College Football's Winners and Losers of 2018 NFL Draft Early-Entry Decisions
The deadline for college football players to declare for the 2018 NFL draft was Monday, and there were plenty of big winners and losers from a collegiate point of view.
The NFL's official early-entrant list won't publish until later this week, but a hat tip to Rotoworld's Mark Lindquist for this constantly updated list of who is staying, who is going and where the departing players are expected to be drafted. Literally within five minutes of Roquan Smith's announcement on Monday that he will enter the draft, that list was updated to include the Georgia linebacker.
Though there isn't a full section later devoted to them, two of the biggest winners of draft-declaration season are Pac-12 QBs Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen. Though neither one played on a team that was good enough to back up the preseason Heisman hype each received, it's looking like they could go Nos. 1 and 2 in the draft. That's pretty impressive considering how many other guys fell apart in 2017 after being labeled as potential top-10 picks before the season began.
However, it's not a surprise that either of those quarterbacks declared for the draft. Rather, we're using this time to highlight the decisions that were either entirely unexpected or coin-flip ones that significantly altered the outlook of individual teams, certain leagues or the entire 2018 college football landscape.
These are listed in no particular order other than to oscillate between winners and losers.
Winner: Washington Huskies
The Washington Huskies do lose one key player as an early entrant to the draft, but Vita Vea's decision is no big surprise considering he is a projected first-round pick in many mock drafts, including the latest from B/R's Matt Miller. The Huskies are also losing six seniors from the starting lineup, including wide receiver Dante Pettis and linebacker Keishawn Bierria.
But given how much worse things could have gotten via early draft decisions, Washington is the biggest winner of this portion of the offseason.
QB Jake Browning is returning to school to become a four-year starter for Chris Petersen. If Browning had a junior season similar to his sophomore year, he would probably be out the door. However, after throwing 43 touchdown passes in 2016, he only tossed 19 this past season. Despite a big improvement in completion percentage, his overall stats were down significantly from the previous season. He'll be back in hopes of finishing on a high note.
Joining Browning is running back Myles Gaskin, who has rushed for at least 1,300 yards and 10 TDs in each of the last three seasons. Barring injury, there's a decent chance he'll finish in the top 10 on the all-time leaderboard for both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. Gaskin likely won't be the favorite for the 2018 Heisman, but he should be a top-10 preseason candidate.
Even if it were just those two guys, it would have been a big win for the Huskies. They also have offensive tackle Kaleb McGary, safety JoJo McIntosh and defensive tackle Greg Gaines sticking around for one more season.
One has to assume that Washington will be one of the biggest risers when revised still-way-too-early top 25 rankings start coming out.
Loser: Auburn's Run Game
Far be it from us to chastise a running back for leaving early for the draft. Players at that position have such a short shelf life in the NFL that they might as well get started on that pro career as soon as possible.
That said, losing juniors Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway to the draft is a huge blow for the Auburn Tigers.
Johnson's decision isn't shocking by any means. Prior to a shoulder injury suffered in the Iron Bowl, he was surging as the one guy who might be able to steal the Heisman away from Baker Mayfield. He rushed for nearly 1,400 yards and had 18 touchdowns, and he showed enough in the receiving game—55 catches over the last three years—to be a potential every-down back in the pros. He should be one of the first five running backs drafted, possibly in the first round.
Pettway's decision is the surprising one—and the one that's a gut punch for Auburn fans.
The fullback-turned-tailback had trouble staying on the field. He appeared in nine games as a sophomore and only played five games this past season due to a fractured shoulder blade. When healthy, though, he was mighty effective, rushing for at least 100 yards in eight of his last 14 games. He was expected to be the projected starter heading into spring camp.
Instead, he's off to the draft, despite an evaluation from most mock draft sites as either a late-round pick or an undrafted free agent.
As a result, Auburn will have to adjust to a backfield of Kam Martin and Devan Barrett. Considering those guys averaged 6.1 and 5.6 yards per carry, respectively, maybe that won't be a bad thing, though. The Tigers are getting QB Jarrett Stidham back, too, which will help the run game.
Winner: ACC Quarterbacks
The early-entry list is loaded with defensive backs. The list won't be official until later in the week, but the current count is 24 players from the secondary taking the early plunge. Each of the five power conferences is responsible for at least three of those DBs. The ACC takes the cake, though, with seven of them.
