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Early Nfl Decisions Often Based On Far More Than Pure Economics

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Dave Glenn and Staff

January 17, 2005 In the aftermath of the Jan. 15 deadline for college football underclassmen to enter their names into the 2005 NFL draft, Virginia offensive lineman D'Brickashaw Ferguson and N.C. State tailback T.A. McLendon had at least one thing in common: Many people thought they were absolutely crazy. Ferguson, a 6-5, 295-pound left tackle, decided to stay in school despite the fact that he was universally projected as a high first-round pick this year. Some analysts suggested he might go as high as No. 3 overall, a slot that could come with a long-term contract worth in excess of $50 million. In the eyes of most NFL scouts, he was the highest-rated tackle in all of college football this season. McLendon, a 5-11, 225-pound running back, became one of the first underclassmen in the nation to declare for the 2005 draft when he did so on Dec. 12, despite the fact that he had no objective evidence that he would be selected in the early rounds. (The NFL College Advisory Committee doesn't send out its draft projections until the end of December.) His coach, Chuck Amato, said several times this season that he was not yet ready for the NFL. McLendon completed his career at N.C. State as the school's eighth-leading rusher (2,479 career yards), but he was not even an honorable mention All-ACC selection as a junior. Pro scouts question his durability, fumbling, work ethic and character. "If it's a close call, these (underclassmen) should stay in school," said Gil Brandt, the former Dallas Cowboys player personnel director who now serves as the NFL's chief draft consultant. "So many guys who stay that extra year bear out so much better. Sometimes these kids are getting bad advice. Sometimes you find out later that a kid had no choice but to come out, or that he had some circumstances that made it about something other than his draft position." Indeed, while the water-cooler and talk-show discussions of various ACC underclassmen's NFL decisions focused largely on their projected draft slots, in reality many other factors were involved. In some cases, young fathers were hoping to provide for their young children. In other situations, the players wanted to help ailing or impoverished family members. Finally, according to sources, two ACC players left for the pros this year at least in part because of academic eligibility concerns. "This is not one-size-fits-all," said Drew Rosenhaus, a Miami-based agent who represents more than 40 NFL players. "You and I could figure out somebody's probable draft position with about 30 phone calls, and that's always a big part of the equation. But for a lot of these kids, life is more complicated than that. Sometimes the right time to come out is the right time for other reasons." Two years ago, the experiences of four ACC products illustrated the pure economics of the decision-making process. Wake Forest defensive end Calvin Pace, a first-round selection in the 2003 draft, signed for a first-year compensation package of $3.675 million ($675,000 salary, $3 million signing bonus). Maryland linebacker E.J. Henderson, a second-round pick, signed for $1.975 million ($225,000 salary, $1.75 million bonus). North Carolina wide receiver Sam Aiken, a third-round choice, signed for $499,000 ($225,000 salary, $274,000 bonus). N.C. State safety Terrence Holt, a fifth-round selection, signed for $355,500 ($225,000 salary, $130,500 bonus). The NFL draft has seven rounds. The total differences in dollars only increase over the length of the contracts, because the higher picks have higher annual salaries. Pace, for example, will earn more than $5 million (as the 18th overall pick in 2003) during his first three years as a professional. Aiken will make less than $1 million over the same period. In that case, then, the three-year difference in compensation between the mid-first-round pick and the third-round selection was more than $4 million. "If this was only about maximizing draft position, I could give you a long list of (underclassmen) who have made very bad decisions, and some from the ACC would be on that list," Brandt said. "But we all know that's only one factor." Virginia linebacker Darryl Blackstock was one player who wanted to see his fall semester grades before making a definitive statement about his NFL plans. When he announced his decision to leave on Jan. 13, two days before the deadline and about three weeks after he strongly hinted