NFL Draft Prospects Who Should Have Stayed in School
Before diving into the list of NFL draft prospects who should have stayed in school, we need to acknowledge that players make these decisions for a wide range of reasons.
The overwhelming majority of prospects who turn pro early are not going to be drafted in the first round—most of them know that going in. Players are often driven to these difficult decisions by family or financial circumstances. And in those personal situations, only the player can truly know what's right for him.
To create this list of prospects who should have stayed in school, we're going to assume every player exists in a vacuum. We're ignoring money and family situations, and strictly looking at whether the prospect had something to gain on the field by returning for another year of college.
Monday was the final day for players to declare for the draft. However, the final official list of underclassmen is not released by the NFL until Jan. 22. CBS Sports' Dane Brugler has the unofficial list. The NFL draft is set for April 28-30.
Robert Nkemdiche, DL, Ole Miss
For much of the season it was a foregone conclusion Robert Nkemdiche would enter the draft and be among the top 10 picks. As a former top recruit, he has seemed destined for that track since enrolling at Ole Miss.
But the end of Nkemdiche's Rebels career couldn't have finished under worse circumstances.
According to the initial report from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, just weeks prior to Ole Miss' Sugar Bowl appearance, Nkemdiche was on the fourth floor of a hotel when he "broke a window before crawling out and, one way or another, [wound] up bleeding on the ground" after falling 15 feet onto a ledge.
Police later found marijuana in the hotel room and charged Nkemdiche with possession.
This incident came just days after an NFL scout shared an interesting review of Nkemdiche with Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, calling him a "really a different kid. He may scare some people. He's strange strange."
Due to the incident and the perception of Nkemdiche around the league, it now seems unlikely he lands in the top 10, and he could fall out of the first round entirely.
In the 2015 draft, the talented Randy Gregory was widely regarded as a first-round talent but dropped to the Cowboys at pick No. 60 due to a similar reputation and a failed drug test at the combine.
Another year at Ole Miss may have allowed Nkemdiche to repair his reputation. Instead, he'll turn pro and likely lose millions compared to his projected draft status prior to his arrest.
Travis Blanks, LB, Clemson
Among the many early entries from Clemson, Travis Blanks is the most confusing.
Blanks began his career at cornerback for the Tigers and saw significant playing time as a freshman, before taking over a starting safety position during his sophomore year.
Unfortunately, a torn ACL wiped out Blanks' 2014 season, and when he returned in 2015, Clemson moved the 6'1", 210-pound former defensive back to linebacker.
The undersized Blanks held his own at linebacker, but now NFL teams are left guessing as to where he fits. Should he bulk up and stick at linebacker? Should he move back to safety?
Ideally, these are questions you don't want hanging over your head as a prospect entering the NFL draft.
Had Blanks returned, he would have been given the opportunity to either add weight and prove his worth as a linebacker or potentially shift back to safety due to the departure of Clemson's starting safeties T.J. Green and Jayron Kearse.
It looked like an ideal situation for Blanks to come back and give his stock a dramatic boost in 2016. Instead, he's turning pro with as many question marks as a prospect could have entering the draft.
Vonn Bell, S, Ohio State
Ohio State safety Vonn Bell is following the mass exodus of Buckeyes to the NFL, but he isn't riding much of his own momentum.
At this stage of his development, Bell's draft stock is all about potential.
It's obvious to see the NFL traits in Bell's game because he's one of the most physically gifted players on the field—even at Ohio State. But inconsistencies in his technique led to a lot of negative plays this past season.
Bell often takes poor angles in pursuit and is overaggressive in coverage. These are fixable issues, of course, but ones that could lead to a lower draft position than he's expecting.
CBS Sports' Dane Brugler gave a lukewarm review of Bell, stating he "gives up some plays, but has NFL starting safety traits."
Those who have followed his career at Ohio State and seen his highlights understand why the first round had been tossed around as a potential landing spot for him throughout his college career, but it's difficult to see a team viewing Bell as an immediate asset.
Franchises selecting safeties in the late first round are usually contenders looking to fill an immediate hole. Bell, however, looks more like a developmental prospect at this state of his career who will slide into the second round despite boasting a first-round skill set.
Cayleb Jones, WR, Arizona
Cayleb Jones was a transfer from Texas, so he's entering the draft after what would have been his senior year. So turning pro is a reasonable decision many players make after their redshirt-junior season.
However, Jones had the opportunity to return to a stable offensive situation that included head coach Rich Rodriguez and quarterback Anu Solomon.
Jones was Solomon's go-to receiver, hauling in 55 passes for 904 yards in 2015, but the performance was a significant drop from his 2014 campaign. As a sophomore, Jones caught 73 balls and topped the 1,000-yard mark.
At 6'3" and 215 pounds, Jones clearly has NFL size and skills, but it's tough not to wonder what he could have accomplished with another year at Arizona.
It's worth noting that Jones is the son of former NFL linebacker Robert Jones, who won three Super Bowls as a starter for the Cowboys in the 1990s, and the nephew of longtime NFL quarterback Jeff Blake. While those connections may not influence his draft stock directly, his NFL connections could have played a role in his early entry.
Thomas Duarte, WR, UCLA
We often see skill position players turn pro after losing their star quarterback. Cal wide receiver Kenny Lawler is an example of this, choosing to go pro with Jared Goff rather than risk hurting his stock as he adjusts to a new quarterback.
Thomas Duarte is essentially making the opposite decision, as he turns pro just as star quarterback Josh Rosen should be hitting his stride as a sophomore.
Duarte is coming off a solid season at UCLA in which he caught 53 passes for 872 yards and 10 touchdowns, but the potential was there for a monster year in 2016.
Duarte is a big receiver, listed at 6'3", 225 pounds, and he emerged as a strong red-zone target for Rosen. However, he doesn't move well for a receiver and appears to be more of an undersized tight end.
As a 'tweener with limited starting experience, Duarte will be viewed as more of a developmental prospect in this draft class.
His upside is clear, so his decision may work out in the end, but Duarte could have earned himself some money with a breakout year in his second campaign with Rosen.
Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State
Christian Hackenberg's decision to turn pro is complicated, and it's possible he made the right choice for off-field reasons.
However, since I started evaluating draft prospects prior to the 2004 NFL draft, I can't recall an underclassman quarterback turning pro with less positive momentum than Hackenberg.
His freshman season appeared promising, but much of his success was due to current Jaguars Pro Bowl receiver Allen Robinson and likely due to current Texans head coach Bill O'Brien as well.
While evaluating Robinson prior to the 2014 draft, I noted Hackenberg's obvious issues with accuracy, which were often masked by Robinson's impressive ability to adjust to the poorly thrown balls.
Unfortunately for Hackenberg, those issues never improved, and without Robinson to bail him out the problems became even more glaring.
According to Ben Stockwell of Pro Football Focus, Hackenberg's accuracy graded out as the seventh-worst mark among FBS quarterbacks in 2015.
It's worth noting the other side of the argument on Hackenberg's decision.
Some evaluators believe head coach James Franklin is at least partially to blame for Hackenberg's lack of development.
One evaluator told Fox Sports' Peter Schrager you "can't hold James Franklin against him."
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