The NFL's annual coming-out party is always a lousy event for a few dozen college football coaches and more than a few fans, and this one seemed lousier than most.
It didn't help that the college game lost two of its biggest stars on the same day, glamour-boy quarterback Matt Sanchez of Southern California and all-purpose back Percy Harvin of Florida, nor that those two were just a fraction of what is likely to be the biggest exodus of underclassman ever.
But people, take a deep breath and relax.
We're still talking about five dozen kids or so, and while that number has been steadily rising, we'll never see them exiting the way their counterparts in basketball routinely do now. That's because they're just that, kids, and as the guys already holding those jobs in the NFL never tire of reminding people, pro football is a game played by men.
games you've played in college. So the rigors and mental preparation right off the bat is tougher, even before we get out a tape and start measuring.
``Talent is talent,'' he added, ``but you'd be remiss not to take a longer look at a younger guy.''
NFL rules prohibit executives from discussing specific draft choices, but Smith has no problem talking about the process, and in his case it's a decidedly unsentimental one. He doesn't scout early-entry prospects until draft declaration day is officially over - it is now - figuring it's easier to catch up than try to track every kid who thinks he's got NFL skills.
``We can get all the film we need in a heartbeat and computers make crunching the numbers easy. By the time these kids have appeared at the combine and pro days and taken a battery of psychological tests, we've got information and plenty of time still left to decide.
``The only thing that tilts with these kids,'' Smith concluded, ``is that the fewer games they've played in college, the more you lean on your instincts.''
between three and seven.
This year's top 10 should come in near the high end, but the whole issue is generating even more attention than usual because it's unusually deep in quarterbacks.
Besides Sanchez, most mock drafts rate Matthew Stafford of Georgia, Josh Freeman of Kansas State and Nate Davis of Ball State - all underclassmen - ahead of Graham Harrell, the senior QB from Texas Tech. The decision to return by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks Sam Bradford of Oklahoma and Tim Tebow of Florida softened the blow for college fans, but only so much.
If longtime NFL talent Gil Brandt had his way, there wouldn't even be a discussion. He still tracks the draft after working almost 30 years as an executive and chief talent scout for the Dallas Cowboys, and he sees virtually no upside in players leaving college early for the pros.
``The player that stays gets more experience, is a better football player right away, and makes more money over the long haul. There are going to be exceptions - and I'm old enough to remember seeing Barry Sanders, who was ready not just physically but mentally. He was 21 the first time I saw him, but he struck me as a guy going on 27,'' Brandt said.
t's charting, receivers are risky picks because NFL defenses are so much faster and more complicated, while players on the offensive and defensive lines, no matter how much they dominate in college, find themselves struggling to make up a deficit in the strength department.
``Now take all those factors - faster and more complicated game, harder hits and such - and you'll see why quarterback might be the toughest of them all,'' he said.
That might be what USC coach Pete Carroll had in mind when he reacted to Sanchez' announcement with a less-than-enthusiastic blessing. It's easy to think Carroll was unhappy about losing a QB early for the first time, or that he was being selfish about his program's future, but likely the opposite is true. He's sent enough passers to the NFL to have a very good idea when one of them looks as if he's ready.
``We don't see this decision the same,'' Carroll said. `` ... and as much as we wish him well, Mark is going against the grain.''
Good luck with that. He'll need it.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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