At least 90 players who had college eligibility remaining are expected to enter the draft, shattering last year’s record number of 73.
“It’s a humongous number, so the first reaction is it makes you step back a little bit,” said NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout with the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles. “What I’m hearing is that the agents always have to make the sales pitch to get these to come out. This year, what I’ve been told is the sales pitch is that all your money right now is coming from the second contract, so you need to come out early so you can get to that second contract a year earlier … and apparently it’s been pretty effective.”
ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. released a mock draft Wednesday in which 23 of the 32 first-round picks were early entries. Kiper had Manziel going first overall and included Clowney, UCF quarterback Blake Bortles and Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins as top-five picks. Jeremiah’s list of the top 50 draft prospects includes early entries in the top three spots: Clowney at No. 1, Watkins at No. 2 and Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson at No. 3.
“It’s going to be a huge number of underclassmen that go high and have long careers,” Jeremiah said. “And there are going to be some other guys who don’t get drafted and will be in a tough spot and would have been better served to go back to school. It works both ways.”
Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of some of the early entries at each position.
QUARTERBACK: Manziel, Bortles and Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater are all projected first-round picks. Although the 6-foot-1 Manziel lacks the size of Bortles and Bridgewater, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner played tougher competition in the Southeastern Conference. Jeremiah ranks Manziel as his No. 7 overall prospect, with Bridgewater 10th and Bortles 22nd. Kiper’s mock draft has Bridgewater getting taken eighth. Wyoming’s Brett Smith isn’t regarded as highly as the other three quarterbacks, but he could get chosen later in the draft.
RUNNING BACK: Auburn’s Tre Mason boosted his stock by rushing for 663 yards against Alabama, Missouri and Florida State over his final three games. Jeremiah rates Mason 47th overall and second among running backs, behind Ohio State senior Carlos Hyde. Other notable running backs to enter the draft include Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey, Washington’s Bishop Sankey, Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas, LSU’s Jeremy Hill, UCF’s Storm Johnson and Florida State teammates Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr.
WIDE RECEIVER: The impact of underclassmen on the draft is perhaps most evident at wide receiver. Kiper’s mock draft has seven early entry receivers going in the first round: Watkins, Texas A&M’s Mike Evans (13), Southern California’s Marqise Lee (18), Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin (22), Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks (28), LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. (30) and Penn State’s Allen Robinson (32). Jeremiah has nine listed among his top 50 overall prospects. And that doesn’t factor in the available tight ends. Kiper has North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron going 16th overall and Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro 29th.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Robinson has parlayed a breakthrough season at Auburn into a likely top-10 selection in the draft. Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandjio and Tennessee’s Antonio “Tiny” Richardson could join him in the first round.
DEFENSIVE LINE: The headliner here is Clowney, who may have the most upside of any prospect regardless of position. Florida State tackle Timmy Jernigan also is a potential top-10 pick. Notre Dame teammates Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt as well as Missouri’s Kony Ealy could both get taken in the first round. Florida tackle Dominique Easley was playing at an All-America level this fall before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament.
LINEBACKER: Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier is rated as the No. 31 overall prospect by Jeremiah. Other linebackers turning pro early include Florida’s Ronald Powell, California’s Khairi Fortt, Alabama’s Adrian Hubbard and Connecticut’s Yawin Smallwood.
DEFENSIVE BACK: Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville safety Calvin Pryor are both listed as first-round picks in Kiper’s mock draft and top-15 prospects in Jeremiah’s rankings. Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby, rated 50th overall by Jeremiah, is the 25th pick in Kiper’s mock draft.