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June 2012
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NFL teams face tougher challenge

McClatchy Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS - Cordarrelle Patterson, Xavier Rhodes and Sharrif Floyd, first-round picks by the Minnesota Vikings last year, were three of 73 non-seniors who left college early to enter the 2013 NFL draft.

Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd nearly made it 74.

Boyd was convinced he would leave college after his Chick-fil-A Bowl MVP performance in a victory over LSU as a junior. Instead of reacting to his emotions, Boyd evaluated his situation over the next month and opted to return for his senior season.

"I felt like I could've made a move last year, but at the same time I wanted to go back and make sure I was fully ready to make that leap," Boyd said.

His decision to return to school is a rarity among top college football players now. While Boyd prepares for the NFL, so will a record number of underclassmen - 98 in all - who have declared for the draft.

That number creates a deep draft class for 2014, but also some players who might be ill-equipped for the NFL. Teams will have a chance to sort through the eligible players at the NFL combine.

Extra seasoning - Boyd's statistics in 2013 were similar to his stats from 2012, but his draft stock likely dropped thanks to poor performances in big games and a rough Senior Bowl practice week. He definitely will be drafted after Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Texas A & M quarterback Johnny Manziel and UCF quarterback Blake Bortles, all non-seniors.

But Boyd accomplished a few team and individual goals in his final season and felt he matured on the field.

The Tigers finished the season 11-2 and defeated Ohio State in the Orange Bowl.

"I understand defenses a little bit more," Boyd said. "I feel like I was able to operate the system better at Clemson. I just wanted to take what I learned from there and just apply it here."

Boyd met with many NFL teams at the Senior Bowl in January, and hopes to impress more of them at the combine. Also looking to impress will be the non-seniors who are having their coming-out parties here. Of the 98 who are leaving college early, 86 were invited to the combine. Of the 73 underclassmen who declared early last year, 20 were picked on Day 3 (rounds 4-7) and 19 went undrafted.

Following the NBA - "I think more and more, we're getting the basketball mentality in football that, 'I can go right from high school to the NBA,'" Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "More parents, more players are going to college with the idea that I'm going to be there for three years and then I'm going to get out as fast as I can and get to the NFL."

Saban supports underclassmen that declare early for the draft if they're potential first-round choices. Otherwise, he thinks players should return to school to get their degree and develop as a senior to enhance their draft status.

Only four of the 98 non-seniors have graduated, including Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard and Arizona State linebacker Carl Bradford.

"If I didn't graduate, I definitely would've been back," Bradford said. "But I felt like getting a degree and doing that part is a major part of college and your life. I've seen maybe a handful of them that came out and earned their degrees but that was one of the main reasons why I came out as a junior."

Lots of depth - Yet those that think this is a problem don't have a solution at the moment, not even Saban. He believes it begins when players receive unprecedented attention in high school and carry those expectations with them up the ranks.

All teams can do is evaluate the players, and they all seem thankful to receive an extra two weeks with the draft pushed back to May this year.

"I think it's as deep of a draft class as I've ever seen, and a lot of it has to do with all the juniors coming out," Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said. "There's a lot of depth at a lot of positions."

The interviews at the NFL combine will be an important opportunity for teams to interact with the underclassmen; Spielman said the Vikings hope to have one of their representatives "get in front of" each of the more than 300 players here.

And for Boyd, interviewing should be a strong point.

"I didn't accomplish everything I wanted to as a player (at Clemson) but at the same time I grew that much more," Boyd said. "Anytime you have room for growing while you're in college, you definitely got to take advantage of it before you make that next leap."

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