On Friday, the National Football League released the full list of players who had been granted special eligibility for the 2019 NFL Draft. There's a reasonable chance that the first player the Tampa Bay Buccaneers select in the opening round on April 25 will come from that list.
There were 103 players on the list distributed on Friday, all of whom had requested and been granted eligibility for the draft despite not yet finishing four years of college. The NFL requires that players be three years removed from high school before they can declare for the draft, so the list is largely juniors plus some redshirt sophomores. Another 32 players were also declared eligible because they had already earned their degrees.
Not all of those 135 players will be drafted, but the majority of them will hear their names called and some of them will be selected very, very early in the proceedings. Six of the 10 players taken in the top 10 of the 2018 draft were junior-eligibles or players who had already finished their degrees, including the first four: Baker Mayfield, Saquon Barkley, Sam Darnold and Denzel Ward. Nearly three-quarters of the players who achieved first-round status last year – 23 of 32 – came from one of those two lists.
That included the Buccaneers' first pick, Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea, who entered the draft after his junior season. In fact, half of Tampa Bay's Class of 2018 was made up of early entrants, with Vea joined by USC running back Ronald Jones (second round), Auburn cornerback Carlton Davis (second round) and Pitt safety Jordan Whitehead (fourth round).
Though it's not particularly surprising given the predominance of juniors and red-shirt sophomores in the first round, the Buccaneers have recently made a habit of going in that direction with their first pick. Four of their last five first-round picks have been early entrants: Vea, Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves in 2016, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston in 2015 and Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans. Winston is already the Buccaneers' all-time leader in touchdown passes and Evans is the franchise's career leader in receiving yards and touchdown receptions, and neither one has turned 26 yet.
There is notable talent at every position on this year's list of early entrants, but if the Buccaneers focus on a defensive lineman in the first round they'll be scouting a lot of juniors. There are quite a few linemen on the lists released on Friday who are considered potential first-round picks, including Ohio State's Nick Bosa and Dre'Mont Jones, Clemson's Clelin Ferrell and Dexter Lawrence, Michigan's Rashan Gary, Houston's Ed Oliver and Alabama's Quinnen Williams. On the other side of the trenches, Alabama tackle Jonah Williams and Oklahoma tackle Cody Ford figure to be coveted prospects.
Obviously, draft analysts play close attention to the quarterbacks who choose to enter the draft early, and that's significant to teams picking in the top 10 of the first round whether or not they're in the market for a new signal-caller. The Buccaneers are slated to pick fifth overall. Even teams that are not expected to select quarterbacks know that more blue-chip passers in the draft can push top prospects at other positions down the board. Thus it is noteworthy that Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins and Oklahoma's Kyler Murray have chosen to pursue their NFL dreams early; Murray is doing so despite also being a first-round draft pick of the MLB's Oakland Athletics.
Other highly regarded prospects who have finished their degrees early or been granted special eligibility include Oklahoma tackle Cody Ford, Michigan linebacker Devin Bush, Memphis running back Darrell Henderson and Louisiana State cornerback Greedy Williams.
There were 256 players chosen in last year's NFL draft and 82 of them came from the same list of early entrants that the league released in January. That's nearly a third of all the prospects chosen, and 50 of those 82 came off the board on the first two days of the draft. Assuming similar results in 2019, that means it's not just possible but even likely that the Buccaneers' Class of 2019 will include a player or two from the list of names released on Friday. We just have to wait three months to find out which ones.