HBCUs are stuck in reverse when it comes to the NFL Draft.
South Carolina State safety Christian Thompson, the Baltimore Raven’s fourth-round pick, was the only athlete from an HBCU selected in the 2012 draft. It is the lowest number of black college draft picks since 1994, and it continues a recent trend that has seen NFL teams snub athletes from HBCUs during the draft and then quickly sign them to free agent contracts.
HBCUs haven’t had double-digit draft picks since 13 athletes were selected in 2000. Eighty-four athletes from HBCUs were drafted from 1994-2000; the highpoint was in 1996 when 17 black college athletes were picked. Forty-nine black college athletes have been drafted since 2001, and 2012 was the 12th consecutive year that HBCUs have had fewer than 10 players drafted.
“That’s alarming,’’ Florida A&M coach Joe Taylor says of the low number of athletes from HBCUs in the 2012 NFL Draft. “I just can’t believe that.’’
On the other hand, NFL teams had signed 24 undrafted free agents as of May 3.
At 6-0, 211 pounds, Thompson played three seasons at South Carolina State after transferring from Auburn, has exceptional size and speed. He was a 2011 first-team All-MEAC pick after making 66 tackles and intercepting two passes for the Bulldogs. Draft analysts ranked him in the top 10 at his position going into the draft. He solidified his ranking with his performance at the NFL Combine in February. He had the best time in the 40-yard dash (4.50 seconds) among safeties and the third best time in the 60-yard shuttle.
The Ravens have Thompson penciled in as a backup at free safety behind All-Pro Ed Reed and strong safety behind Bernard Pollard. Thompson and Reed both live in South Florida and the two worked out together leading up to the draft after a chance meeting at a restaurant. Reed endorsed the Ravens selecting him.
“This is a blessing in disguise,’’ Thompson said after learning the Ravens had picked him. “It’s like a dream come true. Myself and plenty of other football players idolize Ed Reed. To be a part of the same defense as him and being able to learn from him is going to be a great experience. I’m just very excited. All the hard work and dedication paid off.’’
“It’s a perfect fit,’’ South Carolina State coach Buddy Pough says. “Reed will take him under his wing. They have similar ability. He reminds me of the guy (Reed) he’s going to back up – very physical and hard-nosed. He’s a legitimate guy. (Being drafted in the fourth round) didn’t happen just because he was blessed with talent. He’s a hard worker.’’
The Ravens selected Thompson based on need. Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski, the teams’ backup safeties last season, signed free agent contracts with the Carolina Panthers and the Indianapolis Colts.
“Christian is in the mold of the guys we like on defense,” Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees told the media following the draft. “He’s hard-nosed, tough and physical and smart. We like his versatility.
“We don’t really consider guys box safeties or whatever. We don’t want a one-dimensional safety that can only play down or play up. Christian can help us in a lot of ways.”
Thompson is expected to be a special teams starter immediately, and draft analysts project that in time he will be a starter on defense as well.
Thompson was the 130th player picked overall, and the second of two fourth-round picks for the Ravens. He isn’t a lock to make the Ravens’ roster, but the odds are in his favor. The same can’t be said for the crop of HBCU free agent signees, however.
“It’s unfortunate,’’ says Grambling State coach Doug Williams, a former personnel executive for the Tampa Buccaneers. “It’s hard for me to imagine that only one kid deserved to be drafted. I know better than that. A lot of teams draft kids (from major colleges) because they’re on a team. That’s a little disrespect (for HBCUs). I’m not saying it should be like it was in the ’70s. But it should be better than it is. I can live with three or four (HBCU athletes being drafted). One is hard to live with.’’
During the ’70s, HBCUs were the mother lode for talent for the NFL. Year in and year out NFL teams loaded up their rosters by drafting athletes from HBCUs. That trend continued well into the ’80s. It tapered off as schools in the Deep South – and not just schools from BCS conferences – started to recruit black athletes more heavily. As a result schools such as Troy State, North Alabama, Valdosta State, Nicholls State, Georgia Southern and James Madison began to produce NFL-caliber athletes.
“You can see the trend,’’ says ESPN College Football Analyst Jay Walker, who was picked in the seventh round of the 1994 NFL Draft after playing quarterback at Howard. “HBCUs don’t have a lock on guys at the FCS level going to the NFL.’’
