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NFL draft rules a raw deal for Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence

Playstation Fiesta Bowl - Ohio State v Clemson

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 31: Defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence #90 of the Clemson Tigers during the Playstation Fiesta Bowl against the Ohio State Buckeyes at University of Phoenix Stadium on December 31, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. The Tigers defeated the Buckeyes 31-0. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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If you’re watching tonight’s college football national championship game with an eye on seeing some future NFL stars, the first player you should look for is one who won’t be in the NFL until 2019.

Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence will be the most talented player on a field full of future NFL players when his team takes on Alabama tonight. But Lawrence is a true freshman, and NFL rules mandate that players must be out of high school for three years before they can turn pro, which means Lawrence will be toiling at the amateur level for two more seasons.

Lawrence will risk injury without earning the riches that a player of his talents should be allowed to earn. And there’s simply no reason that a 19-year-old adult shouldn’t have the right to earn a living at his chosen profession.

The NFL likes to claim that its draft rules protect young players who aren’t physically ready for the NFL. That’s preposterous. Lawrence is a 6-foot-5, 340-pound freakish athlete. He doesn’t need to be protected from anybody.

How freakish an athlete is Lawrence? Clemson says he runs the 40-yard dash in less than five seconds. At the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine, the biggest defensive lineman to break 5.0 seconds in the 40 was Javon Hargrave, now a rookie starting at nose tackle for the Steelers. Hargrave weighed in at 309 pounds -- about 30 pounds lighter than Lawrence.

Lawrence knows people say he’s a future first overall pick in the draft, although he’s modest about it. When told by Bruce Feldman of FOX Sports that an Alabama assistant coach had already proclaimed Lawrence the first overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft, Lawrence shrugged it off.

“It doesn’t matter now. I’m just a freshman,” Lawrence said. “I have a lot of technique I need to work on. . . . Little things. My pad level lower, hand placement, reading blocks quicker.”

But, of course, those are things Lawrence could be learning from NFL coaches while making millions of dollars a year, instead of learning from college coaches while getting room, board and tuition. Lawrence should be allowed to decide for himself whether he’s better off staying in college or playing professionally, and NFL teams should be allowed to decide for themselves whether they think he’s ready.

Instead, the league office decides that he can’t be drafted this year, or next year. That’s a raw deal for a great player.