Prospects Who Missed Major Opportunities By Not Declaring for 2018 NFL Draft

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMarch 20, 2018

Prospects Who Missed Major Opportunities By Not Declaring for 2018 NFL Draft

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    Every year, dozens of college football underclassmen make the decision to forgo their remaining collegiate eligibility and enter the NFL draft. In 2018, a record 106 players declared early, according to NFL.com.

    For some, like quarterbacks Josh Rosen of UCLA and Sam Darnold of USC, the choice was an easy one. For others, the choice is much more difficult. Every year there are cautionary tales—players who declare early but are drafted late. 

    Or aren't drafted at all.

    Most of the time, we applaud the young men who make the decision to return to college for another year. Loyalty to their teammates is an admirable trait. For some it's a matter of unfinished business and the lure of a championship.

    But there's a flip side to that coin.

    Sometimes players come to wish they had turned pro a year before. An injury may derail a player's draft stock, or he may not play as well as expected in his return to college.

    These are the leading candidates to have that kind of stayer's remorse a year from now.

Bryce Love, RB, Stanford

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Short of winning a national championship, there isn't much left for Stanford tailback Bryce Love to do in college. The 5'10", 195-pound bell-cow was the runner-up in voting for the Heisman Trophy after rushing for 2,118 yards in 2017. Only one tailback in FBS had more yardage on the ground.

    Love also picked up that yardage at a robust 8.1 yards a pop. That wasn't just the top number in the FBS—it was the highest per-carry average of any qualifying tailback in FBS history.

    Those eye-popping numbers were enough to slot Love (per Chip Patterson of CBS Sports) as one of the top 30 prospects in the Class of 2018 and the No. 3 running back. Love wasn't as high on B/R NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller's board, but he still slotted among the top 10 ball-carriers in the class.

    The general belief was that Love would declare for the NFL draft. But he had other ideas, tweeting in January: "Honored to be a Cardinal and to play for this University another year! Back to work."

    Again, as with every player on this list, it's admirable that Love is loyal to the Cardinal. Stanford will be one of the leading contenders to win the Pac-12 in 2018, and Love will open next year atop many a Heisman watch list.

    But the decision may still be a mistake.

    Simply put, Love is Stanford's offense. He carried the ball 263 times in 2017 and likely would have topped 300 carries had he not battled an ankle injury down the stretch. Stanford is going to feed Love the ball early and often in 2018. While all that work will mean good numbers, it's also a lot of wear and tear at a position where wear and tear is the major concern for NFL teams.

    If Love can stay healthy and have another big year, he could win the Heisman Trophy and wind up a first-round pick. But if another heavy workload leads to another late-season injury and gets Love labeled a back who breaks down, that label (fair or not) will drop Love into the 2019 draft's third day.

Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    As Chase Goodbread reported for NFL.com, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said football is just a small part of what makes Christian Wilkins such an impressive young man.

    "He's interested in a million things. Football is right here, a small part of who he is," Swinney said. "It's important to him, and nobody works harder, but he's a very diverse person. He's either going to be the President, or he's going to know him. One of the two. He's going to do unbelievable things in life."

    The 6'4", 300-pound Wilkins stays busy off the field. He spent part of the offseason working as a substitute kindergarten teacher. He's already graduated from Clemson with a degree in communications.

    He should have moved on from the Tigers in 2018 too.

    Wilkins has already done everything there is to do in college. He was named an All-American last year after piling up 60 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks for the Tigers. He's been an anchor for a defense that helped propel Clemson to the College Football Playoff three straight years.

    An AFC scout told Goodbread he expects Wilkins would have shined in the pros as well:

    "This is a big, powerful kid who holds up really well on the edge, and he hasn't really tapped his potential. If you try to double-team him with a tight end and a tackle, he'll kick that double-team's ass. He'll split that. You double-team him with a tackle and a guard, you can contain him, but he'll get a stalemate.

    "I think he's a left defensive end and a really good one. He knows how to use his hands and get off blocks. He keeps his hands inside, and blockers just can't stay with him."

    Bleacher Report's Matt Miller agreed, ranking Wilkins as both the top interior lineman in this year's class (better than Maurice Hurst of Michigan and Vita Vea of Washington) and the most NFL-ready of the lot.

