some bad decisions.

    Especially this year when there were so many deep positions to start with. Leaving school early just set a lot of people up to be disappointed.

    There are a lot of reasons why they leave—family issues, money issues, an agent's voice in their ear or pressure from friends and family.

    For some of them it works out, but for many of them, this year it just didn't.

    Who might have made a big mistake declaring for the draft early?

    Here are eight guys who I think fit the bill. I hope they all prove me wrong, but the odds for many of them are high that they won't.

James Wilder Jr., RB, Florida State

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    James Wilder Jr. arrived at Florida State as a 5-star recruit but never lived up to the billing. He was hurt multiple times and had off-field issues, including a felony charge which resulted in suspension from the team, per Brandan Sonnone of the Orlando Sentinel.

    On top of that, Wilder never carried the full load, runs too upright, gets caught from behind and takes too many big hits.

    Yet he decided to leave early.

    Wilder went undrafted, eventually being signed by the Cincinnati Bengals. It's going to be awfully hard to make the roster, though, as there are six running backs ahead of him, including second-round pick Jeremy Hill and highly productive veterans Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, per Ourlads.com.

    Another year in college and perhaps he could have proven he can be healthy, that he can make better off-field decisions and maybe carry a heavier load.

    Instead he left early and could be looking for other employment after the summer.

Josh Stewart, WR, Oklahoma State

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Maybe it wasn't obvious by the time underclassmen had to declare, but by now you've heard about how the wide receiver class was absolutely stacked this draft season.

    So it was likely a bad decision for a guy to come out if he was undersized and not terribly fast, like Oklahoma's Josh Stewart.

    Now, Stewart had a tremendous 2013, leading his team with 60 catches for 703 yards and three touchdowns, and an even better 2012, per ESPN.com. So there is production, but we know that college production doesn't always equal pro production.

    Stewart has issues getting off the jam (in part because he's short and thin), didn't run a full route tree in college and doesn't bring any special playmaking ability to the table.

    Even as a returner, he's OK, not outstanding.

    After going undrafted, Stewart signed with the Tennessee Titans, per NEPatriotsdraft.com. The good news is, they need a solid kick and punt returner. The bad news is, they have Dexter McCluster as a potential answer to that riddle and along with McCluster, there are a dozen other receivers on the roster besides Stewart.

    It's going to be hard to stick with that many other receivers in camp.

Brandon Coleman, WR, Rutgers

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    Rutgers' Brandon Coleman is a big, fast wide receiver—the type of guy who you would think might attract attention as a red-zone receiver.

    So why did he go undrafted?

    Well, a look at his tape reveals a player who doesn't use his size to his advantage. He isn't all that tough or physical and doesn't bang defensive backs around the way you want to see with someone his size.

    Coleman also isn't explosive. While he has good speed overall, he's not blowing by defensive backs at the line of scrimmage. Finally, Coleman lets too many balls get to his body. In traffic or while battling with NFL-level defensive backs, that means he's not making the catch nine times out of 10.

    It didn't help that his production disappeared this past season.

    Had Coleman stayed another year, he might have been able to refine his game enough to be drafted. Declaring this season meant he was going up against guys who were much more polished and versatile.

    He was signed by the Saints, but there are a ton of solid receivers there already, roster per Ourlads.com. At best, he might catch on as a practice squad player. At worst, he could end up bouncing around the NFL until either his game catches up with his size, or he disappears.

George Atkinson III, RB, Notre Dame

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    It's really hard to fathom why Notre Dame running back George Atkinson III left college early.

    His production wasn't special, his measurables weren't anything to write home about beyond a 4.48 40-time at the combine, per NFL.com, and he never held featured back duties for the Irish during the time he was there.

    Atkinson has no real wiggle to his game and is a straight-line runner who doesn't catch the ball much and doesn't slow down when he cuts.

    As he slipped down the depth chart before last season, it could be he figured that if he waited another year the iron wouldn't be any hotter.