At the top of the list are Florida State's Derwin James and Tarvarus McFadden, even though both Seminoles have plummeted in mock drafts since the preseason. In Matt Miller's latest mock for B/R, James is listed as the No. 30 pick, and McFadden isn't slated to go until the latter half of the second round at No. 54. Back in early May 2017, Miller had James at No. 5 and McFadden at No. 23. Regardless of where they get drafted, every team with Florida State on its 2018 schedule will be pleased to see them out of the picture.
Louisville CB Jaire Alexander is another key departure, even though he only appeared in six games this season due to injury. Heading into the year, he was regarded as one of the best cover corners in the nation. It should be even easier to move the ball against the Cardinals without him around.
The other big one is Virginia Tech's linebacker-turned-safety Terrell Edmunds. Outside of James, Edmunds is probably the best tackler in this year's crop of secondary players, which should make him and a Day 2 pick and a strong safety in the pros.
There's also Pittsburgh safety Jordan Whitehead, Clemson safety Van Smith and Wake Forest safety Jessie Bates III.
Meanwhile, the only ACC quarterback declaring for the draft is Louisville's Lamar Jackson, so guys like Ryan Finley, Kelly Bryant and Eric Dungey should have a better year of passing in conference play.
Loser: SMU's Passing Game
There were only 13 FBS players in the country who had at least 1,000 receiving yards and 10 touchdown receptions this season. The only school represented twice on that list is SMU in the form of Courtland Sutton and Trey Quinn.
One other thing those wide receivers have in common is the decision to forgo a senior season for a chance at playing in the NFL.
Sutton (68 receptions, 1,085 yards, 12 TD) has long been regarded as one of the top receivers in this year's crop of draft-eligible players. SMU's 6'4" WR has been an outstanding deep threat over the past three seasons, hauling in 31 touchdowns and recording more than 3,000 receiving yards. He'll be battling with Calvin Ridley and Christian Kirk for the honor of first WR selected, but all three should go in the first round—which was more or less the expectation before the season even began.
Quinn's season (114 receptions, 1,236 yards, 13 TD) was much more of a surprise. He barely did anything in his first two years with LSU before transferring to SMU and sitting out 2016. However, he quickly became a go-to guy for Ben Hicks, including a three-game stretch of 49 catches for 458 yards. He will unfortunately be a one-hit wonder for the Mustangs, though, after leading the nation in receptions.
At least SMU still has Hicks at QB and James Proche (40 receptions, 816 yards, 6 TD) running routes, but replacing 25 touchdowns and more than 2,300 receiving yards is going to be a significant challenge.
Winner: Clemson's Defensive Front 7
Head coach Dabo Swinney announced Saturday night that defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant will both be returning for another season. Moments later, Swinney also said LB Kendall Joseph and CB Mark Fields will be returning to school. The Tigers offense also got great news in the form of OT Mitch Hyatt staying for one more year, although his draft stock waned considerably as the season progressed, so that wasn't too shocking.
But let's focus on the defense, which was already among the best in the nation.
We knew Dexter Lawrence was coming back for another season, since he was a true sophomore and did not have the option of declaring for the draft. We also knew Clemson would be losing fifth-year senior LB Dorian O'Daniel. But everything else about this dynamic front seven was up in the air until a few days ago.
The return of Ferrell and Bryant is terrifying news for the rest of the country. That duo combined for 33.5 tackles for loss and 18.0 sacks this season while leading the fourth-best defense in terms of yards allowed per game.
Meanwhile, Joseph led the Tigers in tackles and was the biggest reason Clemson led the nation in rushing touchdowns allowed (giving up just five). It was hard enough to get past Clemson's front four. Doing so and then having Joseph there ready to make a tackle was like a scene out of American Gladiators during which the contestant runs the final gauntlet and busts through a paper door near the finish line only to find Ice or Laser waiting to deliver a crushing blow.
Big rushing plays simply do not happen against this defense, and that will remain the case for at least one more year.
Emphasis on "at least" since Clemson has signed defensive ends Xavier Thomas and KJ Henry, two of the top eight overall players in this year's recruiting class, per 247 Sports' composite rankings. Get ready for another three years of Alabama and Clemson meeting in the College Football Playoff.
Loser: Notre Dame's Offense
It was one heck of a bounce-back season for Notre Dame. One year removed from a 4-8 disaster that had everyone screaming for Brian Kelly's head, the Fighting Irish went 10-3 and were one of the top candidates for the College Football Playoff until the second weekend in November.
The offense was largely to thank for that resurgence. After a lackluster 2016 season, Notre Dame had one of the most unstoppable rushing attacks in the nation.
But what will that offense look like in 2018 after three early departures?