    Wilkins would likely have been a Round 1 pick—maybe even top-15. He'd have been a great fit for a team like the Washington Redskins or Detroit Lions.

    When that's the case, you go.

Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson

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    Sean Rayford/Associated Press

    No, this entire article isn't going to be about defensive linemen from Clemson who decided to return to school.

    Dabo Swinney must be one heck of a salesman, though. Three D-linemen from the school (Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant) who made Matt Miller's top 50 prospects after the college football season decided to come back for 2018.

    Swinney told reporters that both Wilkins and Ferrell (surprisingly) received second-round grades from the NFL draft advisory committee before deciding to stay at Clemson. The coach stated that those grades were a major factor in their decisions, but Ferrell indicated that wasn't the case:

    "I don't really need any motivation other than the motivation I have for myself. I want to leave a strong legacy. People think I came back just to improve my draft stock, and that really was one of the last reasons why I came back. When I came to Clemson, I wanted to be one of the best players to come through here. That's really the strongest reason why I came back."

    After a 2017 season in which the 6'5", 260-pound Ferrell amassed 66 total tackles, 18 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks, Miller ranked him as a top-20 prospect overall and the No. 2 edge-rusher in the country—trailing only potential No. 1 overall pick Bradley Chubb of North Carolina State.

    After watching Ferrell harass quarterbacks all season long, it's hard to believe there aren't NFL teams who agree with him—especially given the premium placed on NFL-ready defensive ends Ferrell's size in the draft.

    If Ferrell has another big year, he'll move higher in Round 1—likely into the top 10. But all it would take is a minor injury and a drop in stats to cost him a chance at being drafted on Day 1—status he could have solidified with a decent combine.

    The potential reward isn't worth the risk.

Ryan Finley, QB, North Carolina State

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    Andres Leighton/Associated Press

    To be fair, North Carolina State quarterback Ryan Finley probably wouldn't have been a first-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft. The 6'4", 210-pounder wasn't going to challenge Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen for the title of top quarterback.

    But after completing over 65 percent of his passes and topping 3,500 yards through the air in 2017, Finley could have landed in the second tier of prospects at the position. He'd more than likely have been a Day 2 pick.

    That may be as good as it gets.

    Finley said in a statement that his return to Raleigh was motivated by unfinished business: "I'm looking forward to building on the success we had this season. My goal when I came to NC State was to win an ACC championship, and with so many starters returning on offense next season, I feel that we could achieve that."

    Chasing an ACC championship and potential berth in the College Football Playoff is a laudable goal. But it's also not going to happen. Unless an unexpected offseason realignment moves Clemson out of the ACC, it is the unquestioned big dog of the conference.

    In other words, the best case for Finley is probably a repeat of the 2017 season—decent numbers at the helm of a decent (but not great) team and continued status as a Day 2 pick. The (admittedly early) 2019 NFL mock draft at Walter Football doesn't list Finley in the first round. He also didn't make Chris Hummer's 2019 big board at 247 Sports.

    The worst case? A down year or an injury—the sort of injury that wiped out Finley's 2015 season and got him another year of eligibility from the NCAA.

    There's also the matter of age. Those extra years add up—2018 will mark Finley's sixth. By the time the 2019 draft rolls around, Finley will be 24 years old.

    That matters to NFL teams.

Damien Harris, RB, Alabama

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    It's no secret Alabama head coach Nick Saban isn't happy that so many underclassmen declare each year for the NFL draft, as he made clear when speaking to reporters in January:

    "A lot of guys, man, they got it in their minds that they're going to go out for the draft no matter what. I think you all know my philosophy on that. If you're a first-round draft pick, you should go. If you're not, you should stay in school and try to graduate. I think it's getting tougher and tougher and more and more guys are making the decision to go out early. In at least 50 percent of those cases, it's not a good decision, and a lot of those guys don't make a team."

    With tailback Damien Harris, Saban got his wish. In fairness, the 221-pound Harris, who rushed for exactly 1,000 yards in 2017 while splitting time with Bo Scarbrough, would not have been a first-round pick. He'd have slotted somewhere in the large tier of Day 2 backs in 2018.

