Saunders might miss NFL draft

Staff WriterFebruary 4, 2011 

Former South Carolina tight end Weslye Saunders will be in a version of the NFL draft this year. His agent hopes it's the one in April.

Because of a miscommunication, Saunders' NFL dreams might have to wait until the supplemental draft in July. Saunders, a former prep star at Durham Riverside, did not apply for a waiver for underclassmen from the NFL to enter the draft, which means he's currently ineligible for the traditional seven-round draft in New York City from April 28-30, his agent, Durham attorney Butch Williams, said Thursday.

Williams said he has asked the league to reconsider Saunders' draft status, which was muddled by how his college career ended at South Carolina and the timing of an invitation from the NFL to the official combine. Williams hopes the league will allow Saunders to enter the April draft.

"It's hard to say which way it's going to go," Williams said. "We hope they do the right thing."

Saunders, whose father Barry is a metro columnist for The News & Observer, did not play his senior season at South Carolina. He was involved in the NCAA investigation into receiving improper benefits from an agent, along with former North Carolina defensive tackle Marvin Austin and UNC receiver Greg Little.

Before the NCAA ruled on Saunders' case, which centered on trips to Miami and Washington, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier kicked him off the team on Sept. 15.

Technically, Saunders has a season of college eligibility remaining because the ruling came from the school, not the NCAA. That meant Saunders had to apply for a "special eligibility" waiver to enter the draft. The deadline for the waiver was Jan. 15. Saunders never put in the paperwork because he received an invitation from the NFL to the combine on Jan. 3, Williams said, and interpreted the invitation as a sign he didn't need a waiver.

On Jan. 24, Williams was notified by the NFL about Saunders' status. Williams said there is no official appeal process, but he has been in contact with the league office about the mix-up.

Saunders, who caught 32 passes for 353 yards in 2009 for the Gamecocks, is considered one of the top tight end prospects in his class. He has been working out in McKinney, Texas, in preparation for the draft, Williams said. He finished the fall semester at South Carolina and needs eight hours to graduate, his father said.

As a senior, Saunders thought he had exhausted his eligibility and didn't think he needed a waiver to get in the draft, his father said.

"We've been operating under the assumption that his college eligibility has expired," Barry Saunders said.

If the NFL doesn't change Saunders' eligibility status, he would have to wait until the supplemental draft in July. The supplemental draft is for players who are ineligible to play at college and typically ones who have academic issues after the January deadline.

The supplemental draft can be a dicey proposition, even under normal circumstances. Teams who use a supplemental pick lose their corresponding draft pick in the next year's entry draft.

Complicating the issue this year are the league's pending labor issues. The April draft is the league's last official event under the current collective bargaining agreement. Given the negotiating chasm between the owners and the players' association, that means the date of the supplemental draft will likely change.

Saunders has NFL size, at 6 feet 6 and 270 pounds, and has been projected to go anywhere from the second through fifth rounds. In a limited role in Spurrier's offense, he finished his college career with 60 catches for 718 yards and six touchdowns in three seasons.

A standout tight end/running back and defensive end at Riverside, Saunders led the Pirates to 11 wins and the 4-AA state title game in 2006.

jp.giglio@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8938

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