NFL draft: Gifted underclassmen with tough decisions to make on coming out

When Texas running back D’Onta Foreman declared for the 2017 NFL draft on Wednesday, it was a no-brainer. There was little chance of him pulling a Ricky Williams-esque shocker and returning to campus.

The reasons were clear. Texas had just fired head coach Charlie Strong. Foreman had a breakout junior season, rushing for 2,028 yards — almost triple his yardage total from 2014 and 2015 combined — and 15 touchdowns in 11 games. And we know more now than we did in Ricky’s day about the shelf lives for running backs: Namely, they have to strike when the iron is hot. Even in what could be a loaded RB class next spring, Foreman had to do it.

Getting paid now seems like a savvy move for Foreman, who could be a top-50 pick. Why risk that?

[Join the $100K Baller for Week 13 | Tips for your Daily lineup]

Other top-tier players around the country such as Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson have given strong or definitive indications that they’re gone. Seminoles head coach Jimbo Fisher mobbed Cook after he broke the FSU rushing yards and rushing TD records in lieu of him participating in Senior Day ceremonies last week. Peppers’ mother reportedly has been interviewing agent candidates. And Tigers head coach Dabo Sweeney announced that Watson would declare, as has been the plan for him all along this season.

For other talented underclassmen, the decision is less clear. Talent isn’t always the deciding factor. Often it comes down to opportunity, age, injuries, the full draft spectrum, the family’s financial situation, who his coaches are, plus dozens of other potential variables.

Underclassmen at least three years removed from high school have from now until Jan. 16 to state their intentions about declaring for the 2017 NFL draft. There are some talented ones who face tricky calls on whether to stay or go. Here are some of the more high-profile players whose decisions will be tough to make over the coming days and weeks:

Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer — Having been mentioned as a top-pick candidate, Kizer should leave, no questions asked, right? Well, indications are that he might. This week, Kizer sought out an evaluation from the NFL draft advisory board, which players in his situation are wise to do. And there is some uncertainty now. After all, Kizer has cooled way off after a white-hot start to the season, and the Irish had a miserable 4-8 season.

Another factor is head coach Brian Kelly. With rumors floating about his future in South Bend, it could affect Kizer’s decision. It’s no secret that Kizer and Kelly have had their moments of discontent with each other, but they’ve at least appeared to keep their relationship functional in the public eye.

But if Kelly leaves, could that improve Kizer’s chances of staying? It’s tough to know. The more interesting question might be what Kelly tells NFL teams when they call about Kizer — and whether Kelly’s answer vary if he’s coaching elsewhere next season.

Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer very likely could declare for the 2017 NFL draft, but his decision isn't clear cut. (AP)
Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer very likely could declare for the 2017 NFL draft, but his decision isn’t clear cut. (AP)

Chances are, Kizer will leave if he feels he has a good chance to be a first-round pick. With no bowl game to put a stamp on his career, Kizer — even with rare physical traits for the position — might need to capitalize with a strong scouting combine, pro day and individual workouts. His talent is considerable, but there are major questions lingering with his play and waning confidence as the season wore on.

Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes — Like Kizer, Mahomes’ 5-7 Red Raiders will not play in a bowl game. But in contrast, his stock has been rising with a monster season (5,052 passing yards, 41 touchdowns) and his head coach, Kliff Kingsbury, appears to have received a vote of confidence about returning next year. Additionally, Mahomes said immediately following the Baylor game that he wanted to stay at Texas Tech for his senior season.

He faces a tough decision. Mahomes could end up graded high amid a middling group of QB prospects and the allure of being a top-50 pick could be too lofty to ignore. He has the size, athletic ability and Johnny Manziel-like playmaking skill (without the hair-pulling character questions) that intrigues NFL teams.

The tipping point could be Mahomes fearing injury by returning. Texas defensive end Breckyn Hager said heading into their game that it was the Longhorns’ aim to injure Mahomes, and against Kansas State, Mahomes got the tar beaten out of him. He already came into that game with a shoulder injury and would be playing behind a Tech offensive line next year that will graduate his center and left tackle.

Scouts will have a tough time properly evaluating Mahomes coming from this “Air Raid” system; after all, we know Dak Prescott dropped, in part, because of the offense he played in at Mississippi State. But then again, Jared Goff played in a variation of the Tech offense and went No. 1 overall, even as he had to wait until the Los Angeles Rams deemed him ready to play. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior Mahomes has a live arm and confidence for days.

Don’t be shocked if he comes out.

Washington State QB Luke Falk — Falk is a difficult case study, with NFL evaluations on him all over the map.

He’s nowhere close to the “poor man’s Tom Brady” assessments we’ve heard in the media, and that he’s better than the “product of the system” naysayers who have panned his skills. It’s also clear that Falk does not appear to be an instant-coffee, Day 1 NFL contributor.

Yes, Mike Leach’s system is a big reason for Falk’s gaudy numbers, and his recent dip is certainly reason to be concerned about his ceiling as a prospect. Washington’s defense, which is stocked with NFL-caliber talent, messed with him and provided reasons for concern about his pro prospects.

Falk also has a thin build (cue the Brady comps again), an injury history and an average-at-best arm that might hurt him on throws in tight windows or outside the numbers in an NFL system.

