April 29, 2008

NFL passes on UA's top seniors

DJ Hall got the call alright, it just came long after he expected it.

Long after ESPN talking head Mel Kiper called it a night on Sunday, after breaking down seventh-round picks from dots on the map such as Bentley College, Gardner-Webb and Northern Iowa, the most prolific wide receiver in Alabama's storied football history was, for a few agonizing hours, a man without a team.

This is what it's come down to for No.22: A flier. A training camp body. A round-trip plane ticket with an open-ended date on the return flight. These are the labels of undrafted free agents, which Hall became when the New York Giants rescued both he and UA teammate Wallace Gilberry from the dejected ranks of the NFL's undrafted.

And no matter how impressive Hall was for four years in Bryant-Denny Stadium, his Crimson Tide exploits won't buy him so much as an extra day in a Giants uniform. His school-record 193 career receptions and 2,915 career yards aren't poker chips. They aren't redeemable for an NFL career, and they can't be cashed out for a roster spot. Gilberry learned the same about the 10 sacks he posted as a senior, along with a Southeastern Conference-high 27 tackles for loss.

Depending on the angle, a number of conclusions about Alabama football can be drawn from the NFL's first draft stiff-arm of Alabama in 38 years. The overall talent is down - that much is obvious to all. Notwithstanding NFL Draft certainties like Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell, some of Alabama's youngest talent is also some of its very best. And that means it could be awhile before the Crimson Tide is ringing the draft's first-day chime as often as college football's other top dogs.

Still, few could have imagined Hall's future in the sport needing a life ring so soon after his last college game. His own agent, Ed Rowan, conceded in media reports that off-field questions about Hall may have contributed to his plummet. Truth is, the NFL overlooks character flaws more flagrant than Hall's on a regular basis. But when a few character questions get entwined with less-than-stellar workouts at the NFL Combine and Alabama's Pro Day, suddenly that 13-catch, 185-yard torching of Tennessee on a glorious Saturday last October isn't what stands out anymore.

Would Hall have been drafted had he zipped through four years at Alabama without any brushes with coaches? Probably. Would he have been drafted early?

Not a chance.

The draft has proven time and again that an ounce of workout measurables is worth a pound of collegiate performance, if not more. As Ourlads.com director Dan Shonka told BOL before the draft: "If you can't run, you can't play."

Undrafted pick-ups Matt Caddell, Keith Saunders, Justin Britt and Simeon Castille will try to grasp the last roster spot of the St. Louis Rams, New England Patriots, and Cincinnati Bengals, respectively. Projected as high as round four, Castille's draft-day snub was perhaps the most surprising of them all. Meanwhile, Keith Brown's fingers continue to drum.

For all of them, the last pretzel in the draft party bowl was most definitely a stale one. But each will have an opportunity - some more legitimate than others - to show what they can do at the game's highest level.

Without discounting Hall's chances to stick, the opinion here is that Gilberry may have the best odds of landing an NFL job among all the UA hopefuls. As a pass rusher, he possesses a skill that is a premium in the NFL. He's a no-nonsense player with a high-motor work ethic, qualities that Giants coach Tom Coughlin reveres. And as Shonka noted, he is an ideal candidate for a spot on an NFL team's "taxi squad", where a determination can be made on what position best suits him without counting on the 53-man roster.

For all six UA hopefuls, this uphill climb will be Everest-like. Many before them, however, have seen the top.

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