    Currently on the roster with the Oakland Raiders, per NEPatriotsdraft.com, Atkinson could catch onto a spot on the practice squad—or perhaps if there is an injury to the five backs in front of him on the main roster, per Ourlads.com.

    Still, had he stayed in school and perhaps overcome the backs in front of him, teams might have looked more favorably upon him.

Pierre Warren, FS, Jacksonville State

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    While it isn't steep as it used to be, the hill small school prospects have to climb can still be tough to get up.

    Especially when your game doesn't exactly call out for attention.

    Teams might have been curious because Jacksonville State safety Pierre Warren nabbed five interceptions his junior year, but once you see the tape, you can tell he's not a great tackler, avoids contact at times, gets baited into some poor decisions by the quarterback and tested average in most measurables.

    Warren got signed by the New Orleans Saints as a priority street free agent as a free safety. The good news is he only has two players ahead of him on the depth chart, per Ourlands.com.

    The bad news is that one of them is Jairus Byrd, who just signed a huge contract and isn't going anywhere. There are also four players listed at strong safety, one of which was drafted in the fifth round.

    It's going to be a struggle to make the roster.

    Maybe another year could have allowed Warren to refine his game and helped get his game where it needed to be to have a better shot at a career as a pro.

Jeoffrey Pagan, DT, Alabama

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Aside from sharing a (differently spelled) first name with the worst king in Westeros since Aerys Targaryen, Alabama defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan was a solid but unspectacular player in college.

    Rather than try to improve his resume at Alabama, Pagan left school early. The problem was that he never put the sort of stats on the board that allow a player to stand out—especially at an SEC powerhouse like Alabama. Part of that was the tremendous number of great defenders with the Crimson Tide but some of it was because he only started for one year.

    While he was drafted in the sixth round by the Houston Texans, he's going to have a hard time standing out among the multitude of talented defensive linemen on the roster, per Ourlads.com.

    Maybe staying wouldn't have changed anything, but had he remained for another season of SEC games at Bryant-Denny Stadium, Pagan could have improved his game and had more for teams to look at.

Willie Snead, WR, Ball State

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    Ball State's Willie Snead was incredibly productive the last two seasons in college, topping 1,000 yards in 2012 and more than 1,500 yards in 2013.

    So why should he have waited?

    Well, first of all because he lacks the speed and explosion to get past coverage at the NFL level. Because he can't get separation easily, too many of his catches are contested. While he was able to muscle the ball away from defenders in the MAC, he's going to have some issues doing the same against faster, longer and stronger defensive backs in the NFL.

    All that, coupled with the fact that this wide receiver class was incredibly deep, stacked the odds against Snead.

    He's getting a chance with the Cleveland Browns, though he is going to have to wade through a group of 11 other receivers not including Josh Gordon, who may be suspended for the year.

    It's going to be hard to stand out from the crowd given his limitations. Another year at school might have refined his game and helped him avoid the receiver glut we saw this year.

Jerome Smith, RB Syracuse

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Jerome Smith was a very productive back for Syracuse, totaling 2,085 yards over the course of the 2012 and 2013 college seasons.

    That he did it on 427 carries gave teams pause as that's a huge workload for a collegiate back over two years.

    More critically, Smith lacks any real outstanding qualities as a running back. While he shows good vision and can run hard between the tackles, he isn't very quick nor fast—he gets caught from behind too often.

    Smith also has a hard time creating yardage when the protection isn't just right—he's not creating any yards like the best backs do. He takes what he gets from his line and tends to be overwhelmed a bit when there isn't a big opening.

    It's possible he can be taught to overcome this—he has shown good vision, and that's half the battle. It's also possible his pass protection and receiving skills can be improved as well.

    The problem is finding a team who will spend significant time on getting him better—whereas he could have worked on all that at Syracuse for another year.

    Smith was signed by the Atlanta Falcons, per NEPatriotsdraft.com, and he will get his chance in OTAs and—hopefully—camp. However, he's buried behind five other backs, per Ourlads.com, including fourth-round pick Devonta Freeman.

    It's a heck of a hill to climb for a back with as much work to be done as Smith has.