Can you win the draft by not being in the draft? If you can, then the winners were Notre Dame’s star defensive ends who spurned their NFL futures for one more season and returned to the Irish defense.
Soon to be seniors Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem both enjoyed breakout seasons last year, with Okwara tying for the team lead in sacks with 8 and notching an astounding 21 quarterback hurries. Kareem finished the year with 4.5 sacks, eight hurries, while dealing with various foot and ankle injuries throughout the year.
Either player could have justifiably left for the NFL after their junior seasons, and likely would have gone in the first three rounds. Both decided to stay and improve their games and gambled on a jump in their draft position. After seeing the results of the first round, they have to love what they saw.
A Run On The Defensive Line
It’s no surprise the NFL values pass rushers, it is now a passing league. There was a plethora of defensive lineman and pass rushers taken with the first 32 selections Thursday night. 38% of all first round picks were defensive lineman, with six defensive ends, and three defensive tackles who specialize in rushing the passer.
Two defensive ends taken in the top 10, Clelin Ferrell and Josh Allen, both pulled similar moves as Okwara and Kareem this year, forgoing the draft last year and returning for their senior seasons. Both improved from having good seasons in 2017 to monster years in 2018, with Ferrell notching 11.5 sacks for the national champions after registering 9.5 the previous season and Allen exploding for 17 sacks after just seven in 2018.
Allen’s ascension is of particular interest to Okwara. Allen stands at 6-5, 260, Okwara 6-5, 240. In 2017 Allen registered 7 sacks and only 3 hurries. He obviously became a huge force in 2018, jumping to 17 sacks. Is it inconceivable that Okwara converts on half of his 21 hurries last season? Can eight sacks become 17 or 18? It’s reasonable to think yes.
It Pays To Wait
This discussion takes place outside of the overall conversation about whether or not players should or should not leave early. As we all know, these guys are playing for free and who are we to tell individual players when they should or shouldn’t try and earn a living. That said, it has been profitable for Irish players during the Kelly era who returned and played their senior seasons.
Harrison Smith, Michael Floyd, Tyler Eifert, Zach Martin, Ronnie Stanley, Mike McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson, and Jerry Tillery are all examples of players who could have left early and been selected within the first three rounds in the NFL draft. All decided to return for their senior seasons and all were selected in the first round, making themselves millions more in guaranteed dollars.
And beyond the decisions of Ferrell and Allen, defensive tackle Christian Wilkins also returned for his senior season, which paid off for him in the form of the 13th selection in the draft.
It should also be noted that by waiting, Okwara and Kareem don’t have to compete with all of these other defensive ends for their draft position. As good as they can be and as good as they were last season, they are not first round picks in this draft. Next year they will be the cream of the crop. The others will be struggling to catch up with them.
The work of course is not done for Okwara and Kareem. They still need to raise their games and it needs to pay off next season. Everyone mentioned above did not simply skate into their senior seasons and get drafted high. They all took their games to new levels and it paid with their draft position.
Okwara and Kareem were good last season. This year they will be expected to be great. What they have done is give themselves the chance to be great, to be the class of college football at defensive end and dominate football games.
Every bit of evidence and reporting supports how seriously they are taking this, and if there was any doubt in their minds about their decision it should have been reinforced by what happened during the NFL draft on Thursday night. All they have to do now is pay it off, which is tremendous for the players and fans alike.