Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Juniors Spike Draft's Talent Pool

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The Bucs have used their first-round pick on a junior in each of the last two drafts - Josh Freeman, left, and Aqib Talib - and have obviously been pleased with the results

On Tuesday, the National Football League released a list that will make a huge imprint on a three-day span almost exactly three months from now.

It was a list of 53 names and included the likes of Tennessee safety Eric Berry, Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford, Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and Florida cornerback Joe Haden. College football fans would recognize most of the names on the list, and those who eagerly absorb the wall-to-wall coverage leading up to the NFL Draft (beginning in three, two, one...) will soon know them well, too.

The list, of course, was the NFL's final round-up of the college underclassmen who have been granted special eligibility for the 2010 draft. Players who have remaining college football eligibility but have met the three-year rule may submit a written application to renounce that remaining eligibility and declare for the draft. The deadline to do so was January 15, so the list released Tuesday won't get any larger between now and April 22-24, when the 2010 draft will be conducted.

It will, however, be dissected thoroughly, not only by media coverage but by the 32 front offices preparing for what many believe will be a loaded draft. Tuesday's release wasn't exactly news - more like a review of several weeks' worth of news as various highly-regarded underclassmen announced their intentions to enter the draft - but it was the final word on a group that will prove very important this spring.

The total of 53 underclassmen declaring for the draft matches the high-water mark for the past decade set in 2008. Last year, 46 sophomore and juniors made the leap; the number varied from 35 to 52 in the seven previous offseasons. Scroll down to the bottom of this page for the complete list released by the NFL on Tuesday.

The impact this list of 53 will have in April cannot be overstated. Among the underclassmen who are considered possible first-round picks are Berry, Bradford, McCoy, Haden, Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain, California running back Jahvid Best, Georgia Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan, Florida defensive end Carlos Dunlap and several others. Some, such as Berry, are thought to be almost sure top-10 selections.

Last year's draft serves as telling evidence of the talent that permeates each year's list of underclassmen eligibles. Only 10 of the non-seniors who declared for the 2009 draft were not selected at some point during the seven rounds. Moreover, 15 of the 32 picks in the first round were underclassmen, including half of the top 12. That included number-one overall pick Matthew Stafford, the Georgia quarterback who went to Detroit, as well as picks number five (USC quarterback Mark Sanchez, to the Jets), six (Alabama tackle Andre Smith, to the Bengals) and seven (Maryland wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, to the Raiders).

Another eight underclassmen were drafted in the second round last year, some of whom had the type of impact teams hope to get out of their first-rounders. Buffalo Bills second-round pick Jairus Byrd (42nd overall), a safety out of Oregon, led the AFC and tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions, earning him a spot in the Pro Bowl. The Philadelphia Eagles took Pittsburgh underclassman LeSean McCoy, and the rookie running back did his best Brian Westbrook impression with 945 total yards and four touchdowns. Miami didn't get Utah cornerback Sean Smith, an underclassman, until the end of the second round but wound up with an instant 16-game starter.

Another five non-seniors went in the third round in 2009, including Alabama running back Glen Coffee to the San Francisco 49ers and Iowa running back Shonn Greene to the New York Jets. Both were impressive as rookies, and Greene has played a big role in getting his Jets to the AFC Championship Game.

Other later-round picks from among the non-senior pool in the 2009 draft who made an impact as rookies include Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Austin Collie (a fourth-rounder out of BYU), Miami Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline (a fourth-rounder out of Ohio State) and Tennessee Titans linebacker Gerald McRath (a fourth-rounder out of Southern Mississippi).

Of course, last year's list of eligible underclassmen was important to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers because it included Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman. The Buccaneers set their sights on Freeman as a potential "franchise quarterback" and actually traded up two spots in the first round to get him 17th overall. Freeman just finished a promising rookie campaign in which he started the final nine games of the season.

The rest of the Bucs' 2009 draft class was all seniors, but two other players from last year's underclassmen list eventually ended up with the Buccaneers. South Carolina safety Emanuel Cook and Penn State defensive end Maurice Evans went undrafted and joined other teams as free agents but eventually signed with the Buccaneers. Both were recently re-signed by Tampa Bay to reserve/future contracts for the 2010 season and will hopefully get a chance to prove themselves in training camp next summer.

Tampa Bay's first-round pick in 2008 was an underclassmen, too, as the team tabbed Kansas cornerback Aqib Talib with the 20th overall selection that year. Later, the Bucs spent a sixth-round pick on junior-eligible linebacker Geno Hayes from Florida State. Both Talib and Hayes were full-time starters for Tampa Bay in 2009; Talib tied for the team lead with five interceptions and Hayes filled up his stat line with 136 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions, seven passes defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

The Buccaneers are certainly one team that is hoping the 2010 draft proves to be as deep as many expect it to be. Tampa Bay owns the third overall pick in the first round and a pair of second rounders, the first of which is their own at number 35 overall. The other second-round pick originally belonged to the Chicago Bears and will be number 42 or 44, depending upon the results of a coin flip to be conducted at the NFL Scouting Combine at the end of February. Overall, Tampa Bay is set to execute 10 picks in the 2010 draft in an attempt to continue to strengthen the team's youthful core.

The NFL released the following list of draft-eligible underclassmen on Tuesday:


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