that he would stay with the Cavaliers for his senior year, many wondered if his 2005 eligibility was at risk. A non-qualifier out of high school, Blackstock spent one year at prep school to improve his academic credentials before arriving in Charlottesville. When explaining his recent decision, he mentioned his desire to provide for his 17-month-old son, Savion. Blackstock's 11 sacks in 2004 were the most of any linebacker in college football, and his 27 career sacks rank as the second-most in Virginia history. A second-team All-ACC selection last fall, he said the NFL advisory committee told him he's likely to be a second-round selection in this year's (April 23-24) draft. After a poor performance in the MPC Computers Bowl, Blackstock hopes to improve on that position by performing well at the NFL Combine (Feb. 23-March 1 in Indianapolis) and in other pre-draft workouts. Virginia coach Al Groh, a former NFL head coach who earlier had explained in some detail his skepticism about many college underclassmen who consider themselves NFL-ready, offered only a terse statement about Blackstock's departure. "Darryl played a significant role in a lot of games that we have won," Groh said. "He is a talented player, and we wish great success for him with this next challenge." The decisions of Virginia tight end Heath Miller and Clemson cornerback Justin Miller were more easily explained than those of most of their ACC counterparts. Both players were projected as first-round selections, and both approached the information-gathering process in a methodical, thoughtful manner that impressed their coaches. Heath Miller said he agonized over what he called a "very difficult" decision, but he had little left to accomplish at the college level. As a redshirt junior in 2004, he was a consensus first-team All-American and the winner of the Mackey Award, given to the nation's top tight end. The second-leading receiver in Virginia history, he set records for ACC tight ends with 144 receptions, 1,703 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns. He is on track to graduate in May with a degree in sociology. "There is a significant difference between a player's being ready to be drafted and that of a player being ready to play well in the NFL. Heath clearly fits into both categories," Groh said. "We fully support his decision to start his NFL career. Heath is one of the best players to have ever played at Virginia. He has done a great deal for our team, and we appreciate and admire him." Justin Miller was only a second-team All-ACC selection last fall, but he was widely projected as one of the top five draft-eligible cornerbacks in the nation and one of the best return men. The NFL advisory committee told Miller he was likely to be a second-round selection, but the committee has a history of offering conservative projections, and several independent analysts called him a first-round lock. A three-year starter for the Tigers at cornerback, he finished second in school history with 13 career interceptions and was a record-setting return specialist. "I've heard anywhere from middle to late first round, but I think after everything is said and done, I've said week-in and week-out I'm the best in the country," Miller said. "Whenever the first corner goes, I think I'll be there." Miller, who will turn 21 in February, still needs 45 credit hours (typically three full-time semesters) to complete his degree. He said he promises to finish at some point because of a pledge he once made to his mother, who will live with him during his first year in the NFL. Miller provided Clemson coach Tommy Bowden with an outline and timetable for his decision last August, then followed his blueprint as promised through his Jan. 5 announcement. "By handling it the way he did, it gave Clemson the ability to go ahead and recruit with the possibility of him coming out, because he alerted us from the beginning," said Bowden, who did not endorse the early departures of Clemson juniors Derrick Hamilton and Donnell Washington last year. "Clemson's really appreciative, and we wish him nothing but the best." Similarly, Maryland defensive end Shawne Merriman received the support of coach Ralph Friedgen and his assistants, unlike last year's early departure, defensive tackle Randy Starks. (Maryland's coaches told Starks he should stay, and the player was surprised when he fell to the third round.) A first-team All-ACC selection, Merriman led the Terps with 8.