As of Jan. 17, a staggering 92 underclassmen had declared for May's NFL draft, 23 of whom are exiting Pac-12 programs. For some, it's a step toward a dream made at the right time, but others could be left lamenting their decision.
Certainly the motivation for entering the draft early is understandable. The NFL is the ultimate goal for most football players, and the opportunity to make substantial money is enticing.
For the conference's early-departing star running backs, going pro is a race against the clock. The position simply has a shorter shelf life today, so high-volume ball-carriers such as Bishop Sankey and Ka'Deem Carey are wise to leave before racking up excessive mileage, lest their stock fall.
Likewise, wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Marqise Lee would have little, if any, upward mobility possible from returning for another year. Both are likely first-round picks. So too are Stanford early entries Ed Reynolds and David Yankey.
However, others around the conference opting to forgo their remaining eligibility are not so solidly positioned.
Xavier Grimble, USC
New USC head coach Steve Sarkisian specifically mentioned his use of the tight end when introduced at a press conference last month. That apparently wasn't enough to sway the Trojans' top tight end the last two seasons, Xavier Grimble.
Sarkisian's tight end at Washington, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, was a vital cog in the Huskies offense. He earned All-American honors and is one of the top three prospects at the position in this draft. That's lofty praise, given how deep this particular tight-end class is. North Carolina's Eric Ebron and Texas Tech's Jace Amaro are two of the more impressive tight ends to come from the college ranks in the last few years.
Grimble is forgoing the opportunity to be a focal point of the offense and improve his draft stock for next season, when the tight-end pool will be significantly more shallow.
Terrance Mitchell, Oregon
Surprisingly, the less heralded of Oregon's starting cornerbacks is leaving early while the other returns to Eugene, Ore., for 2014. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was widely considered a first-round pick.
"Since I've been here we won big-time bowls and accomplished a lot, 38 games starting, I felt like I accomplished a lot and it was time to go to the next thing," Mitchell said when announcing his decision, via The Oregonian.
Conversely, Ekpre-Olomu opted to return for another run at the Pac-12 and possibly national championship. Per his official statement at GoDucks.com:
The two main factors related to my decision to return were my continued progression as a person and a player, and I felt Oregon was my best option to achieve those goals and improve my situation for next year.
Mitchell registered superior statistics in 2013, a by-product of opposing offenses avoiding the 2012 All-American Ekpre-Olomu.
His jump in individual production was not enough to wow advisers who slotted Mitchell as a mid-round selection, though he said the process "wasn't a fair evaluation."
The differing attitudes of the two cornerbacks convey just how personal a decision opting for the NFL draft is for a player. Mitchell will almost assuredly be selected, though another season teaming with future first-round pick Ekpre-Olomu might have boosted his stock, as well.
Jake Murphy, Utah
Jake Murphy was one of the most productive tight ends in the Pac-12 last season, but that doesn't translate to much NFL draft buzz. CBSSports.com projects Murphy as a final-round selection, and, much like with Grimble, that isn't surprising given the depth at the top of this class.
De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon
As mentioned, running backs have a short shelf life. However, Thomas has very little wear through three years—in part because he never quite established himself as an every-down back.
Thomas was often at his best catching passes out of the backfield, and a senior season with big numbers could have catapulted Thomas up draft boards in much the same vein as former West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin a season ago.
Thomas is of similar size and skill set as Austin, the No. 8 overall pick last April.
The Oregon offensive machine will continue to pile up points without the multifaceted Thomas, and the sheer volume of playmakers that will be in Eugene, Ore., next season may have contributed to Thomas' departure.
But a season back at 100 percent health and contributing in a variety of ways would have better showcased Thomas' abilities, given he won't be drafted with any notions of appearing as a feature back.
George Uko, USC
George Uko leaves in a draft class that features several prominent names at defensive tackle. Two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton, Pittsburgh All-American Aaron Donald and fellow early entries Timmy Jernigan and Louis Nix III are all available in this draft class, and all are projected ahead of Uko on CBSSports.com.
Of course, all are prototypical tackles—Uko played both tackle and end. While that might give professional defensive coordinators flexibility in how they use him, it also means he's less specialized than his counterparts at either position.
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