Which college football freshmen could go one-and-done to the NFL draft if allowed?
- While freshmen dominate the NBA draft, the NFL, of course, requires players to wait three years. But if it didn't, these freshmen would be worthy of draft picks.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has paid a minute of attention to the NBA draft that this year’s draft class is dominated by freshmen. The era of the one-and-done star in college basketball, players who spend the minimum required single season on college campuses before jumping to the pros, is in full effect. In Andrew Sharp’s latest mock draft for SI.com, nine of the projected top 10 picks are freshmen, and the only non-freshman is an international player.
With the NFL’s requirement that players be three years removed from high school, the one-and-done trend is a non-issue in football. But as the NBA draft approaches, it got us thinking about what players could be good enough to leap straight from college football to the NFL after just one season. The adjustment would be exceedingly difficult, and surely freshmen wouldn’t take over the first round the way they do in basketball. But after these players’ debut seasons, SI’s college football experts have seen enough to say they’d be worthy of a draft pick if the rules allowed.
Pete Thamel: Ed Oliver, DT, Houston
Oliver is a close copy of former Pittsburgh star Aaron Donald, an athletic, productive and disruptive force with one of the highest motors I've ever seen on a young lineman. The Cougars’ star won't be the No. 1 pick in the draft in two years because he's a pinch small and doesn't have optimum freakiness. But he's going to be a highly productive player at that position for a long time.
Joan Niesen: Ed Oliver, DT, Houston
This was pretty much a no-brainer. The Houston defensive tackle stands 6'2", weighs 291 pounds and put up one of the best defensive seasons by a freshman that I can remember in 2016. His 22.5 tackles for a loss speak for themselves; only two players logged more last year.
Chris Johnson: Dexter Lawrence, DT, Clemson
After arriving on campus as the nation's No. 3 recruit, Lawrence made the nigh-impossible task of exceeding his recruiting hype look remarkably easy. While it takes most first-year defensive linemen (even the highly touted ones) a year or two to grow accustomed to the physicality of college trench warfare, Lawrence spent his freshman season pulverizing opposing offensive linemen with a potent combination of size (6'5”, 340 pounds) and strength. The Wake Forest, N.C., product is only going to improve over the remainder of his college career, but NFL teams would have been tempted to draft him this spring had he been eligible. He is that good.
Eric Single: Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama
It's so hard to envision a quarterback jumping to the NFL after just one year on a college campus, but it's even harder to believe that no QBs would make the leap if this hypothetical rule allowed it. I'll ride with the SEC Offensive Player of the Year, whose ability to limit freshman mistakes was almost as impressive as his athleticism and creativity. (It wouldn't hurt that the external hype surrounding early enrollee Tua Tagovailoa is already ramping up the pressure on Hurts to earn his second year at the helm of the Alabama offense.) Could Hurts handle a professional playbook or draw from a full arsenal of NFL throws at this stage? Almost certainly not. But his fast start in 2016 indicates he could grasp just enough to be dangerous in time for Week 1.
Colin Becht: Ed Oliver, DT, Houston
Few players in any class were more productive than Oliver was in his true freshman season. The five-star recruit more than lived up to the hype, racking up 22.5 tackles for loss, third most in the country, to go along with five sacks and three forced fumbles. While it’d be easy to discount his numbers due to Houston’s Group of Five schedule, remember what he did against Louisville: three tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble. Getting to watch Oliver dominate college offensive linemen and smother running backs and quarterbacks for the next two years is going to a treat, but one season of college football has offered plenty of proof he’ll shine in the NFL.
Mike Harris: Taylor Rapp, S, Washington
I saw all I needed to see in the Pac-12 championship game. Two picks, one for a touchdown. Washington’s secondary was outstanding, and Rapp was a major reason why. Will he become a big-time play-making safety in the NFL? He’s as good a bet as any.