NEPD Writer: Dan Hope
The topic of whether freshmen and sophomores should be allowed to enter the NFL draft received significant attention last Saturday, when junior South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, who likely could have been a first-round pick after his freshman or sophomore season, suffered a severe right knee injury that leaves his football future significantly in jeopardy. What would happen if the top Sophomore prospects were allowed to enter the 2013 draft?
Those rules will not change for the 2013 NFL draft, but it sure would be interesting if they did thanks to two standout sophomores. Barring a significant injury or drop-off in production, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and USC wide receiver Marqise Lee have already set themselves apart as the 2014 NFL draft’s top prospects. In fact, if they were eligible for the 2013 NFL draft, both would stand as top-three prospects on my board along with Georgia redshirt junior outside linebacker Jarvis Jones.
Jones established himself as the clear-cut No. 1 overall prospect (assuming he declares) last week in Georgia’s upset victory over the Florida Gators. Jones was a dominant defensive force throughout the game, finishing with a whopping 4.5 tackles for loss, including three sacks, along with two forced fumbles.
Clowney and Lee also caught attention from their performances last week.
Clowney, who has 15 tackles for loss on the season, had just one last Saturday versus Tennessee, but it was a big one. With Tennessee on a potential game-winning drive late in the game, Clowney beat heralded Volunteers left tackle Antonio Richardson for a strip sack of quarterback Tyler Bray, and the Gamecocks held on for a victory. Clowney may have been handled by Richardson for most of that game, but with the game on the line, he showed why he would likely be ranked even ahead of Jones as a member of the 2013 draft class.
Lee’s Trojans suffered a disappointing loss to Arizona, but it was not without an incredible effort from the stud sophomore wideout. Lee shattered the Pac-12 receiving record with 345 yards on 16 receptions. He had four receiving plays of over 40 yards, two of which were for touchdowns, and he also added 123 yards on three kickoff returns to finish his game with 469 all-purpose yards.
Lee should go into the 2014 NFL draft as the best receiving prospect since A.J. Green and Julio Jones in 2011, and would stand far above the rest in a 2013 wide receiver class that lacks a premier prospect.
While Clowney and Lee are not even two full seasons into their college football careers, both have been consistently dominant since they were true freshmen, and have skill sets that should translate into NFL stardom. Clowney has all the makings of an elite pass-rusher in the NFL, with great size and length, explosive athleticism and refined technique for a young player. Lee, who already has 1,129 receiving yards through eight games this season, is a natural play-maker with tremendous athleticism, great hands and tremendous big-play ability.
In addition to star pass-rusher and stud outside linebacker Jones, the 2013 NFL draft could already have a loaded class of pass-rushing defensive ends, with many fantastic draft-eligible juniors including Florida State’s Bjoern Werner, LSU’s Sam Montgomery and Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore. Clowney, however, would be selected ahead of all of them.
Clowney would likely be at or near the top of the draft boards with a likelihood of having top-five draft picks, including the Carolina Panthers, Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans.
As for Lee, he would stand out in a class likely to be highlighted by three juniors. California’s Keenan Allen and Lee’s teammate Robert Woods are very good possession receivers who should be go-to targets on an NFL offense, but neither are major big-play threats. Tennessee’s Justin Hunter has tremendous size and speed and huge potential as a big-play threat, but has not been a consistent performer.
Lee has big-play ability but is also a consistent receiver with great hands and route-running ability, making him a near-complete package as a wideout.
In my latest mock draft, I do not project any wide receivers to be drafted within the top 20 picks, in large part due to the lack of a star prospect. That would change with the inclusion of Lee, who has the talent of worthy of being a top-five draft choice. The Panthers, Browns, Buffalo Bills, St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers would all be potential destinations for him in the 2013 draft.
Of course, the Clowney and Lee scenarios are only hypothetical, and instead, they will the two prospects that every collegiate star will be chasing to be at the top of draft boards in 2014. It can certainly be presumed, however, that NFL scouts are already salivating over their prospects for the future.