It's October. You're thinking about playoff rankings, conference championships, potential Heisman candidates; I'm thinking Senior Bowl invitations, risers, and potential declarations.
This year, as with every year, more and more underclassmen will declare. It will be, from a 50,000 foot view, an unimpeachable decision: the sooner you can go get paid, the better. It is impossible to fault a junior for declaring, even if he had plenty of stock to gain as a senior, if he believes that he can begin making money for putting his body at terrible risk for our entertainment.
That said, there is always a value in returning to school as well, even for top-flight and potential first-round prospects. No underclassman is perfect, and returning to school can allow these players to answer questions about their projections; cement legacies; or even better prepare their bodies for the increased speed and physicality of the NFL. I took five underclassmen I think have interesting declaration decision oncoming, and broke down why I fall on which side that I do, given what we've seen of their 2019 product thus far.
Iowa EDGE A.J. Epenesa
Epenesa has had a pretty odd beginning of the season. After accumulating a Big-10 leading 11 sacks in 2018 despite playing less than half of his teams' snaps, Epenesa's permanent starting role has seemingly taken the edge off his pass-rush: through the first five games of the season, Epenesa only has 2 TFLs and sacks apiece. The increase in volume has slashed efficiency at the knees -- why?
Epenesa's getting a lot more attention from double- and even triple-teams when he's on the field, and also isn't getting snaps exclusively on passing downs when he can tee off with a full tank of gas. Perhaps there are even conditioning questions -- Epenesa is a huge dude -- as he's now taking close to 100% of the team's snaps on defense, and accordingly playing far more gassed this year than he ever did in 2018.
That said, if you're a potential first-rounder, you gotta declare: and regardless of the stat sheet through the rest of 2019, Epenesa's a first-rounder. Physically, he's a special athlete at such a large size, and clearly translates his power, length, and bend into sacks and pressures off of film. Even if Epenesa's arrow is pointing down for some because of his quiet start in 2019, he's still a Top-5 player on my board, and should come out.
Would Rather: Declare
Stanford CB Paulson Adebo
Another highly-touted underclassmen who has seemingly disappointed in the first half of the 2019 season, Adebo has given up big games to UCF WR Gabriel Davis as well as Oregon State WR Isaiah Hodgins in what has proven a gut-check year for the playmaking corner. Tasked with true man coverage on the outside and disadvantaged by the lack of safety help on the Cardinal roster, Adebo has been burned deep and at the catch point regularly, despite having NFL speed and size.
Is it a technique issue? I don't think so -- more of an aggressiveness or mindset issue. Adebo is an aggressive corner who wants to win reps by crowding the receiver and challenging the route, and accordingly he can play out of control and lose to double moves and smart releases.
But this doesn't concern me too much: I tend to prefer aggressive corners who occasionally get burned to those corners who play passively and allow themselves to get displaced by top-talent, especially when the corner has the mentality necessary to bounce back from rough reps/games. I think Adebo has that -- four PBUs against the Washington Huskies last week was a welcome site. Furthermore, more than any other position in football does corner play go through drastic swings -- Adebo remains rife with NFL traits and valued due to his top-tier performances. He may not be one of the first cornerbacks off the board in a class with talented seniors (Bryce Hall, Kristian Fulton, Trevon Diggs), but he'll certainly push that tier for top Draft selections.
Would Rather: Declare
Georgia QB Jake Fromm
I posed this question on Twitter last week to mixed results. With quarterback, it's always a bit weird, because -- more than any other position, I think -- getting close-but-not-quite to a team milestone often urges a return to school. If Georgia makes it back to the College Football Playoff -- where they should have won the National Championship in 2017, with a true freshman in Fromm at the helm -- and again fall short, Kirby Smart and Georgia will have a strong case for recruiting Fromm back to Georgia in 2020.
That case is buttressed by the upcoming QB class. Even without knowing the state of fellow underclassmen passers Jacob Eason (see below) and Jordan Love, we can safely assume Tua Tagovailoa is joining a class already boasting of Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow, and Jalen Hurts. I'd even throw tons of money down on Love being a lock to declare. How sure can Fromm be that he'll be among the Top-5 QBs drafted from that group?
The counterpoint concerns Fromm's development: how much better of a player can he really get with another year in Georgia? Has he reached the cap of his physical tools? I think that, considering the youth of his receivers, he has a chance to be a better stat-sheet passer in 2020, and will likely face a weaker crop of draftable QBs. In an average class, he could likely punch a first-round ticket given his body of starts and quality film -- I'm not sure that's a guarantee in this group.
Would Rather: Return
Washington QB Jacob Eason
Back to the quarterbacks, this time with a bit of a different spin -- Eason was the quarterback that true freshman Fromm supplanted on Georgia's 2017 run, and after transferring to Washington and sitting out a season, has far more left to prove and define than Fromm. His chief question is the same as Fromm's -- just how much better can he get if he returns to school -- but it's framed not given how close he is to his ceiling, like Fromm. Rather, Eason profiles as a quarterback who could benefit greatly from stable reps, multiple years, in a consistent offensive system -- he's good as a junior, and could be a lot better as a senior.
Eason also has to look at a thick QB class with some trepidation; but he's going to lose at least three of his starting offensive linemen, as well as his three starting receivers in Aaron Fuller, Andre Baccellia, and Chico McClatcher. The Washington offense may bleed too much talent for him to justify returning, and we should always remember that a year of NFL development usually means more than a year of college development, if Eason gets selected in an area that wouldn't ask him to start in Year 1. I think it still makes sense for Eason to come out, but he's in one of the most intriguing spots.
Would Rather: Declare
Alabama WR DeVonta Smith
Well, DeVonta Smith just had a 275-yard, 5 touchdown game, so it's very odd that he's in this column! Usually when players have games like that, it's a pretty clear signal that they're ready for the NFL.
Yet DeVonta is still third on the Alabama depth chart at wide receiver, behind Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, both of whom are locks in the first round should they declare for 2020 (both are juniors). Why? Because their on-field products outshine Smith's, even for all of his strengths. Jeudy has a snappiness in his route and in his runs after catches that astounds, and his hands away from his frame snatch without fail; Ruggs is the fastest player to declare since Tyreek Hill, and brings a better profile of physicality and tackle-breaking than even Hill can boast of. They are WRs 1 and 2 on my board.
But Smith is WR6, and I like his film a lot -- he just needs time to add more mass and strength, without sacrificing what is already a modest profile of quickness and burst, relative to his counterparts. Smith should go back to school if (when) Jeudy and Ruggs III declare, stepping into a more prominent role on offense with hopefully a more NFL-ready body -- even if he isn't the WR1, as Bama's next man up cycle continues with current sophomore Jaylen Waddle.
Would Rather: Return