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss this season, and his work ethic (unsurpassed) and freakish physical capabilities (6-4, 262 pounds, 41.5-inch vertical jump, 4.55-second 40-yard dash) have had him on the NFL's radar for two years. Merriman also looks forward to providing for his family and others, in a way most other ACC players probably couldn't understand. While growing up, Merriman and his impoverished family often found themselves in situations where on a day-to-day basis they weren't sure if they would have such basic necessities as heat or electricity, even during the cold winter months in Maryland. During his time in College Park, Merriman organized several charity events, collecting thousands of coats for the area's needy residents and personally distributing them to local homeless shelters, soup kitchens and group homes. "I'm two different people (on and off the field), and I'll always be that way. I'll never forget where I came from, and I'll never forget the people who are having a hard time providing for themselves," Merriman said. "This (NFL jump) will allow me to help people in more ways, but I wouldn't have left if it wasn't a smart decision. I loved my time at Maryland, but I'm ready. I know that, and the NFL knows that. I'm living proof that you can make it in life no matter where you come from." Two redshirt juniors at Miami, tailback Frank Gore and wideout Roscoe Parrish, continued the exodus of Hurricanes to leave early for the NFL. The pair, who have been close friends since childhood, became the ninth and 10th UM underclassmen to depart for the draft over the last four seasons. All but one of the other eight became first-round picks, including safety Sean Taylor, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and tight end Kellen Winslow last year. Miami has produced 40 first-round selections since 1987, the most of any school. UM coach Larry Coker said in mid-December that he was concerned that Gore and Parrish, both second-team All-ACC selections in 2004, were getting bad advice from outside parties. Indeed, neither player is projected to be selected in the first three rounds. After two devastating knee injuries, Gore lacks much of the explosiveness he showed as a freshman. At 5-9 and 172 pounds, Parrish fits a physical mold that only rarely draws serious attention in the early rounds, although this season is considered a down year for receivers. In December, Gore said he would come out only if he would be a first-round pick, and Parrish said he would depart only if he would be chosen in the first two rounds. In both cases, something obviously changed after the season ended. Gore's decision came down to a battle of sorts between his coaches, who strongly recommended that he stay in school, and his mother, who adamantly wanted her son to turn pro. Liz Gore, who is battling kidney disease, said she wants to see her son experience his dream of playing in the NFL and she doesn't care about his draft position. Gore said he also wants to provide for his two-year-old son, Frank Jr., and other family members. "With the money I get, I can help her out — get her better doctors and get her a kidney," Gore said. "Junior year (in high school) she almost passed. You never know what can happen. I know she really wanted me to go on with my life. This is a gift to me and to her to make our lives better." Parrish made his announcement at the South Florida home of Rosenhaus, whose clients include Arizona wideout Anquan Boldin (formerly of Florida State), Philadelphia defensive end Jevon Kearse, Buffalo running back Willis McGahee (Miami), New York Jets receiver Santana Moss (Miami), Washington running back Clinton Portis (Miami), Oakland defensive tackle Warren Sapp (Miami), New York Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey (Miami), Tampa Bay defensive end Greg Spires (Florida State), Washington safety Sean Taylor (Miami) and Miami linebacker Zach Thomas. The situations of Ferguson and McLendon also illustrated how factors other than projected draft position can dominate the decision-making process. A three-year starter for the Cavaliers, Ferguson was a first-team All-ACC selection in 2004, after failing to be nominated for the team in 2003. An academically minded student-athlete, he has drawn raves from the Virginia coaching staff for his accountability and attention to detail, on and off the field. Ferguson's brother Edwin graduated from UVa in 2001 and plans to attend law school. Ferguson, who turned 21 in December, may follow the same path himself, most likely after a lengthy career in the NFL. "I don't allow other people to set my agenda," Ferguson said. "I try not to get caught up in that stuff. I was surprised when I found