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When 'young' is 'too young'

Posted Feb 20, 2014

A record 98 underclassmen have made themselves eligible for the 2014 NFL Draft.

INDIANAPOLIS – When it comes to the business of professional sports, youth will be served. But as the Steelers begin to wade through the talent available for the 2014 NFL Draft at this week’s Scouting Combine here, they will do so believing there is such as thing as too young.

Of the 330-some players to participate in this workout/interview/medical process, some 85 of them are underclassmen. That classification is applied to any player with fewer than four years in college.

The Steelers believe that experience, be it of the on-field variety as it applies to football, or the kind resulting from living life as a responsible adult, is a contributing factor to how good a player becomes and also to how long said player can maintain his level of success.

“The system forces younger players in, sometimes before they’re ready,” said General Manager Kevin Colbert. “I know that’s one of the concerns we have with this current draft class, which I’ll go on record as saying is one of the deepest classes I’ve seen in 30 years. A lot of that (depth of talent) is due to the influx of the underclassmen, and what I will also say in regards to this is that although it’s a talented group, it also has a bigger chance of failing because you’re going to get a lot of kids who aren’t physically or emotionally ready for this.

“So to that point, we believe the longer a guy can delay his play, the better his chances are of succeeding in the long run. Not to say that a rookie can’t come in and impact a season or have a great start to his career because we’ve seen that happen, but I think you see many more who benefit from learning and preparing and being ready for the challenge that they’re going to face.”

In 2013, a then-record 73 underclassmen declared for the NFL Draft, and the 2014 total of 98 smashed that mark. The rules that apply here are that any players who are three years removed from high school are eligible to make the jump to the NFL and agree to forfeit any remaining college eligibility once they declare for the draft. This year’s deadline was Jan. 15.

UNDERCLASSMEN OVER THE PAST FIVE DRAFTS
A 5-year sampling (2009-13) shows that the most underclassmen are selected in the first round, with that total generally halving by Round 2 and then steadily decreasing over the course of the rest of the draft. And coming out for the draft as an underclassman isn’t necessarily the path to getting selected, with some 25 percent of those who declare ending up having to try to enter the league as a free agent.

2009
There were 15 underclassmen selected in the first round, including seven of the first 12 picks. Then there were eight underclassmen drafted in the second round; five in the third; eight in the fourth; two in the fifth; none in the sixth; and three in the seventh. The total number of underclassmen drafted: 41.

2010
There were 17 underclassmen selected in the first round, including 16 of the first 24 picks. Then there were eight underclassmen drafted in the second round; seven in the third; six in the fourth; three in the fifth; five in the sixth; and none in the seventh. The total number of underclassmen drafted: 46.

2011
There were 15 underclassmen selected in the first round, including 11 of the first 14 picks. Then there were 13 underclassmen drafted in the second round; five in the third; three in the fourth; four in the fifth; two in the sixth; and one in the seventh. The total number of underclassmen drafted: 43.

2012
There were 19 underclassmen selected in the first round, including the first six picks, and then 10 of the first 12. Then there were eight underclassmen drafted in the second round; seven in the third; five in the fourth; one in the fifth; two in the sixth; and two in the seventh. The total number of underclassmen drafted: 44.

2013
There were 14 underclassmen selected in the first round, including eight of the last nine picks. Then there were 11 underclassmen drafted in the second round, including three of the first five picks; 10 in the third; eight in the fourth; five in the fifth; one in the sixth; and three in the seventh. The total number of underclassmen drafted: 52.

THE STEELERS’ TOTALS
When their past five draft classes are examined, the Steelers have practiced what Colbert was preaching when it comes to underclassmen. Of their 42 draft picks from 2009-13, the Steelers have spent only eight of those on underclassmen. Those eight include Jarvis Jones and Le’Veon Bell from 2013; David DeCastro from 2012; none from 2011; Maurkice Pouncey, Jason Worilds, Thaddeus Gibson; Jonathan Dwyer, and Antonio Brown from 2010; and none from 2009.

Looking at those names, it’s clear the Steelers have had some success drafting underclassmen, and this week can play a big part in how they end up doing should they go down that road again on May 8-10. Colbert and Coach Mike Tomlin have said often one of the primary advantages of the annual Scouting Combine is the access it provides teams in the effort to try to get to know these players as people.

The Steelers commit all hands on deck to the task. Colbert and Tomlin will handle the top 60 or so players on the Steelers’ preliminary list, and the assistant coaches will talk to another 160 of the 330 players invited to this combine. Various members of the personnel department also will be sitting in on these sessions, and when the Steelers get back to Pittsburgh on Feb. 25 they will have talked to around 220 players.

“I’m telling you, (the talent) is as deep across the board as any draft I’ve seen in 30 years,” said Colbert, “and it’s a record number of underclassmen who obviously enhanced it from a talent standpoint. It enhanced the draft from a talent standpoint, but we’re also concerned about how many of those players came out prematurely and won’t be ready for this next challenge. I think that we have to be able to sort through them, because they’re not all ready for this.”

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