It wasn’t so long ago that Missouri football players were barely in the discussion when the NFL Draft came around.
After a lengthy drought of first-round talent, Justin Smith was the fourth pick in the draft in 2001 to the Cincinnati Bengals. Two years later, receiver Justin Gage followed his former Jefferson City teammate to football’s biggest stage, going in the fifth round to the Chicago Bears.
Hope isn’t quite as eternal for this year’s entrants. Center A.J. Ricker, tackle Rob Droege, cornerback Michael Harden, tailback Zack Abron, linebacker Brandon Barnes and defensive tackle Russ Bell hope to receive a call this weekend from some team, any team that plays its games Sundays. The draft starts Saturday at 11 a.m.
Barry Reeves, a draft analyst for The Sporting News, said there are some possibilities for a few Tigers.
“I think Harden and Ricker have decent shots for day two,” Reeves said. “They could go anywhere from the fifth round to undrafted free agents.”
Ricker, a four-year starter on the offensive line, is probably the most likely candidate to get a call. Ricker was the Tigers’ “Ironman,” starting every game in his career and setting the record for most starts with 47. He said he has interest from Oakland, New England, Houston, Philadelphia and Atlanta.
Harden was the Tigers’ most consistent defensive back each of the past two seasons. He was fourth on the team in tackles with 75 and led Missouri with 13 pass breakups.
Ricker said the process has been somewhat taxing and he looking forward to knowing his destination.
“You just never know with all this stuff,” Ricker said. “I am just ready to get all this over with and ready to know what team is going to get me and just get going.”
Droege seemed like a sure NFL pick a year ago after putting together an excellent junior season. He earned All-Big 12 Conference honors in 2003, but struggled with his consistency for most of the season.
Ricker and Droege have spent the time since MU’s Independence Bowl loss working out nearly every day and displayed their talents for 14 pro scouts at Missouri’s Pro Day on March 2.
Reeves said he does not expect Droege to get a call this weekend, but Droege said he is OK with that possibility.
“There are advantages and disadvantages to going undrafted,” Droege said. “On one hand, you know where you are going right away and on the other, you can kind of see what is out there.”
Abron finished a silently stellar career as Missouri’s all-time rushing (3,198 yards) and touchdowns (40) leader. After battling ankle injuries and struggles with his weight, Abron had 1,018 yards and 13 touchdowns in his senior season.
Reeves said Abron could also get a look from someone.
“Zack Abron is a guy who is a really good athlete but his height (5 feet 9) hurts him so much,” Reeves said. “He is the kind of guy who could help you on special teams a lot and give you some depth.”
Barnes started his career at Missouri as a receiver before moving to safety and finally finding a home at linebacker in his senior year. Barnes made himself comfortable enough at his new position to finish second on the team with 109 tackles.
Bell, who might also have a future in the Olympics throwing the shot put, is another candidate to catch on with an NFL organization. He played football in high school, but didn’t join the team at MU until his junior year. That put him at somewhat of a disadvantage, but a team might be willing to take a chance on him because of his athletic prowess and 6-2, 300-pound frame.
In a draft filled with more uncertainty than any in recent memory, the former Tigers could be the poster boys, but Droege said he isn’t that nervous.
“It isn’t really that nerve-racking,” Droege said. “It’s more that we just want to be able to plan for the next part of our lives. We want to know where we are going and who we will be with.”