Missouri has become a factory for top-end NFL talent in recent seasons, with six first-round picks since 2009.
Of course, 2009 also was the last time more than three Tigers were selected in the NFL Draft. But that ought to change before the final player is selected Saturday.
Missouri has four players — defensive end Kony Ealy, cornerback E.J. Gaines, offensive lineman Justin Britt and wide receiver L’Damian Washington — who are near locks to hear their names called.
Reigning SEC defensive player of the year Michael Sam, a defensive end who is the first openly gay draft prospect in NFL history, and linebacker Andrew Wilson, a Raymore-Peculiar graduate, are also good bets to get drafted.
“It’s exciting,” said Gaines, a Fort Osage graduate. “It’s such a family atmosphere and a brotherhood at that school. Everybody just wishes the best for everybody. I’m excited to see where everybody gets picked up, whether it’s through the draft or as free agents.”
Several other Tigers also could entice a team to use a draft pick, including wide receiver Marcus Lucas, a Liberty graduate; tight end Eric Waters, who put on a show at Missouri’s Pro Day; and running back Henry Josey, a feel-good story and one of the fastest players in the draft.
And left guard-turned-fullback Max Copeland, quarterback James Franklin and perhaps free safety Matt White or wide receiver Jaleel Clark could find an NFL spot as undrafted free agents.
“That’s going to be one of the most fun things about watching the draft,” Washington said. “I won’t be sitting around just to hear my own name called. There are seven or eight teammates that also have the possibility of getting drafted. You’re just as excited for them as you are yourself. That makes the whole process a bit smoother.”
It’s a far cry from recent drafts for Missouri.
The New York Jets snapped up defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson with the 13th pick last season, but the Tigers, coming off a disappointing 5-7 campaign in their first year in the SEC, only had one other player chosen. Linebacker Zaviar Gooden was a third-round pick of the Tennessee Titans.
Defensive end Aldon Smith (49ers) and quarterback Blaine Gabbert (Jacksonville) were first-round picks in 2011, and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (Falcons) went in the first round in 2010.
Each of those seasons, only one Missouri player was selected in the final six rounds.
Missouri also had two first-round picks in 2009 when wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (Philadelphia) and defensive tackle Ziggy Hood (Pittsburgh) were chosen among the first 32 picks.
That draft produced four more Tigers draft picks — safety William Moore (Atlanta, second round), tight end Chase Coffman (Cincinnati, third round), tackle Colin Brown (Chiefs, fifth round) and defensive end Stryker Sulak (Oakland, sixth round).
This season’s crop of draft-eligible Missouri players who helped propel the program to its first SEC East Division title and a victory in the Cotton Bowl, hope for a similar draft weekend.
“It’s so exciting, because it’s all ahead of us right now,” Copeland said. “We’re kind of in the exciting, but almost scary, abyss of the unknown right now. All it takes is one guy to like you and that could end up launching you into a completely different life than you would have had with another team.”
There’s some anxiety, sure, but not having to stare alone into the NFL Draft abyss has made the four-month wait incrementally more tolerable.
“We’ve been waiting for so long now,” Wilson said. “It’s not really nervous, but it’s more just anxious and excited really, especially seeing the guys around and talking to them. We’re swapping different stories, so it’s been a good time. A lot of the guys, we’ve been together four or five years, so you’re rooting for everybody.”