“If I had to make a decision now, I would definitely be staying,” Falk said on Nov. 1, and two of his worst games have come since then. His touch and ability to throw effectively in a rhythm offense are appealing, but Falk also has shown panic in his game when he’s under duress.

He’ll likely end up staying in Pullman for another year, aiming to boost his stock and answer questions next year.

Ohio State RB-WR Curtis Samuel — The man who ended the double-OT classic victory over Michigan with a 15-yard touchdown scamper is a multi-tool, multi-position player who has earned Percy Harvin comparisons from the scouting world. Harvin’s explosion and ferocity isn’t in Samuel’s game, but he could be a more dependable player than Harvin was. Injuries and temperament were two things that short-circuited the talented Harvin’s career from reaching consistent greatness.

Playing the “Percy position” that has existed in Urban Meyer’s offense now for a decade, Samuel has shown incredible versatility as the team’s leading receiver (65 catches, 822 yards, seven TDs), third-leading rusher (91 rushes, 730 yards, eight TDs) and even has dabbled in his career as a kick and punt returner.

Ohio State's Curtis Samuel has a tough decision on declaring early for the draft. (AP)
Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel has a tough decision on declaring early for the draft. (AP)

Samuel looks like a hybrid of sorts but perhaps one who is better equipped to handle a WR role similar to how the Green Bay Packers use Ty Montgomery or the Kansas City Chiefs employ Tyreek Hill. Samuel also could be used as a running back the way the Detroit Lions feed Theo Riddick (88 carries, 48 receptions) or how the Cleveland Browns get the ball to Duke Johnson (56 carries, 45 receptions).

Samuel’s ball skills and athleticism are good enough to be a slightly better pro prospect than Stanford’s Christian McCaffery in a traditional offensive role. In fact, Samuel is our second-favorite two-way prospect at the position right now behind Cook, with LSU’s Leonard Fournette unlikely to develop as much as an advanced pass catcher.

With Buckeyes leading rusher Mike Weber unlikely to be going anywhere following an incredible redshirt freshman season, Samuel could go pro with a huge bonus — he’s a household name with a ton of tread left on his tires (a mere 290 career touches). That would be a big positive in the eyes of NFL scouts who know how quickly backs can wear down.

Ohio State safety Malik Hooker — With each passing game, it appears that the decision for the redshirt sophomore becomes harder. Following the Buckeyes’ win over Michigan, Hooker seemed to spell it out clearly: “Right now it’s 100 percent sure I’m coming back to Ohio State,” he said, via the Columbus Dispatch.

But why are we stuck on the first two words? “Right now” feels loaded, and with every first-round appearance in mock drafts — and likely a strong grade from the advisory board to back that up — Hooker’s call will become tougher. He has six interceptions for 181 return yards and three touchdowns, with the first-year starter even earning some Ed Reed comparisons.

Surely, he has room to improve. But Ohio State defensive backs have been a big draw for the NFL, with five having been taken the past three drafts and at least three underclassmen — counting Hooker — currently on the Buckeyes who would be drafted if they declared tomorrow.

This one feels 80-20, despite his “100 percent” claim. If Hooker gets assurances he’ll go in the first 20 picks, it would be extraordinarily tough to return to school. We’ll still take him at his word for now but hedge just a bit.

Michigan State DT Malik McDowell — Sometimes a player has to declare not while his draft stock is high but as a form of self-preservation. Prior to the season, the Spartans were ranked and McDowell was rated as the next great defender from the program. A lot has changed since then.

The Spartans tanked, and McDowell got killed out there. Constant double teams wore McDowell down, he suffered multiple rib injuries early in the season, and what was believed to have been an ankle injury kept him sidelined for the final three games. He still made second-team All-Big Ten and made a slew of plays behind the line of scrimmage, but overall it was a disappointing season for a player some anointed the next Calais Campbell or DeForest Buckner.

And though McDowell said prior to the season that he would declare only if he was a sure top-three pick … uh, something tells us that stance might have changed a bit. Others have speculated that a first-round grade might tempt him into declaring, but McDowell recently claimed that he hasn’t put much thought into his future.

Washington DT Elijah Qualls — He might not yet be a household name, but if Qualls and the Huskies’ ferocious defense can beat Colorado on Friday and secure one of the four playoff spots it could be a huge opportunity to boost his stock. Imagine what a dominant performance against No. 1 Alabama — always a top draw for NFL scouts’ eyes — would do for him.

The high school running back has exceptional foot quickness for a 6-foot-1, 321-pound interior rusher, and he fits the mold of the new penetrator the NFL is open-minded about. Aaron Donald and Sheldon Rankins fit the low-man-wins frame of interior rushers who stand 6-foot-1 or shorter, so Qualls’ height will not be viewed as a negative to many clubs.

The Huskies have a tightly knit group up front, and the inside trio of Qualls, Vita Vea and Greg Gaines is among the country’s best. But Qualls could come out now and not hurt his team with such good talent remaining for 2017. Although his stats are less impressive than either Vea or Gaines, Qualls was recognized by close observers of the conference as first-team All-Pac-12 (Vea was second team; Gaines was honorable mention).

The fourth-year junior can declare now amid some buzz — he might be a top-50 prospect for the 2017 draft — but also could consider returning for 2017 on a defense and a team that could even be better next season.

– – – – – – –

Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!