During the last five years, Missouri quietly has become a football factory, consistently churning out top-end NFL talent with six first-round picks in that span.
Only two programs, Alabama (14) and Florida (seven), have had more players drafted in the first round beginning with the 2009 NFL Draft.
Still, coming off a 5-7 season, there was a seemingly dismissive attitude toward the Tigers and their talent entering the season.
“It really is fascinating to me, because when you watch them a year ago and everyone is struggling, guys just aren’t playing consistently to the level they should without that help around them,” ESPN NFL Draft analyst Todd McShay said. “So, they don’t get to shine the way they should.”
McShay used senior defensive end Michael Sam and senior wide receiver L’Damian Washington as examples. He didn’t even evaluate either player before the season.
“I did E.J. Gaines and I did Kony Ealy, but nobody else on the team,” McShay said. “I’ve been playing a lot of catch-up with this Missouri team.”
Of course, he wasn’t alone. Sam wasn’t on any draft guru’s radar before the season, but now he’s a lock to get selected — perhaps as early as the second day of the draft.
Winning 11 games and nabbing the SEC East title, which earned Missouri a berth in the SEC championship game and eventually led to a Cotton Bowl bid, can have that effect.
Ealy, a junior defensive end, hasn’t officially declared for the draft. He said he’ll wait until the Tigers’ season wraps up Jan. 3 against Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl to make a decision on his future.
Conventional wisdom says Ealy will opt for the NFL, especially with his draft stock spiking.
“I gave him a second-round grade coming into the year, and I thought he played even better than what I saw on the tape from last year,” McShay said. “He’s one of the many players who improved their draft stock a year ago.”
Ealy has racked up 37 tackles, including 12 1/2 for a loss with 7 1/2 sacks. He also returned an interception for a touchdown, while breaking up an additional five passes. He recorded 14 quarterback hurries, forced three fumbles and recovered one.
McShay said Ealy’s versatility — he’s played on the interior and the edge for Missouri and is athletic enough to drop into pass coverage as well — will make him attractive to NFL evaluators and “possibly, the best fit for him will be as a three technique if he can get up in that 290-pound range.”
“With the way I’m told he’s supposed to work out, and some of the numbers he’s supposed to put up kind of confirming what you see on tape, I think Ealy’s a guy who could wind up really skyrocketing in this process,” McShay said. “It wouldn’t shock me at all, if he does leave, that he winds up being a first-round pick.”
Of course, Ealy is far from the only player likely to be drafted.
Sam, a defensive end who was chosen SEC defensive player of the year after leading the conference with 10 1/2 sacks and 18 tackles for a loss, also projects as an early-round pick, though he’s likely to move to outside linebacker or perhaps a rush linebacker in a 3-4 similar to the Chiefs’ Tamba Hali.
“He’s a little bit undersized and a little bit tight in terms of bending the edge and how he gets there,” McShay said. “He’s not an elite athlete, but I think he showed that explosive first step this year, relentlessness as a pass rusher, really good instincts and he had some big games.”
CBS Sports gave Sam, who accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl on Jan. 25 in Mobile, Ala., a second-round grade and lists him as the 63rd best prospect available.
Gaines, a senior cornerback and a Fort Osage graduate, has probably played his way into the second or third round. He finished third for Missouri with 68 tackles, including four for a loss, and led the team with four interceptions.
“He’s got good speed, instinctive, he played big in big games and I thought he became one of the more consistent, steady corners in college football from what I saw on tape,” McShay said. “He played big when they needed him to step up and play.”
Another Missouri standout likely to be drafted in the middle rounds is Washington, who enjoyed a breakout senior season with 47 catches for a team-high 853 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“L’Damian Washington’s another guy that went from the late day-three/free-agent area to somewhere in the middle rounds,” McShay said. “I’ve got a fourth-/fifth-round grade on him right now and have him in the top 20 wide receivers.”
And if Washington — a 6-foot-4, 205-pound speed threat — scorches the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, running in the 4.3s or even low 4.4s, he could move even higher.
CBS Sports gave him a mid-round grade along with senior left tackle Justin Britt, who is listed as the 15th best tackle prospect.
Britt and Gaines have accepted invitations to play in the 2014 East-West Shrine Bowl on Jan. 18 in St. Petersburg, Fla.
CBS Sports gives senior wide receiver Marcus Lucas a seventh-round grade, and lists tight end Eric Waters, quarterback James Franklin, linebacker Andrew Wilson, safety Matt White and wide receiver Jaleel Clark as potential undrafted free agents.