out I was on the (All-ACC) team, and I was surprised when I found out about (the draft projections). I'm right where I want to be, doing what I want to do, and I'm the only one who can answer that question. I don't even want the attention. I just want to do well in school and win football games (at Virginia)." McLendon, a prep All-American from Albemarle, N.C., spoke of college as a launching pad for the NFL even before he joined the Wolfpack. In a 2002 interview, he also talked about becoming a father while still in high school and overcoming various disciplinary and legal problems. A self-described disinterested student, he entered N.C. State with a sub-2.0 GPA (exactly the NCAA-minimum 2.0 in core courses) and needed a jump of more than 300 points on the SAT as a prep senior to meet eligibility standards. In concert with State's coaches, he decided not to take the test a third time, despite the fact that other schools were going to require another qualifying score (a 2.0 core GPA needs a 1,010 SAT) to confirm the legitimacy of his large jump. According to sources, his class attendance at NCSU in the fall was spotty, and his eligibility status going into 2005 was at best highly speculative. "I have a family to take care of," McLendon said, "and I've decided that it is time for me to start thinking about my future." Among the prominent ACC underclassmen (mostly juniors) who decided to remain in school despite strong 2004 seasons and/or significant NFL interest were Virginia linebacker Ahmad Brooks (projected in first round), Miami defensive tackle Orien Harris, Georgia Tech defensive end Eric Henderson, Maryland linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, Miami linebacker Roger McIntosh, Virginia Tech defensive end Darryl Tapp, Florida State tailback Leon Washington, Virginia Tech cornerback Jimmy Williams and Miami offensive lineman Eric Winston. A left tackle who was projected as a high first-round pick in this year's draft before he suffered a season-ending knee injury on Oct. 2, Winston said he's so excited about the 2005 season that he didn't even ask the NFL for an evaluation of his draft position this year. Williams explored his draft prospects, but he said one more year for him in college could mean great things for both Virginia Tech and him personally. "The main reason for this decision is I didn't want to abandon a young team," Williams said. "We're going to have a young secondary next year that is going to need leadership, and I want to be the guy to lead them. I feel like this team needs me and we can do special things next season. I also want to be as prepared as I can for the next level, so I can take care of my family like I want to. It's not that I don't feel I could succeed at the next level now, but one more year of college ball is exactly what I need to prepare me for the NFL." "They're all better off if they stay," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. "If a guy can go (among the) first 10 guys, he ought to go. But if it's on down the line, you can do better next year." Bonus Brick: Recruiting Updates In other basketball recruiting news (please see our column on pages 12-13 and 18-19 of this issue for more), numerous prominent underclassmen continued to place ACC programs at or near the top of their most recent college lists. Austin Steed (top 125), a wiry 6-8, 195-pound junior WF/BF at Augusta (GA) Butler, played a key role last season when Butler reached the state tournament final in its classification before losing to Atlanta (GA) Mays. Although he's not very strong physically, he has a whole lot of tools to work with, and Tennessee already has offered him a scholarship. Last fall Steed unofficially visited both the Vols and Georgia, while North Carolina and Wake Forest also are among the schools drawing his interest. Alex Stepheson (No. 50), a 6-8 junior BF at North Hollywood (CA) Harvard-Westlake, has been offered a scholarship by several Pac-10 members as well as Wake Forest, but he claims not to have a favorite at this time. UNC also is showing interest, as coach Roy Williams watched Stepheson play on Dec. 8, but the Tar Heels have not made a scholarship offer to Alex, who has a 3.0 GPA but hasn't taken the SAT yet. Others involved with Stepheson include Arizona, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Connecticut, Kentucky, Washington, UCLA and California. DaJuan Summers (top 100), a quick 6-8 junior BF/WF at Owings Mills (MD) McDonogh who prefers to play on the perimeter, is averaging 24 points per game thus far this season. He was eyeballed in games recently by various Big