Biggest Surprises to Spurn the NFL for Another Year in CFB
In the past decade especially, the best draft-eligible players have routinely passed up their final year of eligibility to pursue the NFL.
There is always a small group, though, that returns for another season of college football.
Now, this assortment for the 2022 cycle is relatively thinner on top-round talent than usual. Though it depends on who you ask—draft evaluations are inherently subjective—most of the returnees are more like top-100 prospects than first-rounders.
For now, at least. Raising that profile is often the driving force behind the decision to put NFL dreams on pause.
The list is subjective, but it includes draft rankings as available.
Jordan Battle, S, Alabama
Much of the surprise behind Jordan Battle's decision is that he immediately began contributing at Alabama in 2019.
During his freshman year, the hard-hitting safety notched 30 tackles with two takeaways. Battle recorded 66 tackles when the Crimson Tide won a national title in 2020 and produced 87 stops with three interceptions (two pick-sixes) last season.
From an outside perspective, it seemed he had nothing left to accomplish. As of January, B/R's NFL Scouting Department rated Battle as the third-best eligible safety in the 2022 cycle.
Instead, he'll be patrolling the Bama secondary for another year.
Henry To'oTo'o, LB, Alabama
Along with Battle, the Tide's top tackler is also returning.
Henry To'oTo'o transferred from Tennessee last offseason and immediately became a force in Tuscaloosa. The inside linebacker amassed 112 tackles with eight takedowns for loss and four sacks, breaking up two passes and forcing a fumble.
That fantastic season followed two years with the Vols in which he combined for 148 tackles with 15 for loss.
B/R's scouting crew labeled To'oTo'o, who checks in at 6'2" and 228 pounds, as the ninth-best draft-eligible linebacker.
Tyler Davis, DT, Clemson
Injuries have done Tyler Davis no favors in college.
Between the 2020 and 2021 seasons, he's missed a combined nine games. That's probably no small contributor to the defensive tackle sticking around at Clemson in 2022.
But when he's healthy, Davis has a major influence on the Tigers' success. As a freshman, he piled up 10 tackles for loss with 6.5 sacks. He's notched 7.5 takedowns for loss and 4.5 sacks in the past two seasons while dealing with those health setbacks.
Davis, who B/R had ranked as the No. 8 defensive lineman, will be alongside Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy in what should be another stellar defensive front for Clemson in 2022.
Nolan Smith, LB, Georgia
Georgia is set to replace a majority of its defensive production in 2022, but at least Nolan Smith is coming back.
Heading into 2021, the former No. 1 overall prospect in the nation had performed well as a backup for two seasons. But he assembled a well-timed breakout year for the Bulldogs on their way to the program's first national championship in 41 years.
Among his 56 tackles, Smith registered 10 for loss with 3.5 sacks. He forced three fumbles, recovered one loose ball, grabbed an interception and even blocked a punt in 2021.
Smith landed as the 11th-best draft-eligible linebacker, per B/R, before announcing he'd return to Georgia.
Riley Moss, CB, Iowa
Relative to draft rankings, Riley Moss is an outlier pick. However, he seemed destined for the 2022 draft when he accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl in December.
Instead, he'll still be starring at Iowa in the fall.
Moss has been a terrific playmaker in four college seasons, snagging 10 interceptions and returning three for touchdowns. The cornerback, who earned Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year in 2021, also has 111 tackles and 15 pass breakups for the Hawkeyes.
If he puts together another strong year, Moss' draft profile should rise considerably next cycle.
Jarrett Patterson, C, Notre Dame
The first of two Notre Dame players, Jarrett Patterson is an absolute steal to keep around in 2022.
Patterson has been the starting center for the Fighting Irish since the 2019 season. According to Pro Football Focus, he has surrendered exactly zero sacks in more than 1,300 snaps, and he's established himself as a reliable run-blocker.
It should be no surprise, then, that Patterson graded out as B/R's ninth-best interior offensive lineman.
Notre Dame would've had a promising O-line without him, but Patterson's return solidifies a high-upside blocking unit.
Isaiah Foskey, Edge, Notre Dame
On the opposite side of the ball, Notre Dame is undoubtedly excited to welcome back edge-rusher Isaiah Foskey.
After holding a rotation role for two seasons, Foskey assembled a breakout year in 2021. He amassed 52 tackles with 12.5 for loss and 11 sacks. Additionally, he matched two players—Kansas State's Felix Anudike-Uzomah and Fresno State's Arron Mosby—for an FBS-high six forced fumbles.
B/R's scouts considered Foskey the No. 10 edge-rusher. Given the positional value, that would be worthy of a second-round pick.
Granted, if Foskey is remotely close to that production again, he'll be demanding first-round attention in 2023.
Zach Harrison, Edge, Ohio State
Immediately behind Foskey on B/R's edge-rusher ranking is Zach Harrison, who rose to No. 11 at his position.
Harrison hasn't made the box-score impact anticipated of a 5-star recruit, and production—while not the entire story—is a valuable piece for edge-rushers. He's totaled 71 tackles with 16.5 for loss and 8.5 sacks in three seasons at Ohio State.
Still, his stature (6'6", 272 lbs.) combined with flashes of pass-rush excellence must be appealing traits to pro scouts.
In all likelihood, Harrison would've attracted Day 2 consideration in this draft. He'll have a chance to bolster that profile under new coordinator Jim Knowles, whose Oklahoma State defense had five players with 11-plus tackles for loss in 2021.
Zach Charbonnet, RB, UCLA
More than anything, the shelf life of running backs is limited. That simple fact, proven every year, is a key reason to consider heading to the NFL as soon as possible.
Noting the trend is not to suggest Zach Charbonnet made a poor decision; rather, it's underlining the calculated risk he's taking.
Charbonnet ranked fifth at his position, according to B/R, after a resurgent year. He rushed for 726 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman at Michigan in 2019 but mustered only 25 touches in 2020—shocking at the time—before transferring to UCLA. He then scampered for 1,137 yards and 13 scores while catching 24 passes for 197 yards with the Bruins.
Much of the offense will be rebuilt in 2022, but Charbonnet and fifth-year starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson give UCLA a sturdy foundation.