In his assessment last year of the draft stock of former USC offensive tackle Sam Baker, my SI.com colleague Stewart Mandelwrote a sentence that perfectly encapsulates why the NFL draft process is so maddening to those of us who follow the college game. "Baker reportedly did not test well at USC's pro day," Mandel wrote, "which means, of course, that those four years never happened."
Baker, it should be noted, won the Falcons' starting left tackle job out of camp. While back surgery limited him for much of the season, Baker is expected to start at left tackle for a long time. The Falcons got him at No. 21, after five other offensive tackles already had been selected.
So let me try to understand. A four-year starter for the most dominant team in college football was worse than five other guys at his position? Because he wasn't quite as quick as them in the three-cone drill? In shorts?
Obviously, some players get overlooked during the college recruiting process and develop into studs later. NFL personnel people have to beat the bushes lest they miss the next Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State). But most of the time, the players who perform well in the NFL starred on elite teams in power conferences.
Three years ago, NFL observers marveled at how Texans linebacker DeMeco Ryans came out of nowhere as a second rounder to become the NFL's defensive rookie of the year. Problem is, Ryans didn't come out of nowhere. He was clearly the best defender on a very good 2005 Alabama team. Anybody who watched the SEC that season knew Ryans would become an NFL star, yet every team passed on him in the first round.
This season, some general managers will kick themselves when they realize they shouldn't have passed over a college star with a solid on-field record for a workout wonder. Who will that player be? My guess is the first guy on this list of the most underrated and overrated prospects -- from the perspective of someone who cares more about what they did in pads than in shorts.
Andre Smith, OT, Alabama
Yes, Smith flaked out at the combine. Dumb move. Yes, he missed the Sugar Bowl because of his dealings with an agent. Even dumber move. But guess what will happen when Smith gets on the field? He's going to maul people, because that's all he does. He won the starting left tackle job the moment he stepped on campus at Alabama. He's held his own against defensive ends such as Derrick Harvey, Tyson Jackson and Greg Hardy. Some mock drafts had Smith in the 20s after his early exit at the combine. Fortunately, common sense has pushed Smith's stock higher. But if he doesn't go in the top three, it's not high enough.
Hakeem Nicks, WR, North Carolina
Nicks and Maryland's Darrius Heyward-Bey played in the ACC. Nicks caught 68 passes for 1,222 yards and 12 touchdowns. Those numbers don't even take into account the awesomeness of this catch against West Virginia in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Meanwhile, Heyward-Bey, playing a similar schedule, caught 42 passes for 609 yards and five touchdowns. Granted, Heyward-Bey is a threat on end-arounds, but that still doesn't explain why Heyward-Bey is ranked higher than Hicks in most mock drafts. It's not rocket science. All other things equal -- and in this case, they were -- I'm picking the guy who caught more passes for more yards and more touchdowns.
Shonn Greene, RB, Iowa
Greene finished second in rushing in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 1,850 yards. He also scored 20 touchdowns. So, naturally, he's a potential first-rounder, right? No. Second-rounder? No. Third-rounder? Maybe. Green averaged 6.03 yards a carry, but after he ran a 4.62-second 40-yard dash at the combine, his stock dropped faster than General Motors. So for all those plays when Greene has to run 40 yards straight down the field, he's sunk. I'll take him for those plays when I need three yards on third down.
Sen'Derrick Marks, DT, Auburn
Marks ran a slower-than-expected 40 (5.0) and put up low bench press number (16 reps at 225 pounds) at the combine, so he probably won't get picked until the second round. Whoever selects him will get a quick interior lineman who can disrupt pass plays and stop the run. Marks, whose draft preparation diary is running in the Montgomery Advertiser, made an excellent point in his April 15 entry. "It's not the National Combine League," Marks told writer Jay G. Tate. "It's a football league."
Stephen McGee, QB, Texas A&M
McGee is underrated, but that isn't the fault of NFL personnel people. It's the fault of a certain coach who had a side business selling team injury news to fans. Former Aggies coach Dennis Franchione took McGee, one of the Lone Star State's best prep passers, and plunked him into an option offense to mask the deficiencies of the players around him. While many quarterbacks would have transferred immediately, McGee took one for the team. In spite of the poor fit, McGee beat Texas twice. Two shoulder injuries his senior year gave him no chance to show his skills in new coach Mike Sherman's NFL-style offense, but McGee will get his chance soon.
Matthew Stafford, QB, Georgia
Stafford has the best physical tools of any quarterback in the draft, but he may not be the best choice for the Lions, who need a complete franchise reboot. At Georgia, Stafford made throws no one else could make, but a lot of those throws went to the other team.
He threw double-digit interceptions in each of his three seasons, including six in three years against Florida, the Bulldogs' biggest opponent every year. Stafford's undeniable skills make him an obvious high first-round pick, but he probably shouldn't be the No. 1 overall pick. The Lions need to build with a cornerstone left tackle, not a quarterback.
Jeremy Maclin, WR, Missouri
Maclin is an excellent player and a surefire first-rounder, but is he really 15-20 picks better than Florida's Percy Harvin? Harvin has obvious durability issues, but so does Maclin. A knee injury forced him to miss his entire freshman season. Maclin is a proven kick return threat, but Harvin averaged more yards per catch and more yards per rush. Even if Harvin tested positive for pot at the combine -- which is more like failing an intelligence test -- is it worth it to take Maclin at No. 8 or trade down, take Harvin at No. 25 and get another draft pick or two?
Josh Freeman, QB, Kansas State
With the exception of a 478-yard explosion that came on a day when Oklahoma raced to a 28-7 first-quarter lead, Freeman put up awful numbers against the Wildcats' best opponents. Freeman has all the physical tools, but he never made his team that much better. Compare that to a Matt Ryan, who obviously made his Boston College teams better and then did the same thing for the Atlanta Falcons.
Malcolm Jenkins, CB, Ohio State
The Washington Post's Mark Maske wrote an interesting story about NFL coaches' lack of enthusiasm for the cornerbacks in this draft. Knowing that, why use a mid-first round pick on Jenkins when you can save money and take Wake Forest's Alphonso Smith or Vanderbilt's D.J. Moore? If the talent gap isn't huge, why not save a few million?
Michael Oher, OT, Ole Miss
It has been suggested that Oher might wind up as a right tackle. If that's the case, why not take a right tackle in a lower round and avoid paying the premium Oher will command in the middle of the first round? Or, if you're just building depth on the offensive line, grab Oregon center Max Unger, who also could play guard or right tackle in the NFL.