2011 NFL Draft: 10 Underclassmen Who Should Have Stayed in School

Andrew LeighCorrespondent IJanuary 22, 2011

2011 NFL Draft: 10 Underclassmen Who Should Have Stayed in School

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    NFL Draft 2011 has already set a record, and it's still three months away. A record 56 players still eligible to play NCAA football have declared for this year's draft, a feeding frenzy of sorts as players look to break into the league coming off their shortened college careers.

    Perhaps it's the specter of an NFL work stoppage, but all these players declaring early, on top of the draft eligible-seniors, has created a glut of talent. That means that some first-round talents have potentially been pushed into the second round as a result of the depth of players available.

    There were some questionable underclassmen declaring who are potentially destined to see their stock tumble, as opposed to having one extra year to improve their standing in NFL eyes.

    Here, we'll take a look at 10 players who had the most reason to stay in college for another year instead of diving into the deep end of the NFL. This is a subjective sampling of the 56 players who declared, so feel free to chime in with others who should have returned to campus for 2011.

10. John Clay, RB, Wisconsin

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    John Clay was a big part of a dominant Wisconsin running game that carried them to the top of the Big Ten standings and a spot in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. Clay enjoyed a strong 2010 season individually, rushing for over 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns.

    But he suffered a knee injury against Purdue that kept him out of the next two games and kept his role extremely limited during the regular season finale.

    He came back in time for the Rose Bowl and had a solid showing, but his stock is definitely hindered by the fact he missed time late in the year and dealt with a knee issue. If he gets fully healthy and returns to school, he could still have a great season despite the depth in Wisconsin's backfield.

    And coming out fully healthy may have helped him move up beyond the middle rounds, where he now seems destined to land.

9. Kyle Rudolph, TE, Notre Dame

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    Kyle Rudolph had what was shaping up to be a breakout 2010 season cut short by a brutal torn hamstring suffered during the Fighting Irish's win over Pittsburgh last season. He was projected as a sure-fire first-round pick during the 2010 season and is still bandied about as a late first-round option.

    But if he had gone back to South Bend for one more season, he may have been able to further establish his first-round credentials as a go-to pass catching tight end that would thrive at the next level. He is still on course for an early selection, but he may have missed out on a higher slot had he returned to the Irish.

8. Randall Cobb, WR/RB, Kentucky

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    Randall Cobb would have been the ideal player to be heading to the NFL two or three years ago, at the height of the Wildcat formation's popularity and effectiveness. Cobb was a multiple-look player on offense for Kentucky, lining up as a wide receiver while also getting a decent share of carries out of the backfield, and even becoming a passer on occasion.

    He had his best year as a receiver in 2010, breaking the 1,000-yard mark and making a more regular impact on games. But he seems to lack a true identity, as he profiles as only a slot receiver at best and may not be currently viable as anything else for an NFL team.

    If he returned to Kentucky, he might be able to further refine his receiving skills and move up in the estimation of talent evaluators and potentially break the Wildcat mold he's currently in.

7. Will Hill, S, Florida

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    With a new coach set to take over in Gainesville, and the core of the former national championship teams having headed to the NFL, it was understandable that safety Will Hill would look to leave Florida after his junior year.

    But then Janoris Jenkins, the star cornerback who many expected to go pro and be a first-round pick, decided to return to Florida for one more season. And suddenly, it looks less like a slam dunk for Hill to go pro, especially when he's widely considered to be a mid-round pick.

    If he had gone back to Florida, he may have had the chance to be a part of a lockdown secondary, opening himself up to make big plays and catch the attention of more NFL scouts. He also could have polished his game in general and gotten his stock up higher into the top few rounds.

6. Jonathan Baldwin, WR, Pittsburgh

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    Pitt wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin is going pro, but he could have used one more season in Pittsburgh to hone his game and gain the consistency a top receiver should have.

    He has the physical skills required thanks to his phenomenal size at 6'5" and 230 pounds, but he had a tendency to disappear in some of Pitt's games. That kind of streakiness at the collegiate level does not bode well for his transition to the NFL, and in the most recent prognostications from some draft experts, he has fallen outside the top 25 players on the board.

    If he had gotten another year on campus, he may have been able to erase some of the doubts that currently surround his game and increased his stock to sure-fire first-round status.

5. Brandon Burton, CB, Utah

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    Brandon Burton was a solid player throughout his career at Utah, but he has never been a shutdown corner, nor the type of player that teams game plan to avoid. He was productive for the Utes and was a big part of their recent success and ascension up the national polls, but as he enters the draft, he's considered no better than a fourth-round pick.

    It's possible that, had Burton decided to return to Utah, he could have been a part of another strong Utes defense, helping them enjoy another good year. He could have potentially played himself up into the second or third round if he had been open to finishing out his eligibility instead of going pro early.

4. Darren Evans, RB, Virginia Tech

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    Darren Evans had a chance to head back to Blacksburg for another year, and be the go-to running back in the Virginia Tech attack. Fellow rusher Ryan Williams declared for the NFL, and he is considered the bigger professional prospect at this time.

    Evans' stock is not great, despite the fact he was healthy and effective for all of 2010, posting over 800 rushing yards and scoring 11 touchdowns for the ACC champions.

    If Evans had been back without Williams to poach carries, he may have broken out with a huge season for the Hokies and could have played his way into higher rounds than where he's projected to be taken at present.

3. Brandon Harris, CB, Miami

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    Brandon Harris is a talented corner that seems to have the physical skills to make a positive impact in the NFL. But the first round has a couple of extremely talented cornerbacks slated to be selected pretty high up, and then there's a strong drop in the talent level of defensive backs.

    Harris' best-case scenario this year is sneaking into the late first round, but he seems most likely pegged for Round 2.

    He may have improved his standing with another strong season at Miami and could have played his way solidly into Round 1.

2. Aaron Williams, CB, Texas

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    Aaron Williams of the Texas Longhorns is a player similar to Miami's Brandon Harris (just discussed), in that they are raw, talented playmakers that have abilities that could get them into the first round of a draft, but in the 2011 class, they seem like second-rounders at best.

    If Williams had gone back to Austin for another season, he may have been able to refine his coverage skills all the way, maintaining his ability to force turnovers. Texas has a good reputation for producing secondary players, and Williams could have helped himself move into the first round by staying on campus and getting more experience in Mack Brown's system.

1. Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas

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    Ryan Mallett has a big-time arm and is physically the perfect size for a professional quarterback, but this is the wrong season for him to come out. There are a number of first-round talents at quarterback, and it's not clear that Mallett is in the top three of the quarterbacks out in the draft this year.

    If he's behind Blaine Gabbert, Cam Newton and maybe even Jake Locker in NFL scouts' eyes, it seems like Mallett would have been better off going back to Arkansas for one more year.

    His game seems like it needs a little more refinement in terms of his accuracy on more intermediate passes, and an increase in experience in college could only help prepare him for the challenges of the next level.