After a record number of underclassmen declared for the 2014 draft the NFL set out to educate players about the dangers of coming out early. Last year, 38 of the 102 underclassmen (37 percent) who left college with remaining eligibility went undrafted. This year, 24 of the 84 underclassmen (29 percent) went undrafted.
That is a small improvement, but there are players every year such as former Louisville safety Gerod Holliman, who overestimate their draft stock and wait longer than expected to hear their name called.
Holliman, who left Louisville with two years of eligibility remaining, was drafted by the Steelers in the seventh round, the 239th of 256 players selected.
“I was a little surprised I didn't get drafted earlier, but that's not something I had any control over,” Holliman said Friday after his first rookie minicamp practice with the Steelers. “God has a plan for me. I ended up being in the right place, so I'm happy.”
There might not have been a more polarizing player in the NFL draft than Holliman. Within the span of one month in the fall, Holliman was compared to former Ravens safety Ed Reed by one NFL scout turned draft analyst. Thirty days later, after Holliman declared for the NFL draft, an anonymous scout told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Holliman was “horrible” and “can't make a tackle to save his life.”
It's easy to figure why Holliman thought he could have been drafted sooner. He won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back after leading NCAA Division I-A with 14 interceptions in his only season as a starter. And the reason Holliman only started for one year was Calvin Pryor, a 2014 first-round pick of the New York Jets, was ahead of him on the Louisville depth chart.
“He was a great mentor to me,” said Holliman, who turned 21 last week. “He really showed me the ropes and helped me become a better player.”
But it wasn't long after Holliman declared for the draft that doubts arose as to whether he would follow in the footsteps of Pryor and get drafted in the first round. The critiques of his game started to surface and before long his stock plummeted. He was panned for his tackling ability and limited athleticism. One draft report referred to him as “tackling averse.”
“I don't pay attention to it,” Holliman said of the critiques. “I know I'm a great player. I just take the criticism from coaches to make myself better and find out what they want from me.”
The Steelers are eager to work with Holliman's skill set. His 14 interceptions tied an NCAA record that had gone untouched for 46 years. For a defense that intercepted only 11 passes last season, Holliman's ball-hawking skills could come in handy if he makes the team.
“I don't know how many times we said this during our draft preparations, but 14 interceptions is no accident,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “This kid has great instincts and awareness. He's a film studier and you can just see him making breaks on the ball before the quarterback throws it. He's got the great hands to finish it. This kid is a ball-hawk and knows how to make interceptions.”
Holliman, who is 6 feet and 218 pounds, could have an opportunity to make the team. Mike Mitchell is the starting free safety and Shamarko Thomas is the likely starter at strong safety. Top reserve Will Allen is entering his 12th season and Robert Golden, an ace special teamer, has not been a factor at safety in his first three seasons.
“He's got room for improvement [as a tackler], but none of these prospects are finished products,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He does have a distinguishing characteristic and that is his ability to anticipate and find angles to the ball and to finish those plays. That is something that you can build his game around. We are excited about that. But he does have room for growth and development [as a tackler].”
Finding a starting safety in the later rounds of the draft is not without precedent for the Steelers. In 1992, they selected Darren Perry out of Penn State in the eighth round. All Perry did was start the opener as a rookie and 110 of the next 112 games for the Steelers, intercepting 32 passes and playing in a Super Bowl and three AFC championships in the process.
“Even if I was a first-rounder I'd come in with a chip on my shoulder,” Holliman said. “I'm coming in to earn a spot whether I'm a first-rounder or seventh-rounder. This is something I have to do to be a good player here.”
Copyright 2015 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. All Rights Reserved. The Post-Gazette, along with the Toledo Blade and WDRB News, is part of the Block News Alliance. Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @rayfitt1.