In the weeks leading up to the 2011 NFL Draft, many mock drafts paired the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers at the 20th overall pick in the first round. In fact, of the 20 mocks gathered by Buccaneers.com in its annual pre-draft look at what NFL analysts are predicting, exactly half of them predicted a Bucs-Bowers marriage in Round One.
As it turned out, Tampa Bay would select Bowers, but not until the second round after taking Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn in the opening frame. That worked out well for the Buccaneers – Clayborn and Bowers looked like the long-term answer as D-Line bookends in their 2011 rookie campaign – if not so much for the mock drafters.
At this point, the Buccaneers don't really care how they acquired their new pair of defensive ends. However, had those 10 analysts been right (and we'll definitely give them partial credit), a Bowers selection in the first round would have continued an interesting trend for Tampa Bay's draft-day decision-makers.
What Bowers was heading into last year's draft, and what Clayborn was not, was an underclassmen. Bowers was one of 56 juniors who was granted draft eligibility in the spring of 2011; Clayborn, like the majority of the available players, was a senior.
Had the Buccaneers drafted Bowers in the first round, it would have been the fourth straight draft that Tampa Bay began with an underclassmen. Their previous three first-round selections – cornerback Aqib Talib (2008), quarterback Josh Freeman (2009) and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (2010) had all foregone their senior college seasons in order to enter the draft.
The NFL first began allowing underclassmen into the draft in 1990. Players must still have spent three years in school and must submit a written application renouncing the remainder of their college football eligibility. In the two decades since that first year under the new rules, the number of juniors declaring for the draft, and the percentage of those who declare who are then selected, has risen steadily. In 1990, 28 underclassmen declared for the draft and 18 were eventually selected. Last year, a record 56 juniors threw their hats into the ring, of which 43 heard their names called during draft weekend.
Around the same time that juniors were getting their shot at the draft, the Buccaneers were undergoing an organizational philosophy change when it came to picking players. A handful of underwhelming first-round picks in the early '90s – most notably Keith McCants and Eric Curry – prompted the team to shift its drafting focus from "potential" to "production." That is, the team wanted to use its high picks on players that had already proven to be top-notch producers on the college level instead of players who simply wowed the scouts with impressive workouts. Passing on Boston College's Mike Mamula and eventually landing on Miami's Warren Sapp in 1995 was the perfect example of the philosophical shift.
In recent years, the Bucs' drafting tendencies have included a new trend as well, though it is not likely a purposeful philosophy change. Not only were McCoy, Freeman and Talib all first-round underclassmen for the Buccaneers, but in the last four years Tampa Bay has drafted eight juniors overall. In addition to those three and Bowers, the other junior Buc draftees from 2008-11 were linebacker Geno Hayes, defensive tackle Brian Price and wide receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. All eight of those players were starters for the Buccaneers in 2011. However, in 2006 and 2007 the Buccaneers made a total of 20 selections without taking a single underclassmen.
Again, this does not likely indicate any specific effort to draft juniors; it is simply a product of the team's efforts to marry positional needs with the best available players. It's not as if the Bucs would have passed on Freeman for a younger passer had he been a graduating senior instead of a draft-eligible junior in the spring of 2009.
Rather, this is more likely a reflection of the enormous impact it has on the NFL's draft pool when an increasing number of the nation's top underclassmen decide to turn pro early. Every year, there are a handful of juniors who declare for the draft only to be passed by in all seven rounds. However, an almost equal number of those underclassmen are considered such good prospects that they go in the first round. Last spring, for instance, eight of the first 10 picks were juniors, and underclassmen comprised almost exactly half (15 of 32) of the first round. Another 12 juniors were drafted in the second round.
Expect that trend to continue – at least league-wide, if not in Tampa – in 2012. The NFL recently released this year's list of underclassmen who have been granted draft eligibility, and it is the largest group ever. A total of 65 underclassmen will be available in the 2012 draft, an increase of 16% over last year's junior pool, which at the time was the largest ever.
The number of underclassmen drafted actually peaked in 2010, at 46, three more than were selected last year. However, given that in the last three years a combined 130 of the 155 draft-eligible juniors were selected, or 83.8% of the total pool, it's a very good bet that this year's group of drafted underclassmen will break that 2010 record, as well. If even 80% of the available juniors are selected this year, that would be 54 draftees overall.
One trend that has remained fairly even over the last 22 drafts is the importance of the junior-eligibles in the opening 10 picks. In 1990, the first year juniors were eligible, five of the first 10 picks were underclassmen. Last year's total of eight underclassmen was a new record for the top 10, but in 14 of the past 22 years at least half of the first 10 picks were juniors. Underclassmen have comprised 45% of the 220 combined top-10 picks since they were allowed into the draft in 1990.
Juniors are expected to play a very significant role in the top 10 again this year, and that's of particular interest to the Buccaneers this year since they are slated to pick fifth overall. NFL.com recently posted a combination of four mock drafts by their own experts (yes, the mock season is already in full swing), and all four predicted another underclassmen-Buccaneers pairing: LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne.
In fact, those four analysts (Bucky Brooks, Charles Davis, Elliot Harrison and Chad Reuter) are all predicting total junior dominance in the first few hours of the draft. All four have juniors only in their top five. Of course, three of the four have the same top five in their mocks – in order, Stanford QB Andrew Luck, Oklahoma State WR Justin Blackmon, USC T Matt Kalil, Baylor QB Robert Griffin, III and Claiborne – with only Brooks substituting Alabama RB Trent Richardson for Griffin at pick #4.
Others on the NFL's list of 65 eligible underclassmen who are getting first-round attention from the mock drafters include Iowa T Riley Reiff, Stanford T Jonathan Martin, Alabama CB Dre Kirkpatrick, Stanford G David DeCastro, Boston College LB Luke Kuechly, LSU DT Michael Brockers, Arizona State LB Vontaze Burfict, USC DE Nick Perry and Virginia Tech RB David Wilson. All of those players, amazingly, fall somewhere in the top half of the mock drafts of at least one of the aforementioned NFL.com experts.
Overall, if 80% of the 65 eligible underclassmen were to hear their names called on draft weekend this April, that would comprise approximately one-fifth of the this year's entire draft class. That means that, whether or not the Buccaneers (or any of their fellow NFL teams) are purposely trying to go younger in the draft, there's a very good chance that the trend of finding a junior or two among their picks is likely to continue in 2012.