The first pick of Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson's tenure was an underclassman.
On April 23, 2005, Thompson put an end to quarterback Aaron Rodgers' slide through the first round of the draft, taking him with the 24th selection overall.
Rodgers was 21 years and four months old, a mere babe in a league where most redshirted players are 23 and physically and mentally more prepared to enter the most pressurized environment they're ever likely to encounter. Who knows how Rodgers would have fared had he not been able to learn from the sideline for three seasons while Brett Favre directed the offense?
Maybe his rookie year would have been like Jermichael Finley's. Freshly 21 when he was drafted in 2008, Finley was simply underdeveloped physically and overwhelmed mentally to do much more than catch six passes his rookie season.
Or maybe it would have been like first-round pick Nick Perry and second-round pick Jerel Worthy, a pair of defensive players at the top of the 2012 class, who were more ready physically than Rodgers and Finley but not mentally. Both struggled adapting to new positions, didn't contribute much and suffered season-ending injuries.
Such is the risk of drafting underclassmen. But despite that history, Thompson has had to change with the times and accept there's a lot to choose from -- especially in the first two rounds -- when it comes to picking them.
In the NFL, players must be out of high school three full seasons to be eligible for the draft. That means most players declaring for the draft early are either juniors or, in some cases, sophomores with a season of being redshirted in college.
During the last four seasons, Thompson has taken seven juniors, which is far more than he took in the five previous seasons combined. Whereas 9.8 percent (5 of 51) of Thompson's picks from '05-'09 were juniors, 25 percent (9 of 36) have been juniors from '10-'13.
There are a record 98 underclassmen available this year, including 20 or more who may be picked in the first round, leaving Thompson and his staff with a lot of questions to ask themselves, not the least of which is whether they're putting themselves out on a limb should they pick a junior.
In fact, it's a league-wide issue as teams contemplate whether these young players can avoid being run out of the NFL because they're not ready to handle the big time.
"The juniors added into it make it a very talented group," Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert, a draft-and-develop practitioner like Thompson, said at the combine in February. "But the one thing that we talk about with these juniors, or any of the underclassmen, the redshirt sophomores, we are very cautiously optimistic about their emotional and physical readiness for this.
"This is a huge jump. Even though it's a more talented group, or the most talented group that I have seen, I am also worried that it's probably the most immature group."
Several coaches speaking during the NFL owners meetings in March said they weren't that concerned about incorporating juniors into their program. But for a young team, which the Packers annually are, it's critical to remember how easy it is for a player's career to skid off the road if he's not mature enough.
When you get beyond the top 10 picks, who are typically players physically and mentally ready for the NFL, you see more busts. Maybe the rate at which they disappoint is the same as seniors, but there always will be that question about whether they were pushed too far too fast.
"I believe that these guys (underclassmen this year) are talented guys at all of the positions," said Houston coach Bill O'Brienv, who coached at Penn State last season. "You see that there are guys that are instinctive and talented, and how they translate to this league, but you don't really know until you see them play.
"You're trying to do a good job of studying their strengths and their power and their instinctiveness. Then you want to meet them and see what type of people they are and try and make the best pick."
In his early years, Thompson didn't take many underclassmen.
From 2005-'09 he selected five. In order they were: Rodgers and cornerback Michael Hawkins in '05, receiver Cory Rodgers in '06, running back Brandon Jackson in '07 and Finley in '08.
He did not take another underclassman until selecting tackle Bryan Bulaga with the 23rd pick in 2010.
That is about the time the underclassmen numbers began to rise, mostly because the league was leaning toward a rookie wage scale that would drastically decrease the amount rookies were able to earn. Playing a fourth college season meant it would be that much longer until a player was able to sign his second -- and usually more lucrative -- contract.
The new wage scale was instituted in 2011, leading 56 underclassmen to declare for the draft, which was just slightly above the average of the three previous years. In 2012, the number jumped to 65 and in 2013 it ballooned to 73.
This year, it exploded.
When nearly 100 players declared early, it sent NFL executives scrambling to make evaluations on players they are not allowed to study during the year. Not until the players officially declare -- the deadline is in January each year -- are they able to start talking with school officials about them and watching tape on campus.
Thompson sticks closely to his draft-and-develop philosophy, which means rookies often replace the middling veterans on the 53-man roster and are shoved into backup or special teams roles. Expecting a 21-year-old underdeveloped middle-round pick to excel in that role can be wishful thinking, which might explain why Thompson stayed away from juniors.
But Thompson claims he always goes for the best player available and once said, "We'd rather take the best player on the board as opposed to a player who might be able to contribute earlier but in our opinion might not be as good a player as that other player is at his position."
As the number of juniors has increased the past couple of years, so has Thompson's willingness to go with underclassmen, many of whom occupy the place seniors once held at the top of a team's draft board. This year, there could be 20 or more underclassmen taken in the first round, which would be an extraordinary number.
Thompson isn't blind to the junior factor.
In '10, he took Bulaga in the first and safety Morgan Burnett in the third, and in '11 he took receiver Randall Cobb and end Lawrence Guy. In '12, he took Perry and Worthy.
Bulaga adapted well his first year, but all six of the players have suffered long-term injuries, including four season-ending injuries their rookie seasons. Is that because they weren't physically ready to play in the NFL or were too young to understand how to take care of their bodies over a five-month season?
"The pros are that it adds depth (to the draft), and most of these guys that come out are talented players," Tennessee general manager vRuston Webster said at the combine of the juniors. "They might not be fully developed, and that would be one of the cons. Just their maturity level, what is that?
"Are they ready for the NFL? What were the reasons why they came out? Do they need another year or two to develop?"
There may be a tendency to believe that because some of the juniors are so talented they're better prepared to handle the NFL. But that isn't case, some believe.
"I wouldn't say that players now are more ready to play than in the past," Seattle general manager John Schneider said recently.
Just when you thought Thompson should give up on underclassmen, he came up with his 2013 class. Running back Eddie Lacy and left tackle David Bakhtiari both left school a year early and turned into instant NFL starters, avoiding major injury and establishing themselves as building blocks for the future.
The two offered more than any of the nine seniors Thompson signed in that class, and because of their youth, probably have bigger upsides than the others. Growing pains for those two were minimal, and if you guarantee every underclassman would adapt like they did, you'd never pass one up if he has the talent.
But that isn't the case, and with the influx of juniors this year there will be an added burden on Thompson and his staff to make the right call.
(c)2014 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Visit the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at www.jsonline.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services