Wednesday was the drop-dead date for underclassmen declaring for the NFL Draft, and they're coming out this year in record numbers: Altogether, the league has approved 66 names on the board with at least one season of college eligibility remaining, breaking last year's record of 56. Many of whom — perhaps most of whom — will leave even relatively serious fans scratching their heads.
If you're a certain top-five pick like Andrew Luck or Justin Blackmon, of course, it's hardly a decision at all: Make that paper. Even for less-touted prospects, though, the decision can be just as obvious. Some of them are successful college players facing middling projections, who decided to make the leap on the grounds that they're not going to be any bigger, faster or more productive a year from now (see Temple running back Bernard Pierce, Rutgers wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and Toledo receiver/return man Eric Page). Some are successful college players who have run afoul of team rules and/or the law and don't have a school to return to (see former Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris and former Tulsa receiver/return man Damaris Johnson). Some are academic casualties (see Oklahoma defensive end Ronnell Lewis). Some are jumping on the last helicopter out of Saigon before their program is ravaged by NCAA sanctions (see any of the half-dozen early departures from Miami). Some are former redshirts who have already earned degrees and figured it can't hurt to fill out the paperwork before hanging up the cleats for good (see Auburn quarterback Barrett Trotter, Syracuse wide receiver Dorian Graham and Boston College defensive lineman Max Holloway). Regardless of their circumstances, almost all say they're doing it to help their family.
And then there's the handful of guys who are just doing it to do it, for reasons that are difficult to fathom:
• Donte Paige-Moss, DE North Carolina.
No one doubts Paige-Moss has NFL talent: He was a five-star recruit out of high school, and rode into his junior year on a wave of first-round projections following his emergence on a suspension-ravaged defensive line in 2010. Throughout 2011, though, he frequently found himself watching from the bench behind his more hyped counterpart, Quinton Coples — as well as another, not-so-hyped sophomore, Kareem Martin — and watched his stats and stock plummet accordingly. Then he tore his ACL in the Tar Heels' bowl game.
With a senior season at his disposal, Paige-Moss could have returned to Chapel Hill, recommitted himself under a new coach staff and reminded the scouts why they liked him so much in the first place next fall. Instead, with the injury, there's a significant chance he won't be drafted at all. If he is, it probably won't be higher than the sixth round — a serious freefall for a guy who four months ago was aiming to be the sixth pick. Is it possible that helmet-to-skull collision in the 2010 Music City Bowl did more damage than anyone realized?
• Darron Thomas, QB, Oregon.
As prolific as he's been at the controls of one of the most prolific attacks in college football, Thomas is also a quintessential "system" quarterback: A good athlete who found a spread option scheme that plays to his strengths as a runner and doesn't ask him to make too many "next level" throws. In plenty of other offenses, he would have been moved to wide receiver; in Chip Kelly's offense — the same offense that's led the Pac-12 in yards and points per game five years in a row and made stars of signal-callers as diverse and Dennis Dixon and Jeremiah Masoli — it's almost impossible to tell where Kelly's success ends and Thomas' begins.
If they had to guess, though, it looks like the scouts are giving the credit to Kelly: Thomas is projected as a late-round pick at best. It's a shame to see an above-the-fold college star give up a shot to lead his team to a national championship for a shot at making somebody's scout team, especially when he could have legitimately used another year of polish at the position. At least if all else fails, he already has his degree.
•Edwin Baker, RB, Michigan State.
Baker also suffered from severely diminishing returns, regressing from a 1,201-yard, 13-touchdown campaign in 2010 to just 665 yards and five touchdowns last year behind sophomore Le'Veon Bell — that, on the heels of a preseason prediction that he would run for 2,000 yards. His defenders say Baker's plan never included a senior season, and neither his heart nor his head is in a senior season now. Based on sixth and seventh-round projections, it looks like the scouts may not have their heart in drafting the Big Ten's 15th-leading rusher.
• Darrell Scott , RB, South Florida.
Scott resurfaced in Tampa last year after two massively disappointing seasons in Colorado, taking advantage of his second chance to lead USF with 814 yards on the ground. The problem: A disproportionate chunk of that production — including all five of his touchdowns on the ground — came against non-conference patsies Ball State, Florida A&M and UTEP in September. He did much less damage against Big East defenses over the last two months of the season (in fact, the only conference game the Bulls won was the one Scott missed, a 37-17 upset at Syracuse on Nov. 11), and will probably consider himself lucky to hear his named called in April at all.
• Brock Osweiler, QB Arizona State.
Unlike the other names here, Osweiler is virtually guaranteed to come off the board in April, probably in the middle rounds, maybe as high as the second. If it works out that way, his decision to bail on ASU after just one full season as a starter will look pretty smart, especially when returning would mean learning a new offense under a new coaching staff. If he falls into the fourth or fifth round to a team in search of fodder for the depth chart, he may be left to wonder how much better he could have done with another year to get his brain and technique caught up to his first-round arm.