The argument has been made that USC quarterback Matt Barkley wouldn't have gone in the top 10 of last year's draft, as some predicted when he decided to return for his senior season. He would have been picked apart before last year's draft, just as he was the past few months. That might be accurate.
Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones, once ranked by both ESPN's draft analysts as the third best quarterback in last year's draft that saw Ryan Tannehill go eighth overall (and last year was a much better draft, by the way), stayed in school like Barkley. Maybe he too would have slipped in the draft during the intense pre-draft evaluation. All the same can be said for quarterback Tyler Wilson, who passed on a chance to be a high draft pick last year to return to Arkansas.
Maybe Jones, Wilson and Barkley will all end up going in the first round of the NFL draft on Thursday night. Nobody seems to think that will happen, but this is the most unpredictable draft in years. Who knows.
But the most likely outcome is that trio will wait a while to hear their names called, and provide a very poignant "what if" scenario to an incredible group of underclassmen in college football who will decide on their future at the end of next season.
Quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville and Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, receivers Marqise Lee and Sammy Watkins of Clemson, Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk, Alabama offensive lineman Cyrus Kouandjio and Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt and Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier are just some of the players who might leave school early to enter the 2014 draft. Many of those players would be drafted in the top half of this year's watered-down draft if the NFL's unfair draft eligibility rule didn't exist. That's a loaded group.
And most of them will likely take a look at Barkley, Wilson and Jones over the next few days and wonder what it might mean for them.
Even if those quarterbacks didn't hurt their draft stock during the 2012 season, they didn't help themselves either. All had up-and-down seasons that ended with disappointing bowl losses. At least Jones won part of a Big 12 title before it lost its bowl game. Barkley's USC team had perhaps the worst season a preseason No. 1 has ever had. Wilson dealt with a concussion and Arkansas' season was a nightmare.
It's hard to quantify how much going back to school meant to those players. They all may have loved the irreplaceable experience being in college another year despite the on-field frustrations. Between them, there might not be one regret about returning, and that's fine. Nobody can say whether it was worth it for them. The memories they have from their final year of college might be worth giving up millions of dollars. But make no mistake, millions of dollars is what they likely cost themselves by coming back another season.
Those underclassmen should at least consider that last part.
The NFL never gave a pity contract to anyone who got hurt as a senior, or to anyone whose flaws became more apparent the more college games they play. And many of the players listed above will go to the NFL after this season, because they're elite and have little else to prove in college. Manziel might be the most interesting case.
As a quarterback, Manziel already does everything at an elite level, and he'll probably be even better this year. But he's not a slam dunk NFL prospect like Clowney, because of his size. But he also won't get any taller if he stays one or two more years at Texas A&M. Assuming he has another year close to his 2012 Heisman Trophy campaign, his draft stock will be pretty high and won't be able to get much higher if he sticks around.
Maybe Manziel and others will decide the NFL draft can wait, and they might have good reason. Manziel will make Texas A&M a national title contender as long as he stays. He certainly appears to be enjoying the college life, as many of the other players mentioned certainly are as well.
But when they make that decision, they should also think about Barkley, Wilson and Jones. Those three show it's far from guaranteed that any college player will be better off in the draft after one more year of college.