- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS – Xavier Su’a-Filo spent two years on a Mormon mission to the Florida panhandle, living in three different cities and proselytizing in Spanish. Upon returning to UCLA for his sophomore season in 2012, he was gracious and wise.

That maturity helped Su’a-Filo over the next two seasons, when he emerged as a two-time all-Pac-12 left guard. That, in turn, influenced the decision he made early last month to leave college for the NFL Draft with one year of eligibility remaining, as at 23, he figures to be not only one of the oldest, but also the most physically ready, of all players selected.

“It wasn’t too hard [of a decision], you know?” said Su’a-Filo, who figures to be an early-round pick. “At the beginning, I just tried to weigh out pros and cons. ‘Am I ready to give up college and give up that scholarship check and just that lifestyle?’ Ultimately, I decided I was a man of faith. I pray a lot, and I really just felt good about my decision – and I never looked back.”

This year’s draft class will feature a record 98 underclassmen, including South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and Auburn left tackle Greg Robinson. Most of those leaving early are the best in their class, which has created a scenario where the group of players chosen in the NFL draft in May will be among the most talented in years.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and this is the deepest draft that I’ve ever seen,” Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium, the site of the annual NFL combine. “I wouldn’t say [it was] the deepest draft before the underclassmen came in, but even during the fall, our scouts were talking that the senior class was a pretty good class. … The juniors added into it make it a very talented group.”

Clowney, Manziel and Robinson figure, roughly two and a half months out, to be among the top five players chosen. In fact, of the six mock drafts compiled by ESPN and CBS Sports, only one has a senior – Texas A&M left tackle Jake Matthews – projected to be taken in the first five picks.

Matthews, the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, was also one of the top-rated prospects eligible for last year’s draft, but he wanted to stay in college one more year to have the opportunity to play alongside his brother Mike – a freshman who was the Aggies’ starting center.

“It was an opportunity that I didn’t want to pass up,” said the 6-foot-5, 308-pound Matthews. “I have a great relationship with him, and just being able to do that and live with him and spend a year with him in college and play with him and start on the offensive line – that’s something real special and something that I will always remember.”

Sometimes, though, leaving college may not work out. Xavier Grimble, a tight end at USC, did not consult the NFL Draft Advisory Board for an evaluation of his abilities before declaring his intention to forego his senior year early last month.

Several mock drafts compiled by reputable media outlets project Grimble as a late-round pick – perhaps as late as the seventh and final round.

“I think it was a good decision for me [and] my family, having been at SC for four years and starting for three, coming out pretty healthy and in good condition,” said Grimble, who caught just 25 passes for 271 yards and two touchdowns last season. “I just felt like it was a good time to take my chances.”

Stanford left guard David Yankey felt the same way. Believing he has nothing left to prove in college, and set to graduate at the end of the semester, Yankey found the decision to leave early was only natural.

“Unfortunately, a lot of guys decided to come out and give me a little competition, but that’s fine,” said Yankey, a likely second- or third-round pick. “There’s a lot of great guys who I’ve met in this class who will do great things in the NFL as well.”