2017 NFL Draft: Underclassmen Who Should Not Have Declared Early

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistJanuary 17, 2017

2017 NFL Draft: Underclassmen Who Should Not Have Declared Early

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    Joe Skipper/Associated Press

    The NFL draft's deadline for early declarations is officially here. Though underclassmen have to report to the NFL by January 16, the official list of names won't be produced by the league until later this week.

    Still, there are little to no top-100 names where eligibility questions are up in the air. For the most part, just about anyone who you figure to be in three-round mock drafts from now until April have already stated their intention as professionals.

    With that in mind, there are plenty of players who look to get lost in the shuffle of this class, despite declaring early. We'll overview the five prospects who could have used an extra year in school the most, either to develop their skills or show consistency on or off the field.

    These players, who were all slated to be members of the 2018 draft class, are now knee-deep into the 2017 cycle. As you read through mock drafts this winter, these names won't be included in the first round, but they should make it on to NFL rosters.

Roderick Johnson, OT, Florida State

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The offensive line is a lot like the secondary, in that in the NFL, a unit is only as strong as its weakest unit. If one pass-rusher is let into the backfield, he's getting to the quarterback. If one receiver is left open, he's getting the ball.

    Because of that, these positions of prevention, where the best thing that can happen is not being noticed, have a high value on consistency. Roderick Johnson of Florida State has been far from that, but the junior will be drafted in April 2017.

    Johnson has won the ACC's Jacobs Blocking Trophy in back-to-back seasons, claiming he's the conference's top offensive lineman, but he's been far from consistent, allowing 17 pressures each season over those two years, according to CFB Film Room.

    Johnson has been twisted and turned by several ACC edge defenders, though he is going to be an incredibly young 21 years of age when he signs his first NFL contract. A long, young pass-blocker who needs some refinement sounds like a good idea, but you only have to look at cross-state rival Miami to see a player with the same background who has largely failed in his NFL career: the New York Giants' Ereck Flowers.

    Flowers had the same issues coming out of Miami as a junior, and he was still the ninth overall pick of the 2015 NFL draft. This year, Flowers was the 61st-ranked offensive tackle, out of 76 possible bookends, and was the second-worst 16-game starter at left tackle behind just Tampa Bay's Donovan Smith, per Pro Football Focus.

    Consistency matters, and Johnson could have to prove he can hang in that aspect.

Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    What has Brad Kaaya accomplished in college football? In the draft cycle, you often hear about how certain quarterbacks are "winners," as they're given credit for their team's victories.

    You don't even have to dig deep into the history of how the draft is covered to find evidence of that. Tim Tebow was a "winner" coming out of Florida, and Jameis Winston's 27-1 record with Florida State was often cited in the Winston vs. Marcus Mariota debates heading in to the 2015 draft.

    Kaaya, unlike those two Sunshine State passers, had just an average college career in terms of wins, going 13-11 in the Atlantic Coastal Conference, never finishing more than one game over .500 in his career with the Miami Hurricanes.

    According to NFL Draft Scout, Kaaya is measuring in the 6'3" range, at 210 pounds and runs a 4.84-second 40-yard dash. Kaaya, who isn't as mobile as many of the college passers in recent drafts, had a total of minus-386 rushing yards and just four touchdowns on the ground in 38 college games. Nothing about him stands out physically, including his arm.

    He must be incredibly accurate, if he's not large, mobile, strong-armed or a winner then, right? There were conversations about new Miami head coach, Mark Richt, "fixing" Kaaya heading in to this season, as the third-year junior had yet to meet the expectations that many had set out for his future when he took over as the Canes' top passer as a true freshman.

    At the ACC media day, per NFL.com's Chase Goodbread, Kaaya even went as far as to say Richt's pro offense, which Richt had previously run at Georgia under the likes of Matthew Stafford and Aaron Murray, helped his development. Unfortunately, on the field, Kaaya only completed 0.8 percent more of his passes and threw for 0.1 more yards per attempt in 2016 compared to his 2015 season that needed "fixing."

    If you look up any mock draft, you'd be hard-pressed to find Kaaya included in it. The Hurricane performs like a Day 3 selection, which is incredibly concerning considering the fact his rookie deal will be a locked in a four-year contract, should he stick with a team for the full extent of it.

