This year’s NFL Draft provides an interesting comparison between two players who would have been slam-dunk high picks if allowed to leave college after their sophomore seasons.
Jadeveon Clowney, who — despite all the slings and arrows he’s anonymously taken after a pedestrian junior season — is still the odds-on favorite to go first overall on May 8.
And Marqise Lee, who may have lost a bundle because of the NFL’s eligibility rules.
Lee was the Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation’s top collegiate receiver in 2012, and a consensus All-American.
An eye-popping 118 catches for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns will have that effect. He was just as dynamic in the return game. USC’s game plan was often: Get Marqise the ball and let him go.
But injuries, instability in the coaching staff and a drop-off in complementary talent led to a disappointing third — and ultimately final — collegiate season. Lee posted career-lows in catches (57), yards (791) and touchdowns (four).
His draft stock, in turn, suffered a similar slide. In his latest mock draft, Mel Kiper has Lee as the fifth receiver off the board, behind Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Kelvin Benjamin.
Meeting with reporters at February’s Scouting Combine, one could sense that dynamic when Lee talked about the questions he got from NFL teams during his private interviews.
“Injury of course, trying to rush it back,” Lee said, referring to a knee issue that vexed him for much of 2013. “It’s a little bit my fault. Loss of focus as far as not looking the ball all the way in before getting too comfortable. Not looking the ball all the way in before I make a run, running before catching the ball, things like that.”
Compounding the problem, Lee’s 40-yard dash time (4.52 seconds) wasn’t exactly blazing, and he didn’t run at his Pro Day.
Now, Lee hasn’t completely fallen out of favor. He’s still one of 30 players invited to New York for the first night of the draft — an indication that he’ll likely still go in the first round.
But his stumble has upped the likelihood that he’ll be there when the Dolphins draft at 19. And unless his pre-draft visit to Davie was a complete smokescreen, there’s interest on Miami’s end.
At first glance, wide receiver is the least of the Dolphins’ issues. Ten of the 11 players to catch a pass for the team last year are back.
But three of their projected top five players at that position are coming off significant knee injuries (Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson and Armon Binns). And there are some around the league who privately wonder if Joe Philbin sees Mike Wallace as part of the team’s long-term plans.
The Dolphins’ actions this spring only fuel that speculation. Lee is one of a handful of top-tier receivers the Dolphins brought in for a pre-draft visit. Others include Beckham Jr. (LSU), Donte Moncrief (Mississippi) and Martavis Bryant (Clemson).
All are expected to go either in the second half of the first round or somewhere in Round 2. And so, Dennis Hickey is either tipping his hand or an expert at subterfuge.
If the interest is real, the Dolphins would be getting a player whose life story is nearly as remarkable as his talent. His childhood was unstable growing up in Inglewood, Calif.
His parents are deaf, so he used sign language to communicate with them. His brother was killed when Lee was a kid, and the gang temptation was strong, he later told reporters.
But he was an extremely talented athlete, and earned a scholarship to attend USC. Three years later, he’s on the verge of the riches that come with a first-round contract -- even if it’s less that it would have been the year before.
“An extremely motivated, dynamic, playmaking receiver, Lee’s junior season was plagued by shoulder, knee and leg injuries and a revolving door at head coach, where he cycled through three,” draft expert Nolan Nawrocki wrote on NFL.com. “Showed all the traits desired in a No. 1 receiver early in his career and has overcome a lot of adversity in his life to get to this point.”