There's certainly something to be said for elite college football players who turn down millions of dollars to return to school. For some of them it can be viewed as a smart, noble move, but for others it can be a head-scratcher as there is nothing left to prove at the collegiate level.
That was the case with several players this year as they passed up almost guaranteed high picks in the draft and went back to school instead. While a monster season could conceivably help their draft stock, they are also risking a poor season or an injury. With that in mind, here are three underclassmen who should have declared for the NFL draft early.
OL Barrett Jones, Alabama
As perhaps the most versatile offensive lineman in the country, Alabama's Barrett Jones would have been a very valuable asset in the draft. Not only did he prove this season that he could handle the duties at left tackle for the Crimson Tide, but he has also excelled at guard and center. That type of flexibility would have likely put Jones somewhere in the neighborhood of the late first round or early second round in terms of draft value.
After a sterling performance in the BCS National Championship Game where he held LSU pass-rushers at bay and kept quarterback A.J. McCarron upright, Jones' stock is probably higher than it ever has been. There really isn't anything keeping him in Tuscaloosa as he already has a title and is already considered one of the elite offensive linemen in college football. Maybe another solid campaign will boost him to the middle of the first round, but it isn't worth the risk.
Which prospect made the worst decision by staying in school?
QB Landry Jones, Oklahoma
Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones admittedly didn't have his best season in 2011 as his 4,463 yards, 29 touchdowns and 15 interceptions failed to build upon his stellar 2010. With that said, though, he was the consensus No. 3 quarterback behind Stanford's Andrew Luck and Baylor's Robert Griffin III, so there was little doubt he would be taken somewhere in the top 10, most likely by the Miami Dolphins.
On one hand you have to admire Jones for wanting to go back to school and make things right after a pretty disappointing three-loss season, but at the same time it may not be the smartest decision. Some of Jones' dip in numbers this past year can be attributed to injuries to key weapons, such as wide receiver Ryan Broyles. Jones will have a less experienced corps of receivers this season, though, and I'm not sure how much potential there is for him to put up better numbers.
RB Montee Ball, Wisconsin
It isn't often you say a potential second-round pick made a bad decision staying in school, but I find that to be the case with Wisconsin running back Montee Ball. He is coming off a season in which he was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, ran for an incredible 1,923 yards and broke Barry Sanders' single-season record for total touchdowns with 39. Despite all that, he still wasn't on the radar as a first-round selection.
What that tells me is there is nothing Ball can possibly do to improve his draft stock at this point. If teams weren't impressed enough with his production this past season to consider him a sure-fire first-rounder, there is no reason for him to go back to school because he is never going to duplicate those numbers. Ball made a very poor choice in this instance because an injury could very easily destroy his current draft stock.