Al-Quadin Muhammad, EDGE, Miami

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    Joe Skipper/Associated Press

    Unlike Kaaya, Al-Quadin Muhammad didn't have the opportunity to return to the University of Miami for a 2017 season or even a 2016 season, for that matter. Muhammad was dismissed from the Hurricanes' roster after an NCAA investigation showed he violated their rules by receiving benefits from a car rental service, and according to Christy Cabrera Chirinos of the Miami Sun-Sentinel, Muhammad was supposed to play for Hampton, an FCS program, in 2016.

    There is no record of Muhammad on Hampton's 2016 roster or on its season's stat sheet. It wasn't until Zach Seybert of Sports Agent Blog reported Muhammad signed with super agent Drew Rosenhaus that his name once again appeared on draft radars. Muhammad would have been a redshirt junior this season, so he's four years removed from high school with two years of game-day experience.

    Per NFL Draft Scout, he's 6'3", 250 pounds and runs a 4.76-second 40-yard dash. That's just about checks out with his movement skills, which were Randy Gregory-like in 2015.

    The biggest question Muhammad will have to face isn't the fact he was dismissed from Miami, but that he will have gone about 20 months without playing a football game between when he last played for the Hurricanes and if he suits up Week 1 for an NFL team.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Muhammad played the second-most snaps defensively, only behind cornerback Corn Elder, for the 2015 team. He also had the fourth-best Pro Football Focus grade overall for an ACC edge defender in this class in 2015, including the second-best run-defense grade.

    Still, he will essentially be living and dying off his combine and pro day based off his lack of film any time recently. Had Muhammad torn up against FCS competition, like Noah Spence did when he transferred out of Ohio State, leading to his selection in the second round of last year's draft, this decision would have been a lot more sound.

Garrett Sickels, EDGE, Penn State

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    Chris Knight/Associated Press

    In 33 career games at Penn State, Garrett Sickels recorded just 11.5 sacks in his college football career. According to Pro Football Focus, Sickels was the 36th-ranked edge defender in terms of pass rushing in 2016 in FBS football.

    According to NFL Draft Scout, Sickels is 6'3", 250 pounds and runs a 4.79-second 40-yard dash, but when watching his games at Penn State and trying to evaluate his athleticism, he doesn't look like anything close to a plus athlete. He's a former Scout.com 4-star recruit, so it makes sense why he'd want to declare as a redshirt junior, but his fit with an NFL team is a bit of a blur.

    He's not big enough to play as a 5-technique type of 3-4 defensive end. He's not nearly athletic enough to hang as an NFL active-roster 4-3 defensive end. This was a player who struggled to get home against Big Ten offensive tackles, as the conference's official site only credited him with just three "solo" sacks on the season.

    Watching the Nittany Lions, Evan Schwan, who is currently NFL Draft Scout's 26th-ranked senior defensive end, likely has a better shot to land on an NFL roster than Sickels. Overall, the junior just doesn't check any major box heading into the draft cycle, which is going to make it an uphill battle for him to hear his name heard on draft day.

Jerod Evans, QB, Virginia Tech

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    The most surprising declaration in this quarterback category, of the half-dozen underclassmen who left school early, was Jerod Evans of Virginia Tech. Evans began his college football career at the Air Force Academy, where he sustained an injury, leading to his transfer to Trinity Valley Community College in his native Texas.

    After two years at Trinity Valley, he transferred to Virginia Tech, under new head coach Justin Fuentes, who had just molded Paxton Lynch into a first-round pick when they were at Memphis. As a junior college prospect, Scout.com had Evans graded out as a 4-star recruit—a top-10 junior college prospect in all of America in the 2016 class.

    Evans has similar arm talent to Logan Thomas, who was a fourth-round pick in 2014 after playing out his career with the Hookies. Evans moves better athletically, which shouldn't be surprising for a quarterback who was once recruited to play in Air Force's option offense.

    The quarterback's biggest issue, though, is his accuracy. In many spread schemes, quarterbacks often throw the ball high, due to the mechanics of the "see it, throw it" nature of college football. It's hard to rewire that style of play. Cam Newton, who was drafted in 2011 and has won an NFL MVP award, still has some issues with those types of throws, which stem from his run of spread offenses at the University of Florida, Blinn Community College and Auburn University.

    Evans had some bad overthrows, but there's no chance the NFL skips over him on draft day, simply because of the raw tools he has. Unfortunately, he needs a lot of work, and his athleticism might get the gears turning of whichever offensive coordinator he falls into the hands of.

    Thomas is now a tight end with the Buffalo Bills, his fifth team in three NFL seasons. Evans could be on that path eventually, if someone in the room convinces themselves that they "only saw him do it for one season" at Virginia Tech.


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