    But Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller ranked Harris as the fourth-best back in the class of 2018 after the season—ahead of the likes of Auburn's Kerryon Johnson and Georgia's Sony Michel. One scout told Lance Zierlein of NFL.com that Harris' career year caught the eye of NFL teams.

    "He really committed himself to put in the work in the offseason, and his effort has been inspired all year," the scout said. "Bo looked like the better pro option last year, but I can't say that anymore."

    His value is at its apex, though. Or at least close to it.

    Yes, Scarbrough is gone, making Harris (for now) the clear-cut No. 1 back. However, this is Alabama—there's all but certainly a youngster waiting in the wings who is going to work his way into the same sort of complementary role Scarbrough played in 2017. Even if Harris' numbers get better, they aren't going to be so much better that he's going to move into Round 1.

    He's rolling the dice on staying healthy with little to gain even if he does.

    It's not like he hasn't won a championship.

Dre'Mont Jones, DT, Ohio State

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    There may not be a more stacked position group at any college in the country than the defensive linemen at Ohio State. Much like at Clemson, the Buckeyes are loaded along the defensive front—and that's after losing several young linemen to the NFL draft this spring.

    The Buckeyes held on to one player many thought would leave. After racking up 20 tackles, five tackles for loss and a sack in a rotational role in 2017, defensive tackle Dre'Mont Jones tweeted in January that he'd return to Columbus this fall.

    "My lifelong dream is to play in the NFL," Jones said. "In order to best achieve this goal, I have decided to forgo my draft eligibility and remain in school. OSU is providing me with a strong and solid foundation which will continue to make achieving my career possible. Go Bucks!"

    It's understandable that after narrowly missing a chance at a playoff spot last year, Jones would like to take a run at a championship. The 6'3", 295-pounder should see an uptick in both snaps and stats in 2018.

    And yet the argument can be made that Jones should have bolted.

    Yes, the redshirt sophomore's stats weren't eye-popping in 2017—but his film was. Jones is a wildly athletic and disruptive 3-technique who made Miller's top five at the position. He ranked ahead of Alabama's Da'Ron Payne, who is most likely going to be a first-round pick April 26.

    Jones may not have been a first-rounder. But Round 2 was probably his floor, and his skill set lends itself well to the sort of strong showing in Indianapolis that would have boosted him into consideration for the first 32 picks.

    Part of what makes Ohio State's line so formidable is its depth. Even superstar edge-rusher Nick Bosa played a relatively light snap count in 2017, and Ohio State has a new batch ready to fill in for departed players like Sam Hubbard.

    Unless Jones and the Buckeyes win a championship in 2018, he's going to be right back in this spot a year from now—barring disaster.

T.J. Edwards, ILB, Wisconsin

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    Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Edwards would not have been a first-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft. Or a second-round pick. Or even a third-round pick. As Jason Galloway reported for the Wisconsin State Journal, the NFL draft advisory board gave Edwards a "return to school" grade—its way of saying you may be sitting by the phone a while on draft day.

    Edwards' problem is that one more year in Madison isn't going to make much difference.

    It's not a matter of production. The 6'1", 244-pound inside linebacker racked up 81 total stops, 11 tackles for loss and two sacks for the Badgers in 2017. The three-year starter also demonstrated a nose for the football, tying for the team lead with four interceptions.

    The issue with Edwards is that he's...let's see, how to put this tactfully and diplomatically...slow. At least by NFL standards.

    Edwards could still have success in the pros. He wouldn't be the first Wisconsin linebacker who made up for a lack of athleticism with a nonstop motor and excellent instincts. See Borland, Chris.

    Edwards' combination of toughness and football smarts (coupled with that nose for the football) might be enough to sneak him into the back half of the draft's second day. He'll get drafted for sure, thanks to a skill set that (at the very least) has the makings of a depth player and special teams asset.

    But unless the Badgers are doing some really interesting things with conditioning, Edwards isn't going to get considerably faster. His draft stock is as high as it's going to get. He even admitted (per Galloway) that the potential for injury was a factor in his decision after teammate Jake Cichy tore his ACL last August.

    Edwards was an All-American in 2017 and was named first-team All-Big Ten.

    He's not going to be a star, but Edwards has gone as far as he can collegiately. He might as well get paid for it now.