Biggest Surprises to Spurn the NFL for Another Year in CFB
Throughout the last decade, it's become increasingly popular for draft-eligible players to head for the NFL early. Every year, though, a few valued prospects stay for another season of college football.
As the 2021 NFL draft deadline approaches, a couple of potential first-round selections and several possible Day 2 picks have announced they're passing up the pros.
While the decisions won't be official until Monday, the following players have formally revealed their choice.
The inclusions are somewhat subjective but consider mock drafts and conversations with draft analysts.
Nik Bonitto, Oklahoma
Oklahoma's Nik Bonitto posted 43 tackles with 6.5 for loss in 2019, but he assembled a true breakout year in 2020.
The edge-rusher developed into a constant force, collecting 11 stops in the backfield and 8.5 sacks. Bonitto added 11 hurries but led the nation in pressure rate, per Pro Football Focus. He earned second-team AP All-America honors.
Although the perception of his draft stock varied, Bonitto likely would've received attention as a Day 2 (second or third round) candidate.
Jordan Davis, Georgia
One of the more surprising returnees is Jordan Davis, a 6'6", 330-pound defensive tackle with the Georgia Bulldogs.
While his statistics are not overwhelming—59 tackles with seven for loss and five sacks in 32 games—Davis is an outstanding run defender. That strength helped him rank 18th, a first-round talent, in a mid-December update of Matt Miller's big board.
Instead, however, Davis is returning to Athens in hopes of helping Georgia get back to the College Football Playoff.
Jahan Dotson, Penn State
Given the depth of the 2021 receiver class, Penn State's Jahan Dotson wasn't a first-round candidate. However, his explosiveness may have been difficult to ignore later on Day 2 of the draft.
Dotson reeled in 52 passes for 884 yards and eight touchdowns in 2020, leading the Big Ten in the latter two categories. He also returned eight punts for 197 yards and a score. And in 2019, he caught 27 passes for 488 yards and five touchdowns.
The 5'11", 182-pounder will return as the Nittany Lions' primary target, especially since tight end Pat Freiermuth declared for the draft.
Derion Kendrick, Clemson
If Georgia's Davis isn't the most surprising returning player, that label goes to Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick.
Yes, he endured a rough showing in the Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State. But he assembled a strong year that resulted in first-team All-ACC honors. Kendrick had 17 tackles, one interception, six pass breakups and one fumble recovery.
He shifted from receiver to cornerback in 2019, so he's still learning the position. While that untapped potential makes him enticing, he'll be judged a little more closely as a third-year starter in 2021.
Miller considered Kendrick the No. 20 prospect in mid-December.
Darian Kinnard, Kentucky
Despite moving wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. to quarterback for eight games in 2019, Kentucky posted a 6-2 record in that stretch. While the defense excelled, the offensive line deserved a ton of praise for making a run-dominant attack so successful.
Along the way, Darian Kinnard showed just how overwhelming he could be. His run-blocking excellence continued in 2020 as the Wildcats returned to a more traditional offense.
Though he's a right tackle for Kentucky, his NFL future might be on the inside. Dane Brugler of The Athletic put Kinnard as the fifth-best interior offensive lineman in the class.
Kinnard, who Miller ranked 39th in December, can solidify himself as a Day 2 prospect or better in 2021.
Brock Purdy, Charlie Kolar and Greg Eisworth II, Iowa State
Considering the value of the position, quarterbacks are the most sought-after players in any draft. Iowa State's Brock Purdy won't be part of those discussions until the 2022 class, though.
Purdy will return to school, along with standout tight end Charlie Kolar and star safety Greg Eisworth II.
In short: Iowa State could be really good in 2021! But from an NFL perspective, the draft will be without three quality prospects.
Purdy would have been a Tier 3 type of quarterback who drew attention either on Day 2 or perhaps early on Day 3. Kolar had a respectable Day 2 chance after back-to-back seasons with at least 40 catches, and Eisworth is a three-time All-Big 12 selection.
Roger McCreary, Auburn
Rosters can be overwhelmed with early departures, but Auburn has received its fair share of encouraging news. Key players expected to return are linebacker Zakoby McClain, safety Smoke Monday and cornerback Roger McCreary.
While McClain and Monday are more productive, the NFL lens brings McCreary into focus.
After tallying 11 pass breakups in 2019, he totaled 45 tackles (7.0 TFL), six breakups and three interceptions in 2020 as a junior. And as Auburn undergoes a coaching change from Gus Malzahn to Brian Hairsin, it would've been understandable for McCreary to transition too.
Because he's staying on the Plains, though, McCreary will attempt to become more than a borderline Day 2 pick.
Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
As mentioned with Purdy, this is all about positional value. Quarterback-needy teams are known to prioritize a prospect much earlier than expected if he fits their system.
That may eventually happen with Desmond Ridder anyway, but the resolution won't be obvious until 2022.
Ridder ascended as Cincinnati excelled in 2020. The Bearcats unleashed his mobility, and the junior responded with 2,296 passing yards, 592 rushing yards and 31 total touchdowns in 10 games. His yards per pass attempt soared from 6.7 in 2019 to 8.2.
Brugler listed Ridder as the eighth-best QB prospect. Given that as many as six quarterbacks could be first-rounders in the 2021 draft, that's still a strong position for Ridder.
But he's returning to lead Cincinnati for one final season. Perhaps it will pay off for Ridder as a draft prospect, too.
Stats via CFBStats unless otherwise noted.