In light of Epiphanny Prince's recent decision to play professional basketball overseas in lieu of returning for her senior season, I thought it would be interesting to glance a few months into the future, when a similar scenario will loom with another Rutgers University junior. It's going to be a topic of discussion all year; will Anthony Davis declare for the NFL Draft after the conclusion of the 2009 season?
Until recent years, the choice would have been relatively cut and dry. The conventional wisdom was that, compared to other positions, the NFL placed a premium on seniors at the quarterback and offensive tackle positions. Those were the two spots where players seemed to benefit from staying for an extra year. It's no coincidence that they are also where the NFL puts an emphasis on high scores on the Wonderlic test. He would stay in school.
In the relatively weak 2009 draft, that old adage was turned on its head, as two junior quarterbacks went in the top five picks, and Mark Sanchez's selection was immediately followed by that of Andre Smith. Truly, if Davis has eyes on leaving early for the NFL, he's turned out to be rather fortunate in his timing.
Evaluating Davis's sophomore campaign is tricky. He was good in pass protection, especially for a true sophomore. The play calling tried to run behind him when possible. He looked raw in terms of pushing his opponents off the line of scrimmage, but so did the other underclassmen linemen. Davis showed tremendous strength at the point of attack when lined up at right guard in 2007. He had the freedom to focus on demolishing his opponent, with little need to worry about greater intracacies of the position. Just worry about getting downfield, and pancaking anyone in your zone. When you have a hundred pounds on your opponent, and no corresponding disadvantage in athleticism, it comes naturally.
The last reason is why the NFL figures to be so interested in Davis in the future. He's listed at 6'6 and 325 pounds, which led some evaluators to pigeonhole him in at guard before he had ever taken a snap, but his agile feet and lateral quickness make him every bit a natural left tackle. That's why every school in the country wanted him two years ago. How many preseason forecasters have either seen him line up on the gridiron, or have experience evaluating line play? On the field to this point, he hasn't been as good as his left tackle predecessor Pedro Sosa was at this point in their respective careers. The lofty accolades being tossed around now are based off projecting his physical measurables as much as they are reverberations of an echo chamber.
Local products D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Eugene Monroe were top 10 picks despite being knocked for their run blocking, which illustrates the absolute premium that pro personnel evaluators place on the importance of protecting a quarterback's blind side. These are the guys who tend to see their stock rise every April. It's the planet theory in action, baby.
As far as talent goes, he's the best to line up for the Scarlet Knights in quite some time. Skills-wise, a Kenny Britt was NFL-ready as a junior; that was obvious to the naked eye, and anyone who didn't watch him had to be convinced by his selection in the first round. I thought Britt was ready as a sophomore, and would not go as far with Davis. Last year, there were plenty of reasons for optimism in AD's game. He still was a little raw though, and ultimately would leave you wanting. There's still room for improvement.
Whether or not it will ultimately make sense to declare depends on the strength of next year's draft class, and the NFL's seemingly newfound willingness to gamble on junior left tackles. If he submits his paperwork to the NFL's advisory committee (who gave Britt a first round grade last December), and is projected to be a high pick, he should declare. (I'm not really interested in debating this point, it's too loaded with preconceptions and hypocrisy.) It gets trickier towards the middle and end of the first round, or even the second or third.
Looking back at the 2008 rookie contract data, you'll see that senior tackle Jake Long signed a 5 year, $57.5 million dollar contract as the first overall selection. The dropoff to the next tackle at #12 was a cool $40 million dollars. The math may change if rookie salaries are held in check by the next NFL CBA, which may be in the works for 2010. That was a factor in so many juniors declaring this year.
There's a stark, tangible value for prospects in increasing theirr stock from the mid-t0-late first round range up to the top eight or so. Even taking into account signing a second contract sooner, or the collecting interest from paychecks earlier won't make up that kind of change. While it will be difficult to turn down several million dollars, the promise of a larger contract down the road could be even more enticing.
All of this does leave Rutgers in a bit of a conundrum this fall though. It goes without saying that everybody wants Anthony Davis to be good. Reports out of spring practice suggested a more well-rounded player ready to capitalize on his experience, and emerge in all facets of the game. Selfishly, there's a reason not to want him to be too good, as good as he is presumably capable of being, too soon. Working with the likes of line coach Kyle Flood over the next year, I'm not sure that we'll be so lucky.