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Paul Myerberg, @PaulMyerberg, USA TODAY Sports
Underclassmen will have an impact on the first round of the NFL draft more than ever before.

As of Tuesday a record 91 underclassmen had opted to leave at least one season of NCAA eligibility on the table to chase a spot in May's draft. That total -- the deadline for draft-eligible underclassmen to declare is today -- shatters last year's mark of 73. There were 65 in 2012 and 56 in 2011. Of the 73 underclassmen who entered last year's draft, 21 went unselected.

Largely as a result of the record number, non-seniors should dominate the draft's first round -- especially at the top.

"There's going to be a lot of good underclassmen who get drafted high, whether it's (Louisville's) Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel, Jadeveon Clowney," said Russ Lande, a former NFL scout. "A lot of the elite juniors come out because they know they're going to go high."

The leading contenders to be taken by the Houston Texans with the No. 1 overall pick, Bridgewater and Clowney, entered the draft after their junior seasons. Two of the top three quarterback prospects -- Bridgewater and Central Florida's Blake Bortles -- would have been seniors in 2014. Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel would have been a junior.

No position seems to illustrate the non-senior's hold on the draft more so than wide receiver, where the consensus top four prospects are underclassmen: Clemson's Sammy Watkins, Texas A&M's Mike Evans, Southern California's Marqise Lee and Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin.

"Usually there's a handful of juniors, like five or six elite junior receivers, but also five or six elite seniors, so they're sort of mixed together in who goes where in the first round," Lande said. "But this year there are really few senior receivers that are going to be in the discussion for first-round picks."

This year's influx continues a recent trend that shows no sign of stopping -- and one that might continue owing to how non-seniors will dominate the opening stages.

"As the NFL draft business grows, these kids get more and more information, get more and more hype," Lande said. "The guys that are elite, like Clowney or Bridgewater, who come into the year viewed as a definite top-10 pick, I think there's almost no way to keep them in school."


January 15, 2014




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