- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 20, 2002

Unlike the NBA Draft in a couple of months, you won't see any high school players being drafted by the NFL today and tomorrow. It's not allowed. But what if it were? Could anyone be good enough to jump from preps to pros?
Oakland Raiders senior assistant Bruce Allen hesitated not one second. "No," he said. "I can't imagine it."
It isn't even easy for college underclassmen to make it in professional football. Although the number of those drafted has risen dramatically since 1989, the first year of eligibility, the NFL and college football have been far less affected by players leaving early than college basketball and the NBA.
According to the NFL, 32 underclassmen were drafted last year. The NBA drafted 30 underclassmen. Yet the NFL drafted 246 players, compared to 58 by the NBA. With more than half the NBA Draft picks used on non-seniors, the NFL would have had to have drafted 127 underclassmen for a similar percentage.
Still, underclassmen are faring better than before in the NFL. In 1989, only 12 were drafted, and last year's total was a record. It was noteworthy when the Washington Wizards made Kwame Brown the first high school player ever picked No.1 in the NBA Draft. But two months earlier, the Atlanta Falcons selected Michael Vick as the first third-year sophomore ever to go No.1 in the NFL Draft.
Vick was a clear exception, a player of unique abilities and skills. But he wasn't ready to step in right away, and had to apprentice behind veteran Chris Chandler. In the NFL, underclassmen seem less prepared than their NBA counterparts.
"There are a number of college football players who are physically ready to come out early," Kansas City Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson said. "But very few are mentally ready."
NBA coaches frequently say the same thing about underclassmen, especially high school players. Yet it appears the differences between the sports allows the NBA to accommodate youth more than the NFL.
"In basketball, you might not have the body maturity and the mental ability, but you have the skills to play the sport," said Baltimore Ravens senior vice president Ozzie Newsome. "In football, you still need to develop. You might have a running back who's gifted with the ball, but has never protected the passer. There are a lot of fundamentals a player has to be accomplished at. In basketball, there are two or three. You either play facing the basket or with your back to the basket. [In football], there are a lot of technical things a player has to grasp."
Rod Thorn was an NBA executive during the explosion of underclassmen and prep players enterting the draft. Now the general manager of the New Jersey Nets, Thorn isn't enamored with the trend. "On one hand, emotionally and physically, they are not ready to play with men," he said.
But, he adds, "In the NBA, natural skill probably means more than it does in the NFL, and I think basically it's because there are fewer people on the court. In football, it's more about technique, the coaching aspect. It's more about experience than athletic ability."
Although underclassmen are becoming a greater presence in the NFL Draft 13 went in the first round last year the physical demands of pro football and the required strength to handle them still keeps the numbers down. In college football, "you're dealing with kids who really aren't physically mature enough yet," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said.
Linemen and linebackers especially need to grow and develop, said Friedgen, once an assistant coach with the San Diego Chargers. In college, Friedgen said he has seen countless players improve physically between their junior and senior years.
Said Peterson: "We notice how greatly some players change physically from their first year in the NFL to their second or third. We play what amounts to two college seasons, with exhibition games. For the younger guy, the less he's played it's probably more traumatic for him."
Peterson was general manager of the Philadelphia Stars when the United States Football League broke precedent in 1983 and made Herschel Walker the first underclassman drafted by a pro team.
"I was very uncomfortable with that," Peterson said. "I didn't vote for it, although I understood that legally you couldn't stop it from happening. But I would be very much for all players completing four years of eligibility."
In a sense, the NFL has made it harder for underclassmen than the NBA. For one thing, a player has to be at least three years removed from high school graduation to be eligible for the draft.
In the NBA, all players drafted in the first round are awarded three-year, guaranteed contracts. But in the NFL, few contracts are guaranteed, signing bonuses notwithstanding. Basically, it is riskier for college football players to turn pro than for their basketball counterparts.
It also is riskier for management.
"I'm glad I'm not in the NBA," Peterson said. "You talk about scrutinizing that first pick. If you make a mistake, you've got to live with it three years."
Another the way the NBA is more kid-friendly is that players can become free agents after their initial three-year deals expire. In the NFL, players have to wait four years to become free agents.
Even league policies on leaving early make the NFL risker for underclassmen. College football players must declare their draft intentions by January more than three months before the draft and all decisions are final. A "draft advisory board" can give players an idea where they might be selected, but once they decide there is no turning back.
The NBA, on the other hand, allows players who declare for the draft but don't hire agents to change their minds. They can play for NBA scouts in the spring, then weigh the assessments and decide what to do, putting off the decision until a week before the draft if they choose.
Each year, several college players decide to stay in school rather than risk being a low pick or not being drafted at all. One who chose not to take the chance is Maryland junior linebacker E.J. Henderson. A consensus All-American last season, Henderson considered entering the draft but eventually decided against it. At first, Friedgen said, NFL people projected Henderson as a mid-first rounder. Then, as more players decided to come out, and also because of a back injury, Henderson projected to the low first or early second round. Henderson had to decide quickly. Friedgen said he got this information only two days before the deadline.
Friedgen obviously benefits from having Henderson stick around. But he, along with other college coaches, doesn't like the system. He would like to see players have more time to decide, while at the same time, the NFL can gain more information about them..
"Basketball has a better vehicle," Friedgen said. "Kids can come back."

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