Last April, picking seventh overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the first team not to select an underclassmen. Tampa Bay made Alabama safety Mark Barron the first senior off the board after junior-eligible prospects Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Trent Richardson, Matt Kalil, Justin Blackmon and Morris Claiborne dominated the first hour of the draft.
Later, after trading up, the Buccaneers picked Boise State running back Doug Martin 31st overall, giving them two seniors to start their 2012 class…and that was against the odds given that 19 of the 32 players chosen in the first round were underclassmen. This spring, it may be even less likely that the Buccaneers end up with a senior in the first round.
More underclassmen than ever before have been granted special eligibility for this year's draft. The NFL released its list on Saturday, and it is 73 players deep, eight more than a year ago. The 2012 group of non-seniors had been a record high of 65, and that in turn had broken the 2011 record of 56. There may not be any real surprises on Saturday's list – the various names had been leaking out for weeks – but there are plenty of impactful prospects. There are even six 2012 All-Americans in the bunch: Florida safety Matt Elam, Stanford tight end Zach Ertz, Texas A&M tackle Luke Joeckel, Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner and Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner.
All-American players aren't necessarily first-round prospects, but there's no reason to believe that non-seniors will be any less dominant on Day One of the draft this year. Joeckel, Jones, Milliner and Werner are commonly seen as potential top-10 picks, as are LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo and Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore. Todd McShay's first 2013 mock draft on ESPN.com, for instance, has eight underclassmen going among the first 10 selections. (That link is behind ESPN.com's Insider subscription wall, but most of the same names dominate the early picks in this collection of mock drafts on NFL.com.)
McShay's mock has the Bucs picking a junior, LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery in the first round (though the list mistakenly has the Bucs selecting 14th and the Saints, who should be 15th, picking 13th). The four NFL.com drafts include one pick for Tampa Bay of Ertz and two of Florida State junior cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
Underclassmen who were interested in declaring for this year's draft had to have met the three-year eligibility rule and had to submit a letter of their intent to the NFL by this past Tuesday. Most players who forego a final year of college eligibility do so under the belief that their draft stock is strong. There are usually a few prospects who misjudge this, but the majority of Saturday's list will hear their name called at some point during draft weekend, which is April 25-27. Last year, 43 of the 65 underclassmen who declared for the draft were taken during its seven rounds.
The last underclassmen drafted by the Buccaneers was Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, in the second round in 2011. Four of Tampa Bay's first five picks in 2010 were juniors – defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price and wide receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams.