Every year, nearly 100 underclassmen declare for the NFL draft and forgo their senior season, and every year, many of them go undrafted.
For some players, the decision to declare for the draft early can be greatly beneficial. Those elite players who have shown enough in three years to warrant either a first- or second-round pick often make the decision to declare for the NFL draft because they are essentially guaranteed to make an NFL roster (and NFL money).
Other players, who have no draft guarantees, still make the decision to leave early because of financial reasons or to avoid risking injury in college. It’s an uncertain move, though. Leaving prematurely can often cost players millions in future earnings and ultimately make or break their NFL careers.
Although the Ducks are fully focused on the Rose Bowl and finishing the season strong, there are many juniors that have a tough decision to make about whether to declare for the draft or return for their final season. Let’s look at a few Ducks who will be making this decision in the weeks to come, and I’ll share my predictions for whether they’ll stay or go.
From Drop-Prone to NFL-Bound?
At the start of the season, no one in their right mind would have thought that Johnny Johnson III would be a potential 2020 NFL draft pick. Last season, he made drops in key situations and never seemed to be on the same page with quarterback Justin Herbert.
The 2019 football season was a completely different story. Johnson III was Herbert’s top target and anchored a receiver/tight end group that was riddled with injuries. Johnson III was the Ducks’ main big-play receiver and repeatedly came up clutch in big games against Auburn, Washington, Arizona State and Utah.
If Johnson III were to declare for the NFL draft, he would likely be a day-three pick, falling between rounds 5 and 7 or potentially going undrafted. Johnson III will have to decide if it is worth it for him to forgo a potentially dominant senior season and risk fighting to make an NFL roster.
His draft profile and situation is comparable to that of former Duck Dillon Mitchell, who declared after a dominant junior season last year only to be drafted late in the seventh round. He has yet to record his first NFL catch.
I do not believe Johnson III should declare for the NFL draft. If he makes the same leap his senior season that he made his junior year, he will be a far more polished NFL prospect. However, if he decides to leave, rising sophomore quarterback Tyler Shough will have to rely on Jaylon Redd, Mycah Pittman and transfer Devon Williams. The Ducks have depth and talent in their receiver group, but losing Johnson III would leave a major hole.
Verdict: Johnny Johnson III returns for senior year.
Decisions Loom for Ducks’ Secondary
Maybe the position group most at risk of losing players to the draft is the secondary. Although Oregon has no senior cornerbacks or safeties, they have a trio of juniors in Thomas Graham Jr., Deommondore Lenoir and Nick Pickett that have NFL potential.
Pickett is the safest bet to stay. Although Pickett has showcased talent at the safety position, he is still the rawest of the three and the one who could benefit most from a senior season.
Graham Jr. and Lenoir, on the other hand, have both made great strides over the last season and have even generated NFL buzz. Graham Jr. is a three-year starting cornerback for the Ducks and has been a staple in the Oregon secondary ever since he stepped foot on campus. His stat line of 58 tackles, one interception and nine pass break-ups may seem underwhelming, but that is only because opposing quarterbacks rarely threw the ball his way.
Lenoir, like Graham Jr., has started most games at cornerback since his freshman year, and the two have comparable stats. Additionally, both players have similar NFL draft projections, as CBS Sports listed both players as fourth-round picks in a 2020 mock draft.
Losing both starting cornerbacks to the NFL would be a tough pill to swallow. A relatively thin group would need to rely on Verone McKinley III, Nick Pickett (fingers crossed) and talented freshman Mykael Wright.
Maybe I am biased, but I believe Graham Jr. and Lenoir would greatly benefit from another collegiate season. Similar to Herbert and Troy Dye last year, both players are receiving attention from the NFL, but like Herbert and Dye, they will likely improve their long-term draft stock by returning to school.
Verdict: Lenoir returns, Graham Jr. declares for NFL draft.
Two other Ducks who could potentially declare for the draft are running back CJ Verdell and nose tackle Jordan Scott.
Most are unaware of Verdell’s eligibility, as he is listed as a sophomore. However, he redshirted his freshman season under coach Willie Taggart and, therefore, is three years removed from his senior year in high school, which makes him eligible.
Although Verdell established himself as an every-down back this past season, he still has two years of eligibility left. The Ducks have a plethora of running backs serving different purposes, but none of them pose a true threat to Verdell’s playing time. If he were to come back for his junior season, he would likely only improve his draft stock.
As for Scott, he has started at defensive tackle since his freshman season. As a junior, he can either declare, and likely earn a late-round pick, or return to school and be part of a front seven that is young but full of tremendous talent.
By next season, teams will have to double team Kayvon Thibodeaux while also constantly being aware of the trio of young linebackers: Mase Funa, Noah Sewell and recent commit Justin Flowe. The revamped front seven should provide Scott with more one-on-one opportunities with offensive linemen and help him rack up tackle and sack totals.
Verdict: Verdell and Scott return to school.
Important decisions await a few key contributors on Oregon’s roster, but they cannot afford to let this become a distraction. The Ducks are preparing for a momentous game in the Rose Bowl. No matter which choices these players make, the Rose Bowl is the last game this team and these guys will ever play together.
So, although these decisions loom, let’s not let these potential draft declarations take the spotlight away from this game and this game only. This team has its legacy on the line, and I would hate for anything to prevent them from going out with a win.
Eugene, Oregon Top Photo by Kevin Cline
Andrew Mueller, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in digital marketing in Chicago, Illinois.
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