Welcome to my third annual Overrated/Underrated NFL Draft column.
Two years ago, league personnel directors would have been smart to take some of my advice, which included Jacksonville Jaguars QB Byron Leftwich and Carolina Panthers cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. among the underrated and thus-far disastrous 49ers tackle Kwame Harris among the overrated. Last year, GMs would have been better off drawing names out of a hat than listening to me, who foolishly deemed two rookie standouts, Lions receiver Roy Williams and Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris, as overrated at their positions, and a guy who never made it off a practice squad, former West Virginia running back Quincy Wilson, as underrated.
Everyone's entitled to one down year, though, so here's guessing the 2005 edition will be nothing short of fool proof.
Overrated: Jason Campbell, Auburn There's no denying Campbell was as good as any quarterback in the country his senior season and arguably the most important contributor to the Tigers' 13-0 season. At nearly 6-foot-5 and with a strong release, he's physically impressive. But one strong year shouldn't completely override the three previous, weak ones. For most of his career, Campbell struggled with the mental aspect of the game, making poor decisions and struggling to pick up offensive schemes. He finally thrived in the West Coast offense employed by his fourth coordinator in as many years, Al Borges, but several of Borges' predecessors found themselves simplifying their playbooks as much as possible to appease Campbell. As SI.com's Peter Kingreported last week, Campbell scored a less-than-impressive 14 on his first attempt at the Wonderlic test last year. NFL coaches won't have the time or patience to wait another four years for him to grasp a pro offense.
Underrated: Stefan LeFors, Louisville Nine times out of 10, when a prospect is rated substantially lower than his college production should merit, it's because of his size. In LeFors' case, he stands just over 6 feet -- about three inches shorter than most of the players rated ahead of him. When are NFL people ever going to get over this misconception that you have to be 6-4 to be a successful pro quarterback? Hello? Drew Brees? Doug Flutie? Once you get past the height, it's impossible to ignore LeFors' ridiculous production as a college QB, including a staggering 73.5 completion percentage last season. In his most impressive performance, at the Orange Bowl against Miami on Oct. 14, LeFors completed 17 of 22 passes for 242 yards and three touchdowns before leaving the game with a concussion. On one touchdown pass he used his eyes and motion to throw off 'Canes CB Antrel Rolle, who's only expected to be a top-10 pick.
Overrated: Frank Gore, Miami As a true freshman in 2001, Gore, playing in the same backfield as future stars Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee, was more explosive than either of them. Gore was pegged as the next great Miami running back, and rightfully so. Unfortunately, two ACL injuries later, he wasn't nearly the same runner last season and probably never will be. Gore may have a clean bill medically, but that doesn't change the fact he's become tentative on his cuts and average speed-wise. He averaged a good-but-not-great 5.0 yards per carry as a junior and would have benefited tremendously from another year of college, playing behind a healthier 'Canes offensive line. Some team will snatch up Gore late in the first day, just because of his potential, but sadly, he may never return to the level necessary to be an NFL running back.
Underrated: Darren Sproles, Kansas State I don't care how small he is, Sproles is simply a breathtaking runner. So what if he measures in slightly below 5-7? That's nearly the same height as former Oklahoma star Quentin Griffin, and the Denver Broncos have found a place for him. You won't find another back in the draft with as much breakaway speed as Sproles. Once he hits a hole, he's gone, as the Sooners found out the hard way in the 2003 Big 12 title game, when Sproles ran for 235 yards on 22 carries. He ran for 3,451 yards and 33 touchdowns his sophomore and junior seasons, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. His production dipped slightly as a senior (1,318 yards, 11 TDs), but that was due in large part to the Wildcats' lack of a passing threat, allowing defenses to key on Sproles. I can understand not wanting to make him a franchise pick, but you'd be crazy not to snatch him up as a potentially dangerous second back/special teams player.