East and ACC schools, including Georgetown, West Virginia and Maryland, while Connecticut is expected to look at him shortly. Interestingly, his sister Regina is ranked the No. 2 debater on the East Coast and has been featured on the popular TV show "60 Minutes." Joey Taylor (top 300), a solid 6-8, 220-pound junior BF who's a teammate of both 6-9 Auburn signee Joey Cameron (No. 90 senior) and 6-3 senior WG Cord Robbins (see last issue) at Leeds (AL) High, is averaging 11 points, eight rebounds and three blocks per game this season. A very good student with a 3.6 GPA, Taylor is being contacted by Virginia Tech, DePaul, Auburn, Alabama, Mississippi, Stanford, Tennessee and others. Lance Thomas (No. 13), a big-time 6-8, 210-pound junior WF/BF who transferred last fall to Newark (NJ) St. Benedict's from Scotch Plains (NJ) Fanwood (where he was Derrick Caracter's teammate), has received scholarship offers from Georgia Tech, Maryland, Arizona, Syracuse, Georgia, Kansas, Florida, Rutgers (unofficial visit) and Seton Hall. He's also hearing from Duke (he visited unofficially last spring), UNC and Texas. Last season Thomas, who's very quick off his feet, averaged 18 points per game, and he impressed us with his play at an assortment of spring and summer events. Greivis Vasquez (top 100), a 6-5 junior WG/WF from Venezuela, and 6-10 junior C/BF Attila Farkas (top 150) from Hungary, are key underclass performers for coach Stu Vetter's excellent team at Rockville (MD) Montrose Christian. Both are highly skilled athletes who should get lots of high Division I scholarship offers before long. Vasquez was particularly scintillating in a recent victory over Chesapeake (VA) Indian River, as he provided 20 points (including a pair of three-pointers), 13 rebounds, eight assists and some terrific ball-handling. Willie Walker (top 100), a feisty 5-11, 165-pound junior PG who transferred last fall to Bolingbrook (IL) High after averaging 21 points per game in 2003-04 for Romeoville (IL) High, has scholarship offers from Marquette, Baylor and California. Now averaging approximately 17 points per contest, Walker is a good student with a 3.3 GPA. Among the other schools showing steady interest in Willie are Miami, Georgia Tech (he likes the Yellow Jackets a lot), N.C. State, Wake Forest, Ohio State, Illinois (but he wants to leave the state for college), Oklahoma State and Texas. Stefan Welsh (top 75), a 6-2, 180-pound junior WG scorer at defending state Group 3A (large-school) champion Newport News (VA) Woodside, played well most of the time at the recent GlaxoSmithKline Holiday Invitational in North Carolina. He possesses a whole lot of ability but is out of control at times. Reportedly, Welsh now has scholarship offers from N.C. State, Maryland, Virginia, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Miami (very recently), Arkansas, Ohio State, Tennessee, Xavier (one of his top choices) and St. Joseph's (also recently). Furthermore, Connecticut and Georgetown have become more strongly involved, after observing him in action this season. Stefan has made unofficial visits in the past month and a half to Virginia Tech (when the Hokies hosted UNC) and Virginia (for the Wake Forest game). L.D. Williams (top 125), a skywalking 6-5, 190-pound junior wing who transferred to Montverde (FL) Academy from East Bend (NC) Forbush near Winston-Salem, is an explosive athlete who needs to hone the consistency of his perimeter stroke. He especially likes Wake Forest and Maryland, although the Terrapins haven't yet been in touch. Other schools expressing interest in Williams include Xavier, Tennessee (offer), Florida, UNC, Miami, Clemson and Charlotte. During the spring and summer, L.D. plays for the Boo Williams Summer League team from Tidewater Virginia. Blue-chipper Brandan Wright (No. 3), a rangy 6-9, 201-pound junior BF at Nashville (TN) Brentwood Academy, continues to mention Kentucky, UNC and Duke as the first three schools he's considering, followed by Kansas and Georgia Tech, assuming he doesn't enter the 2006 NBA draft (which is a possibility) directly from high school. Wright, an agile left-hander who's averaging 20 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks per game this season while shooting 67 percent from the field and 80 percent from the charity stripe, was watched in December games by Tubby Smith and Roy Williams, among others. Other schools hoping but unlikely to gain serious consideration from Brandan include Indiana, Memphis, hometown Vanderbilt and Tennessee.

— Brick Oettinger, ACCSports.com

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