The Point After: USC football fails to breed top picks at the pro level

The NFL Draft is the sports event of the year.

Don’t get me wrong, I live for the NHL playoffs, count the days until the start of college football season and will watch all or part of at least 130 Tampa Bay Rays games each year. I am nothing if not a well-balanced sports fan, but there is nothing quite like the NFL Draft.

This time of year captivates the curious fan. The armchair GMs, a bevy of mock drafts, supposed “insider” information about every team’s draft plans — ’tis the season for speculation and drama, and this weekend it will culminate in three beautiful days of madness where every so-called expert will have their validity shaken and mind blown.

While common sentiment these days holds that NBA free agency is the most exciting part of the sports offseason, there is no other league that can command attention for roster transactions quite like the NFL Draft.

The trades, steals, slides and the much-talked about overdraft all combine to create a beautiful concoction of heartbreak, elation and (for every team) a sense of hope.

For years, I felt a sense of small pride as an amateur mock drafter. While every fan across the nation believes they know what may happen or has ideas about who their team should draft, each year these assumptions are tossed right out the window.

This draft promises to be just as hectic and unpredictable as ever. An MLB draftee turned Heisman champion, a veritable treasure trove of talent at pass rusher, the NFL’s highest rising position and a collection of teams that are bound to trade away the farm to ensure they have found their quarterback of the future. Rest assured, this will be a draft for the history books.

All this said, it is worth noting that there will be at least one thing notably different about this draft as compared to past years: USC will not be making headlines.

Heading into the draft, the Trojans lead the way among all college programs with 506 all-time NFL draft picks. Carrying a narrow seven-man lead over rival Notre Dame, USC has managed to create an undeniable legacy of matriculation to the game’s highest level comparable to some but beat by none. Add on the fact that the Trojans also lead the way with 81 first-round picks, and it’s clear that USC is just as good if not better at feeding the NFL as it is at winning at the college level.

Come the first night of the draft this Thursday, however, it is not just possible but extremely likely that the Trojans go all night without hearing a name called. In fact, the pick-less streak could very well extend into day three as USC’s seemingly endless NFL prospect pool has, rather quickly, shallowed out. After seeing four players (Sam Darnold, Adoree Jackson, Leonard Williams and Nelson Agholor) selected in the first round over the last four drafts, it is likely that the Trojans will miss out on not only a first-round pick but even a second-round selection.

In his latest mock draft, draft analyst Chad Reuter projects tackle Chuma Edoga to be the first USC player off the board at No. 80 overall, a third-round pick. While Edoga’s accomplishments at USC as a consistent starter and one of the Pac-12’s best offensive linemen shouldn’t be minimized, a selection at this spot would represent the latest start for USC’s NFL Draft since cornerback Kris Richard was picked 85th in the 2002 draft.

With cornerback Iman Marshall projected as a fourth-round pick and linebackers Porter Gustin and Cameron Smith projected to be fifth-round picks, the four-man class would represent a significant drop off from a year ago when that many Trojans were off the board by the 79th pick.

This isn’t to mention that strong contributors such as safety Marvell Tell, center Toa Lobendahn and running back Aca’Cedric Ware may not be drafted at all despite being among the Pac-12’s strongest at their positions in 2018.

Prior to the 2018 season, Marshall and Smith were considered second-round picks by publications such as USA Today  with the strong possibility of jumping up into the first round while Gustin and Tell were on the second round bubble. In fact, Marshall and Smith were listed as possible first-round picks in early 2018 mock drafts, but even after electing to stay in college an extra season, their draft stocks dropped nonetheless.

While mock drafts are anything but gospel — Reuter whiffed on each of the first 12 picks of his final 2018 mock and only correctly predicted three of the first 32 — they give a strong impression of where a player’s stock lies relative to the opinions of both analysts and active NFL scouts.

This year, the draft will have the usual abundance of interesting storylines. In the case of USC’s draft presence in 2019, it seems that a once-sterling seal of excellence may have been diminished. Whether by down seasons from draft-eligible players, program instability or a lack of quality in recent USC pros, this may be the beginning of a downward trend for Trojan prospects.

Jimmy Goodman is a junior writing about current events in sports. His column, “The Point After,” ran every other Tuesday.