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Too bad Will Anderson, Bryce Young couldn't be like Barry Sanders in NFL Draft | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

Barry Sanders had nothing left to prove in college football when he decided in 1989 to challenge the NFL’s rule that prohibited college juniors from entering the draft.

The league allowed Sanders into the draft rather than risk a lawsuit from the Heisman Trophy winner, who had broken the NCAA single-season rushing record as an Oklahoma State junior.

Not everyone agreed with the NFL’s decision, and some questioned whether the ruling would pave the way for freshmen and sophomores to enter the draft.

“This would not have been my ruling," Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm told the Dallas Morning News after the NFL’s decision.

Sanders was NFL-ready, as he proved throughout a big rookie season that kick-started his Hall of Fame career. The only shame is that Sanders spent the entirety of his pro career with the lowly Detroit Lions after they drafted him No. 3 overall.

I thought about Sanders’ groundbreaking draft selection last week while I watched players inferior to Alabama's outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr. and quarterback Bryce Young earn first-round draft selection.

The NFL officially began permitting juniors into the draft in 1990, one year after making the exception for Sanders, but league rules still prohibit players from entering the draft until they’ve been out of high school for three years.

That policy, bargained between the NFL and the players union, runs through the 2030 season, and it keeps rising juniors like Anderson and Young from getting a jumpstart to the pros.

[ OPINION:Alabama's Jameson Williams needed one team to believe in him at NFL Draft. The Detroit Lions did | Goodbread ]

Most players aren’t NFL-ready after two seasons, anyway. Anderson and Young are exceptions. Both are talented and developed enough to have been early-first-round draft picks after their sophomore seasons.

In fact, one former NFL coach predicted Anderson would have been the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft – if only he were eligible.

“He should go be the No. 1 pick in the draft,” Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, who coached the NFL’s Raiders, said of Anderson after his Rebels lost to Alabama in October, before adding that because Anderson was ineligible for the draft, another player would get to be the No. 1 overall pick.

Kiffin’s projection about Anderson doesn't come off as hyperbole when viewed through the lens of Thursday night, when the Jacksonville Jaguars selected Georgia’s Travon Walker with the No. 1 pick. Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson went next to the Lions, and the Giants selected Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux at No. 5.

Three edge rushers within the first five picks, and Anderson outperformed each one last season.

Anderson topped my Heisman ballot in December after he delivered the most destructive season by a defensive player since Ndamukong Suh at Nebraska in 2009.

Anderson’s 34½ tackles for loss outranked the nation’s next-closest TFL total by more than a dozen, and he had 17½ sacks. Unlike some pass rushers who are nonfactors on run downs, Anderson is a menace in any situation.

Not surprisingly, Heisman voters were asleep at the wheel, and Anderson finished fifth. Young won the award after breaking Alabama's single-season records for passing yards and touchdowns while showing unflappable poise. He likely would have been the first quarterback drafted last week, if he had been draft-eligible.

Instead, Young almost certainly will enter the draft after his junior season, and he’ll go head to head with Ohio State’s CJ Stroud as cream of the quarterback crop.

Fortunately for Anderson and Young, they’re able to earn above-board money while they remain in college, thanks to last year’s rule change that allows college athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness.

And fortunately for Alabama, neither player is opting out of his junior season, like LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase did in 2020 before becoming the No. 5 overall pick in 2021.

Talents like Anderson, Young and Chase prove the NFL’s one-size-for-all rule barring sophomores from the draft does not actually suit all.

Like Sanders before them, some of college football’s top stars are ready for the NFL before the rules say so.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.