Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - NFL teams could conceivably fill out the first three rounds of the 2014 draft by only taking underclassmen.
So many of the record 98 underclassmen whom the league said on Sunday had made their declarations official by last Wednesday will make their early entry pay off, both dollar-wise and with productive careers.
Others may barely be heard from again, making a judgment to jump to the next level when another season in college - provided they could handle it in the classroom - would have helped them to become more NFL-ready.
An unusually high nine players from the FCS level are part of the record class: running backs Terrance West of Towson, Isaiah Crowell of Alabama State and John Spooney of Brown; tight ends A.C. Leonard of Tennessee State and Nic Jacobs of McNeese State; wide receiver Jamel Johnson of Troy; safeties Pierre Warren of Jacksonville State and Nick Addison of Bethune-Cookman; and offensive tackle Terrance Hackney of Bethune-Cookman.
West is expected to be chosen first from the group (Walter Payton Award-winning quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois appears to be considered the top senior). Here's how West's decision to come out early and the other underclassmen's decisions rank:
Terrance West, RB, Towson, 5-11, 223 - West is turning 23 next week, so that was a factor he couldn't ignore even though he could have returned to the FCS national runner-up team and blown away Brian Westbrook's national career touchdown record. West's stock might never be higher after the best season ever for an FCS running back, and he received a third-round grade from the draft advisory board (although his spot may have slipped in recent weeks with so many FBS running backs declaring for early entry to the draft).
A.C. Leonard, TE, Tennessee State, 6-4, 245 - The former four-star tight end has NFL ability, but his character issues have plagued him, first at the University of Florida and then at Tennessee State, where his junior season was disappointing while he seemed unmotivated (he had made The Sports Network FCS All-America first team a year earlier as a sophomore). He's probably dropped himself to the later rounds of the draft, but it's best that he move on and try to be a surprise on the next level. He has good hands and is terrific after the catch, but must improve as a strong blocker.
Nic Jacobs, TE, McNeese State, 6-5, 260 - His terrific size and strength draw notice, and he received positive feedback from the draft advisory board. Although the LSU transfer, who played only one season at McNeese State, could have benefited from another year with the Cowboys, his fast-developing skills translate to the next level.
Terrance Hackney, OT, Bethune-Cookman, 6-6, 310 - If Hackney was going to have trouble being academically eligible next season, then this was the right decision. It didn't help his NFL cause to be ineligible this past season after earning third-team All-American honors from The Sports Network in 2012. He could be a late-round draft choice and probably needs to develop on a practice squad.
Other Top Juniors - There were plenty of potential junior draft candidates to speculate about during the 2013 season (http://tinyurl.com/lselcbp). Playing a senior season will only bolster the pro potential of Harvard defensive end Zach Hodges, South Dakota State's Zach Zenner and Tennessee State cornerback Stephen Godbolt III.
Pierre Warren, FS, Jacksonville State, 6-2, 200 - Warren will be graduating in August, so he would have needed a post-graduate year to remain in a JSU uniform this fall. But, oh, what a fall it could have been for Warren because the Gamecocks should be among the best teams in the FCS. He runs well (4.53 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and was exceptionally productive as a junior, but the Ohio Valley Conference has not exactly been known for top defensive players in recent seasons. He will go undrafted if he doesn't stand out in pre-draft workouts, so this appears to be a reach.
Isaiah Crowell, RB, Alabama State, 5-11, 190 - Crowell had announced by Thanksgiving that he was leaving school early. The former University of Georgia freshman sensation oozes talent with his fast feet, shifty moves and nose for the end zone. But he's had off-the-field issues to concern teams and his smaller size brings about durability concerns as well (he was banged up during his junior season and coach Reggie Barlow seemed to question Crowell's toughness). The one-time five-star prospect has slipped on draft boards considering the later flood of running backs entering the draft early.
Nick Addison, SS, Bethune-Cookman, 6-2, 180 - A sixth- to seventh-round grade from the draft advisory board and the recommendation from Bethune-Cookman coaches to remain in school didn't deter Addison from entering the draft early. He's two-time All-MEAC first-team selection, and the conference usually is represented well on draft day. His athleticism and size shine when the ball is in the air. But with one more season to put polish on his game, he might have moved into the middle rounds of the 2015 draft.
John Spooney, RB, Brown, 5-11, 185 - A senior academically, Spooney had one year of eligibility remaining at Brown because he took off the 2012 season to concentrate on running track. He had only one exceptional season with the Bears - leading the Ivy League in rushing this past year - and would have boosted his stock with another season. Although he has sprint champion's speed (four runs of at least 70 yards this past season), he didn't return kicks in college, which hurts his versatility.
Jamel Johnson, WR, Alabama State, 6-2, 230 - The third-leading receiver from any FCS school, let alone a SWAC team, usually doesn't have an NFL career ahead. Johnson began his career at Troy before transferring to Alabama State, where he caught 28 receptions and five touchdowns for 355 yards this past season.