Finally, some of the college underclassmen are becoming more cautious about trying to make the jump to the NFL.
This year’s early-entry list includes 74 players, and an additional 10 players became eligible after notifying the NFL that they had graduated.
Last year, a record 98 players were granted special draft eligibility, and a record 36 underclassmen weren’t drafted. This is the first time since 2009 that the number of early-entry players decreased from the previous season.
However, while there might not be the same quantity, there is some quality, which bodes well for the Falcons, who select eighth overall in the draft, which will be held April 30-May 2 in Chicago.
“If you look at the elite guys, the majority of the underclassmen came out,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “All of the guys that I graded high came out, except for Leonard Floyd from Georgia, an outside linebacker. … Everybody else who had a real good grade came out.”
Some players likely elected to follow their pre-draft evaluations.
“Some of the time, the names you see on that list are mind-boggling,” Kiper said. “How many of them are elite guys? The percentage of those players who are going in the first three rounds is probably as high as it’s ever been. So, I think guys made smarter decisions.”
The top of the draft will be shaped by the evaluation of quarterbacks. Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, the past two Heisman Trophy winners, will be heavily scrutinized.
Kiper believes that Winston is the best quarterback and that Mariota is a developmental project, unless he reunites with coach Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, who formerly was the head coach at Oregon.
Winston, who had several off-the-field issues at Florida State, will face a meticulous background check before an NFL team becomes comfortable with selecting him.
“If a team determines that he’s mature and that it’s not going to happen again, then he goes No. 1,” Kiper said.
Mariota is considered a “system quarterback” in some quarters and not the classic NFL drop-back prospect.
“Take that running out and just call it mobility,” Kiper said. “He’s got the arm. He’s got the size. He’s got the character, the intelligence, the work ethic, all of the things that you need to fit into any offense down the road. If you want to force-feed him, he’s obviously not going to be ready.”
There is early speculation that the Eagles, who are set to draft 20th, may trade up to land Mariota.
“He would fit there,” Kiper said. “He would be ideal there. But you need a bridge in terms of a quarterback to get to him. You have that at Tampa. You have that at Tennessee.” Tampa Bay picks first and Tennessee second in the draft.
Kiper projects that Mariota will be selected in the top 10.
“But you know you have to develop him,” Kiper said. “If you want him to play right away and be an impactful rookie or second-year guy that would probably be asking too much, unless you are the Eagles.”
Finding some help for their anemic pass rush will be the Falcons’ top priority this offseason. USC’s Leonard Williams, Nebraska’s Randy Gregory and Missouri’s Shane Ray are the top pass rushers in the draft.
Ray caught ESPN analyst Todd McShay’s eye when he was studying Michael Sam for last year’s draft.
“He took his game to another level this year,” McShay said. “I love his first step quickness.”
Gregory, who is one of the underclassmen in the draft, is training for the combine at Goldin Athletics Training Association in Duluth. He wants to ensure that he’s a top-10 selection.
“For me, it’s an everyday grind,” Gregory said.
Gregory, who was a first-team All-Big Ten selection as a junior, finished his two-year career at Nebraska with 17.5 sacks after transferring from Arizona Western, a junior college.
“I’m a real versatile player,” said Gregory, who’s 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds. “I can play standing up. I can play with my hand down.”
Some teams may try to convert him to a 3-4 outside linebacker.
“I’m pretty versatile, so I can play either spot,” Gregory said. “I’m willing to play anything if they’ll put me out there. I’m willing to return punts.”
He knows the Falcons, who had 22 sacks and ranked 30th in the league last season, are seeking to improve their pass rush.
“I can help Atlanta,” Gregory said.
Kiper projects that Gregory will go before the Falcons pick and that the Falcons will select Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., who started his career under Falcons’ coach in-waiting Dan Quinn.
The Falcons, who must improve their rushing attack, may have a shot at Georgia running back Todd Gurley in the second round. Gurley, who is one of the underclassmen who declared for the draft, suffered a torn ACL in November.
“I think in terms of the running back spot, Gurley would have been a top-15 pick had he not been injured,” Kiper said. “That allowed Melvin Gordon III to move to that top spot at running back.
“In terms of Todd Gurley, some think late (he may go late in the) first (round) coming off the injury. I think second round, but when you get into Round 2, Gurley would be a great pick.”
The Falcons hold the 10th pick of the second round, which will be the 42nd overall, because of ties with the New York Giants and St. Louis Rams.