University of Pittsburgh wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is expected to submit a petition to enter the 2004 draft before the deadline hits Thursday night. Despite the fact that Fitzgerald has only been in college for two years, expect the NFL to grant his wish even as it battles former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett in court over the draft eligibility rule.
The NFL bylaw in question reads: “For college football players seeking special eligibility, at least three NFL seasons must have elapsed since the player was graduated from high school.” The NFL interprets the term elapsed to mean that three full NFL seasons must have started and finished since the player graduated before he is eligible.
Clarett is arguing that the entire rule is bogus, but if the restriction is valid, that elapsed term means that three NFL seasons must have concluded, rather than started and concluded, since he earned his high school diploma. Clarett graduated from high school on December 11, 2001, which was during the 2001 NFL season. Under his definition, the 2001, 2002, and 2003 NFL seasons have elapsed since he graduated high school, so he should be eligible for this year’s draft. Under the NFL’s definition, the 2002 season is the first to have elapsed since he graduated, so he will not be eligible for the draft until 2005.
Even if the court rules that Clarett’s interpretation is correct, Fitzgerald still is technically not eligible to enter the 2004 draft. Fitzgerald attended Minneapolis’ Academy of Holy Angels and was on pace to graduate in May of 2001. He committed to play college football at Pitt, but it became apparent that due to his poor grades, he would be a partial qualifier under NCAA rules and would have to sit out his freshman season. Instead of graduating from Holy Angels, Fitzgerald transferred to Valley Forge Prep School in the spring of 2001 where he was classified as a second-semester high school junior. He took high school classes at the prep school and improved his GPA to the point that he could enroll at Pitt as a fully qualified freshman. Fitzgerald received his high school diploma from Valley Forge in the spring of 2002 and went on to play the last two seasons at Pitt. Since he did not graduate until the spring of 2002, only two NFL seasons have elapsed, regardless of whose interpretation is applied.
If Fitzgerald had graduated from Holy Angels in May of 2001, rather than going to prep school, and enrolled at Pitt the next fall, as a partial qualifier he would not have been able to play for the Panthers until 2002 (which is the season that he actually started playing there), but he would clearly be eligible to enter the 2004 draft. The NFL will grant his request even though he technically does not qualify because he is within the spirit of the rule.
The NFL has stated in the Clarett case that the purpose of the restriction is to protect young players who are not physically ready for the rigors of the NFL game and season, and to protect its teams from having to foot the bill when those players are injured. Allowing Fitzgerald into the draft despite his late high school graduation is consistent with the NFL’s reasoning. He is no less ready for the NFL than are any of the third-year college players entering the draft this year, such as University of Washington junior receiver Reggie Williams.
Fitzgerald will be 21 by the time the 2004 season NFL kicks off. That is young for an NFL rookie, but hardly unprecedented. Fellow receivers Randy Moss and Jabar Gaffney, for example, were both only 21 when their rookie years began. The fourth overall pick in the 2003 draft, defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson, was only 21 at the start of the season, and he plays a position where he is subject to much more of a physical beating in the trenches than would a wide receiver like Fitzgerald. Raven outside linebacker Terrell Suggs turned 21 late in his rookie season.
Few receivers, regardless of age, are in Fitzgerald’s class. In 13 games this past season, he caught 92 balls for 1,672 yards and 22 touchdowns. Fitzgerald set a record for the most consecutive games with a touchdown catch (19), and no other Division I-A player came within a dozen yards per game of his 128.62 yards per game average receiving yards. He won the Biletnikoff Award as the best receiver in college football, the Walter Camp Award as the best player, and was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. Scouts love the 6’3”, 225-lb receiver’s ability to track a ball in the air, adjust his body to its flight, and bring it in, all without breaking stride. To top it off, by all accounts he is a solid citizen and well-grounded young man.
The biggest question mark regarding Fitzgerald is his raw speed, but if he runs a 4.4 40-yard dash as he is reportedly capable of doing, he will be about as fast as recent top picks like Charles Rogers, Peter Warrick, and Torry Holt. Only Andre Johnson would be clearly speedier.
Because Fitzerald’s case is so unique, the NFL will not be setting a precedent that will open the floodgates for other underclassmen to enter the draft when they let him in. Fitzgerald should be off the board by the time the Texans pick in the tenth position, which could result in a quality defensive prospect that fills a greater need for the Texans still being available. Larry Fitzgerald Home