The least surprising of the trio is guard Quenton Nelson. The big man was a projected borderline first-round pick before the season began, but he has climbed all the way to No. 12 in Matt Miller's latest mock. Losing both Nelson and fifth-year senior OT Mike McGlinchey will make it much more difficult for Notre Dame to find holes in the run game and protection in the pocket.
Another cause for rushing woes is RB Josh Adams' decision to declare for the draft. The star of Notre Dame's offense rushed for 1,430 yards and nine touchdowns, including seven carries that went for at least 60 yards. He tapered off over his final five games—partially due to an injury suffered in Week 9 against Wake Forest—but he was a legitimate Heisman candidate prior to that.
Even the passing game is taking a hit, as leading receiver Equanimeous St. Brown is going pro. Granted, "leading receiver" is a relative term, as he finished the year with 33 receptions, 515 yards and four touchdowns in this run-heavy offense. But St. Brown had 961 yards and nine TDs the previous year and was clearly the most talented route-runner on the team, even if he was a bit under-utilized.
We're not saying Notre Dame is going to revert all the way back to 4-8, but it wouldn't be unforgivable if you opted to leave Notre Dame outside the top 15 in a way-too-early top 25. Had all three of those guys opted to return, though, there would be a strong case to be made for Notre Dame in the top five.
Winner: Special Teams
At most positions, draft declarations are a dime a dozen. Defensive backs, wide receivers and offensive linemen are always plentiful on the list of 100 or so players leaving early for the NFL.
Kickers and punters, on the other hand, are needles in a haystack.
In the past four years combined, only one FBS kicker and one FBS punter has declared early—Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo in 2016 and Clemson punter Bradley Pinion in 2015. Each guy did get drafted, so those were wise decisions.
Will Texas punter Michael Dickson and Florida kicker Eddy Pineiro have a similar fate this April?
Dickson won the Ray Guy Award, annually given to the nation's best punter. His combination of distance and accuracy is second to none, as demonstrated in the Texas Bowl when 10 of his 11 punts pinned Missouri inside its own 15. Prior to bowl season, he was leading the nation in average yards per punt. He won't be a first-round pick, since punters never get that type of treatment. However, a third-round pick is within the realm of possibility given how great he has been the past two seasons.
Pineiro didn't win any postseason awards, but perhaps he would have if Florida's offense had been good enough to put him in position for more attempts. Pineiro drained 17 of 18 field-goal attempts this season and finished his two-year career with the Gators with 88.4 percent accuracy.
They weren't all chip shots, either. Pineiro nailed all five of his attempts from at least 50 yards away and was 17-of-20 from 40-plus. In a sea of #CollegeKickers missing short attempts, Pineiro stands out as one guy who can probably be trusted in critical moments.
Assuming both special teams players get drafted, this could be a turning point in which more kickers and punters consider bolting for the NFL once eligible.
Loser: LSU Tigers
Having a bunch of players declare for the NFL draft is a double-edged sword.
On the plus side, it's a nice recruiting sell. Just like how Duke and Kentucky annually produce one-and-done talent in college basketball before they welcome in a new batch of the nation's top recruits, coaches can point to a half-dozen guys declaring early for the NFL draft and say, "If you come play for me, I can get you to the league quicker than those other coaches would."
On the minus side, it leaves gaping holes in your roster that you might not be able to fill.
Therein lies the problem for Ed Orgeron and LSU.
It's no surprise that RB Derrius Guice and DE/LB Arden Key declared for the draft. Though each one had a bit of a disappointing season, both were projected as potential top-10 picks before the season began. 2017 was always going to be a formality for them. And if those were the only two guys the Tigers were losing early, they could probably still compete for an SEC title.
However, they also lost a pair of offensive linemen (Will Clapp and Toby Weathersby) as well as two cornerbacks (Kevin Toliver II and Donte Jackson). As a result, the Tigers are tied atop the national leaderboard with Florida State with six players leaving early.
The good news in the Bayou is that this is one of the few teams that can withstand that type of talent exodus and still be in good shape. Per 247 Sports' composite rankings, LSU's recruiting class was No. 2 in both 2014 and 2016, No. 5 in 2015, No. 7 last year and is just outside the top 10 with national signing day three weeks away.
Granted, a lot of that top-100 talent is already in the NFL or has transferred elsewhere, but there are still guys like K'Lavon Chaisson, Kary Vincent Jr. and Austin Deculus who were highly coveted recruits that now get a chance to shine.
Maybe LSU will be all right, but they'd be in much better shape without all these losses.