In all likelihood, Taylor Lewan would have been an early first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
The All-American left tackle out of Michigan could have been taken after Central Michigan's Eric Fisher, a left tackle who was drafted No. 1 overall by Kansas City.
Five interior offensive linemen were snagged within the first 19 picks, and Lewan would have easily been one of them. But he chose to stay with the Wolverines, and their legions of loyal fans publicly supported his quest for a fruitful fall capped by a Big Ten title in December.
That was how the story was supposed to unfold, but it hasn't.
Michigan (7-3, 3-3) was knocked out of the Big Ten title race nearly three weeks ago after losing 29-6 to Michigan State.
Now it's best-scenario-time—a season-ending split with Iowa and Ohio State prior to a bowl win would be that for the Wolverines. Somehow stringing together the best three games of his life would be such an instance for Lewan, whose stock has dropped in the eyes of many observers.
However, while the argument against staying has valid points, ESPN's Mel Kiper insisted in May that returning or declaring early would have little impact on Lewan's pro future.
Kiper stated the following, via former MLive.com Wolverines beat writer Kyle Meinke:
Another tackle prospect who could have factored into the top 10 in the 2013 draft class, Lewan will return for another year of seasoning. Extremely long and with above-average athleticism, he'll continue to add power as a run-blocker and refine his skills as a pass-protector. But the tools are there for him to be a very good NFL left tackle.
Perhaps Lewan's so-so senior year, one which failed to yield an Outland bid, is the reason why Walter Football no longer sees him as a top-10 pick. The mock draft site reclassified Lewan as a top-20 pick.
Prior to the season, Lewan was on several major award watch lists. That's no longer the case, but he's still projected to be the second tackle taken off the board.
The following table highlights Lewan's place among the nation's elite interior linemen.
|The Best of 2014|
|Jake Matthews||1||Top 16||6'5"/305||Texas A&M|
|Taylor Lewan||2||Top 20||6'8"/302||Michigan|
|Antonio Richardson||3||Late 1st/Early 2nd||6'6"/332||Tennessee|
|Cameron Erving||4||Late 1st/Early 2nd||6'6"/310||Florida State|
|Cyrus Kouandjio||5||Late 1st/Early 2nd||6'6"/310||Alabama|
Statistics Aren't Helping
Let's start off by making this clear: Michigan's struggles aren't entirely Lewan's fault.
The struggles of the interior line aren't all his fault, either. But as a leader, a senior and a "Michigan Man," Lewan has to take the good with the bad; he deserves praise for a job well done, but he also deserves criticism for lack of performance.
Thus far, the running backs haven't made the line look very good. Conversely, the line hasn't made them look very good, either. It's a take-and-take in this case.
And of course, there's the looming three-week sack count, which grew to nearly 20 after this past week's 27-19 OT win over Northwestern. Devin Gardner can't catch a break these days, despite the fact that his own blunders have led to being floored.
Offensive linemen have the luxury of not being solely judged on numbers. Instead, they're judged on technique and potential. However, lax technique and not playing up to potential can contribute to lower numbers for everyone across the board.
The following table highlights some of Michigan's ailing offensive statistics, which may or may not have bearing on Lewan's draft status.
|Where's the OL Power?|
|Rushing Yards/B1G Rank||YPC/Rank||Rushing TD/Rank||Sacks Allowed/Rank||Notes|
|135.7/11||3.2/11||24/3||31/10||No top-10 rusher|
It Was for the Greater Good
Saying that Lewan did Michigan a favor by coming back is accurate and inaccurate. By returning, he gave his team a better shot than it'd have without him. He probably knew that. But he wasn't me-first, nor did it appear that he expected to be thanked.
It's been clear from the start that his intentions were to graduate and set an example. By staying the course, though, he inadvertently did his staff a favor. Underclassmen saw a selfless player, someone they could hope to be like down the road.
Coaches saw a player whose name would be mentioned as a survivor; they saw a young man who stuck it out all in the name of team.
Only Lewan knows his truest and innermost reasons for staying. But suggesting that he did it for anything less than admirable reasons would be simply ridiculous. He passed on millions for one chance to win a Big Ten championship. The sooner that Michigan's underclassmen demonstrate that type of dedication, the sooner it gets that ever-so-elusive conference banner.
The Wolverines have won or shared a record 42 Big Ten championships. That's the most of any team in any conference. But they haven't won or shared one since 2004.
Michigan doesn't appear to be better than it was last year, but Lewan may be.
According to MLive.com's Nick Baumgardner, Hoke, who wasn't happy about the Outland snub, said the following about his senior's progression:
What he did physically to himself, the discipline (with that) he's had throughout, I think with that offensive unit line-wise, his direction and coaching (has been positive). I think that's another step of growth.
Remember how Walter Football downgraded Lewan from a top-10 to a top-20 pick? Well, some of that has to do with the needs of the teams doing the picking. In 2012, tackles were talented and clubs with early selections such as the Chiefs took advantage.
The following is part of Lewan's review on Walter Football:
11/9/13: Overall, Lewan is having a very strong senior year. Lewan generally won his blocks against Michigan State, but also had some plays where he lost discipline and made some cheap shots. Lewan was flagged for one facemask penalty and could have been flagged for other personal foul or unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
Lewan and Michigan barely escaped an embarrassing upset by Connecticut. Against the Huskies, he played well except for one play when he was beaten for a sack. The senior had a strong game against Notre Dame in Week 2 and played much better than he did a year ago against the Fighting Irish. Lewan did well in run blocking and was rock solid as a pass-protector.
Lewan could still be the first tackle taken this year, although it's highly unlikely. Perception of team, fair or not, will likely have some sort of negative influence on Lewan's stock. Throw in a weak Big Ten and the Wolverine's bowl opponent—which probably won't be a blue blood of college football—and Lewan could fall victim to a substantial ratings drop.
His decision to stay or go could be almost quantified come draft day. Let's say he was projected as No. 10 in 2012 but goes No. 24 this year—there'd be a valid argument saying that staying in school wasn't worth a 14-pick plummet.
But if Lewan truly believes that he improved as a person and player, along with getting the education he so desired, then there's no question that completing his senior year was the right choice.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81