That said, Walker still says that having just one athlete from an HBCU is mindboggling. Prairie View defensive Adrian Hamilton led the FCS with 20.5, and defensive ends Donovan Richardson of Jackson State, Corey Hart of Alabama A&M and linebacker Ryan Davis of Bethune-Cookman were in the top 10 in sacks. Yet none of them were drafted. Neither was Grambling wideout Mario Louis averaged 22.1 yards per catch and caught 18 touchdown passes.
“That was shocking,’’ Walker says. “Those guys can play.’’
All except Hart signed free agent contracts shortly after the draft ended.
“You can’t tell me Mario Louis shouldn’t be drafted,’’ Williams. “It’s not biased on part. If I was working in the league, I would have felt he should have been drafted.’’
Williams has compared Louis to former NFL standout Terrell Owens in terms of talent. He says receivers coaches from a number of NFL teams called him and said how much they liked what they saw in Louis.
Williams’ response: “Sell the coach on drafting him.’’
“I think scouts are afraid to put a grade on black college players,’’ Williams says. “They don’t want their supervisors talking down to them. I know how it is in that room. You have to have someone (in the draft room) who believes in what they stand up for. They have to have the guts to stand up. They write a kid up as draftable but they won’t put a grade on him.’’
Include USA TODAY’s veteran NFL writer Jarrett Bell among those who are baffled by the absence of black college athletes in this year’s NFL Draft. Bell acknowledges that the talent pool at HBCUs isn’t what it was 30 years ago, primarily because black athletes have more options. Also, Bell says, the increased number of juniors in the draft had an adverse impact on black college athletes’ chances of being drafted.
Still Bell doesn’t get why only one athlete from an HBCU was drafted.
“It would be a surprise that the talent dropped to the point of one guy being drafted,’’ he says. “With all the technology and the way the world is smaller – and you see it the football world – scouts say you don’t have sleepers like you used to. Everybody is plugged in. There is a bias toward bigger schools. A guy at Texas or Oklahoma who’s a backup linebacker or complementary guy, he’s going to get looked at so many more times than a guy at an HBCU who may be a starter, the leading tackler and the whole thing. That’s an interesting dynamic. It shouldn’t be the case. We’ve seen enough players (from HBCUs) in recent years come into the league and stay. I just have to say they’re getting overlooked.’’
The scarcity of athletes from HBCUs in recent NFL drafts may not be a case of them simply being overlooked. Teams reap economic benefits when undrafted free agents make their rosters. NFL contracts are not guaranteed, unlike in the NBA. The only money NFL players are assured of receiving is their signing bonus.
Signing bonuses for undrafted rookies in 2011, the first year of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL and its players, ranged from $500-$30,000. The signee bonus for seventh-round picks ranged from $40,000-$70,000; sixth-round picks’ bonuses averaged $78,000-$128,000.
When teams are high on athletes from an HBCU who they believe will make their roster but other teams aren’t likely to draft, they pass on them. Soon after the draft, teams sign those players to free agent contracts. That means a savings for them since they pay free agents a smaller bonus than they pay drafted players. That practice reduces HBCUs to being a source of cheap labor for NFL teams.
“That’s on the low,’’ Williams says. “They look at as if a kid makes it as free agent that’s a value pick. It’s unfortunate. It happens. It’s smart of them.’’
“It’s about getting the best player you can as cheap as you can,’’ Walker says. “It means when you get into camp you have to work a little bit harder than players from other schools. That trend hasn’t changed. That’s how it was even in the decades when (black college athletes) were being drafted.’’
The absence of athletes from HBCUs in the draft is taking a toll on black colleges’ recruiting efforts. Athletes tend to favor schools that they believe give them an opportunity to reach the NFL.
“Other schools, whether it’s (FCS) or Division II can sell the fact that Grambling players aren’t being drafted,’’ Williams says. “We have to take some of the blame. We have to prepare kids little better than have, and sell them a little netter. Black college administrators don’t understand the impact on the University for one of these kids to get drafted. They have to understand the importance of spreading the word. Some of it is at the SID (Sports Information Department) position. You can hardly find our scores. Forget about stats.’’
The result: athletes from HBCUs being chosen in the NFL Draft are becoming about as rare as a rose in winter.
“The thing used to be that if you were good enough to play (at an HBCU) and good enough to play in the NFL, they’ll find you. You can’t say that now,’’ Walker says.