While America’s major sports leagues have all relaxed their age requirements to enter their respective drafts, the NFL has been the most reluctant to reduce it.
To many, that is a credit to the NFL, which has faced court challenges (see Maurice Clarett) to its minimum age requirements for the draft.
That’s not to say it hasn’t evolved.
In 1990, the league relented a bit, reducing the minimum requirement of four years of college football to three. Today, players must be three years removed from high school.
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That could mean a player is eligible at 21 if he graduates at 18. Or it could mean 23 if he graduates at 20. College isn’t a requirement, though very few have played down in the NFL without that experience.
The bottom line is it really does take several years in a slow cooker for a prospective player to adequately develop or even more fully refine the physical, mental and emotional characteristics to succeed in a very demanding league.
Time and seasoning make for a better football player on a team, a better teammate in the locker room and a better citizen in the community. You could say that about anybody in any profession.
“If you remember growing up … let’s say you played baseball,” said Gil Brandt, the former longtime player personnel director of the Dallas Cowboys, “and in the third grade when you hit it to right field, it was a home run. In the fourth grade, you hit it to right, it was a double. In the fifth grade, the hit to right might have been caught or only a single.
“That’s the difference between college and the NFL. We have these players who come in now who think they’re strong. And by college standards, they are. But they have no idea what lifting and nutrition is all about.”
All of that – the rule and that mentality – have fueled speculation with the NFL draft coming to AT&T Stadium about who could have made the jump from high school to the NFL.
ESPN did the leg work on a survey of several NFL scouts a few years ago, asking who among former players had the ability and physical traits to have made that jump. The position most accommodating, they said, would be running back.
On their list was Eric Dickerson, Adrian Peterson – both Texas guys – and Walter Payton. They also suggested offensive linemen Anthony Munoz and Bruce Matthews and defensive lineman Eric Swann, who, instead of college football, bided his time with a brief stint at Wake Technical Community College in North Carolina and a semi-pro team.
Like Swann, Ray Seals, Sav Rocca and Michael Lewis all went to the NFL without college experience, but none did so until several years after high school.
Peterson was outspoken about it a few years back, telling reporters that of the guys who went into the league after his freshman year in 2005, he believed he was better. Peterson left Palestine High School riding laurels as one of, if not the, best players in the country. As a senior, he rushed for 2,960 yards and 32 touchdowns. As a freshman at Oklahoma in 2004, he rushed for 1,860 yards and 15 TDs.
“Like Cedric Benson, I felt like my freshman year I should have won the Doak Walker Award, but they gave it to him. ... I feel like I was a better player than him. And so it's like, 'I'm a true freshman, and if Cedric can go in [to the NFL] and play, then why couldn't I do it?’ ”
Brandt believes Herschel Walker, who finished third in the Heisman voting as a freshman at Georgia, was another who might have been able to make the jump.
Another could have been another Texas high school legend: Earl Campbell, especially considering his immediate impact when he came into the league.
Though, again, he had four years of college experience before he entered the league.
As a freshman at Texas, Campbell led his team with 928 yards in Darrell Royal’s wishbone after Roosevelt Leaks, an early Heisman favorite in 1974, got hurt.
Though his career never lived up to all his hopes and dreams, Louisville’s Amobi Okoye, who graduated from high school at 16, enjoys the distinction as the youngest player ever drafted in the NFL at 19 years and 10 months when he was selected 10th overall by the Texans in 2007. He last played for the Cowboys in 2014.
This year, Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds will be just short of his 20th birthday.
He is the youngest player in the draft this year.
Brandt called Edmunds a “boy in a man’s body.”
“The maturity of a 21-year-old is low compared to a veteran,” Brandt said. “Look at the maturity of an 18-year-old. … Where does he stand?”
The question, of course, was designed to make a point rather than be answered?