ACC star linebacker enters the draft
Maryland junior WLB Erin Henderson has officially declared as an early entry for the NFL draft. The younger brother to Minnesota Vikings MLB, E.J., Erin earned consensus all-ACC first-team honors this season, leading the conference with 133 tackles. Two years removed from a torn left anterior cruciate ligament that prematurely ended his 2005 season, Henderson appears finally healthy and should continue adding bulk to a still skeletal frame.
Projected as a weakside linebacker in a cover-2 scheme due to his athleticism and explosive tackling, the undersized Henderson is still tentative filling the hole, and struggles taking on and shedding blockers. As evidenced this season against Virginia, in which previously unheralded RB Mikell Simpson amassed 119 yards in his first career start, Henderson will also overpursue in run defense and get sealed off at the second level, creating gaping cut-back lanes.
Regardless, he is projected as a Day One lock, with the distinct possibility of cracking the first round, given the lack of athleticism in this year’s linebacker crop.
Highly-touted defensive ends make it official
Junior defensive ends Derrick Harvey (Florida) and Calais Campbell (Miami, Fla) have declared for the draft as expected.
Following a dominant three-sack effort in the 2006 national championship game, Harvey entered the season to greater expectations. He responded with a disappointing six and a half sacks through the regular season, but again shined in the national spotlight, recording eight tackles and two sacks in the Capital One Bowl vs. Michigan.
At 6-5, 250-pounds, Harvey is a long-limbed, physical specimen and disciplined in his assignments, but relies to heavily on the bull rush, does not utilize an effective inside spin (see Auburn ’06) or extend his arms and use his hands to his advantage. Still, he is considered a first round lock.
Campbell entered the season to similar acclaim following a 10.5-sack campaign in 2006. However, like Harvey, Campbell struggled to meet expectations, posting a disappointing six and a half sacks on the season. At a physically imposing 6-8, 280-pounds, Harvey’s drop in production coincides with the departure of highly respected, but demanding defensive line coach John Palermo. Campbell appeared less motivated under new head coach Larry Shannon’s regime, and questions regarding his work ethic will likely drop him to the second or third round.
Last hurrah for Rice?
Although officially undecided, Rutgers junior RB Ray Rice is expected to also declare for the draft. Rice will compete in Saturday’s International Bowl vs. Ball State to conclude a second consecutive season in which he has compiled at least 335 carries. At a listed 5-9, 205-pounds, the between-the-tackles runner has taken a tremendous pounding as the centerpiece of a revitalized Rutgers program.
Given the short lifespan of running backs and the potential for injury should he return, Rice might be inclined to capitalize on another 1,700-yard rushing season. The under-sized back will not stand out at the combine, and is projected to run a 4.6-40 yard dash, but has been durable as a featured back the last two seasons, and in football circles has drawn comparisons to Emmitt Smith as a back that compensates for his lack of size with above-average vision, balance, and the ability to gain yards after contact. His lack of size and speed, however, will likely drop Rice to the third round.
Big East receiver declares for the draft
Syracuse senior WR Taj Smith will forgo his final year of eligibility and enter the draft. A former JUCO transfer, Smith appeared in four games last season, before suffering a collarbone injury and redshirting the remainder of the season.
Fully recovered from the injury, Smith started all 12 games this season, and compiled 44 receptions for 822 yards (18.7-yard average) and five touchdowns, ranking second in the Big East in yards per reception.
Smith burst onto the national scene with a 4-173-2 performance in a stunning upset of Louisville, highlighted by a 60-yard catch and run, in which he spun away from one defender and sprinted untouched toward the endzone for the score. The 6-1, 188-pounder, however, ranked second on the team in receptions, behind sophomore Mike Williams, and is currently off the radar in scouting circles. Projected at best as a late Day Two pick, Smith is strong after the catch and an adequate route runner, but is inconsistent catching the ball, cradles the ball rather than using his hands, and is tightly wound and struggles to sink his hips.