Stay or go? For some college stars, the decision to leave early for the NFL draft as soon as they become eligible is an easy one. Many others need to take all the time they can to weigh every factor before making the call, leaving their teams to sweat out the first two weeks of January as their depth charts for next fall sit in limbo. Monday marked the deadline for underclassmen three years removed from high school to make a decision on entering the 2018 draft, and when the dust settled, some teams came away feeling pretty good about the talent they’ll have coming back next season, while others have a clear sense of just how many holes they have to fill with incoming recruits and lightly-tested backups.
Below, a look at some notable teams whose 2018 outlooks hung on the status of their undecided underclassmen. An attempt was made not to penalize teams for losing players who have been expected to be surefire first-rounders since last summer—UCLA should not be deemed a “Loser” just because star quarterback Josh Rosen predictably made the leap to the pros, for example—but losses of that magnitude won’t be ignored if they were one part of a mass exodus within a certain roster.
With that paperwork aside, let’s crown some winners and losers.
Clemson: The Tigers were going to be just fine along the defensive line next year even if they had lost everyone who was free to leave—that’s the magic of having hulking tackle Dexter Lawrence, the early front-runner for the No. 1 pick in 2019, in the fold for one more season. Only they didn’t lose anyone. Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant announced they were coming back for one more year despite both ends yielding first-round projections from most draft pundits, and towards the end of the day on Monday, versatile tackle Christian Wilkins joined them. Those three players alone accounted for fully half of the Tigers’ 46 sacks in ’17, tied for the most in the nation. (Linebacker Kendall Joseph, the defense’s second-leading tackler, also turned down the NFL for one more year.)
If Clemson finishes outside of the top three defenses in the nation next year in any meaningful statistical category, it will be a gigantic upset. That’s enough to numb the sting of losing two key receivers, Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud, along with big-play safety Van Smith. If quarterback Kelly Bryant takes another step forward, the Tigers could find themselves back in the playoff for a fourth consecutive year.
West Virginia: David Sills V finished the regular season with 18 touchdown catches to lead the nation, and he might have threatened 20 if quarterback Will Grier had not broken the middle finger on his throwing hand in a mid-November loss to Texas. Sills and Grier both had bankable pro futures to consider, but they’ll be back this fall to give the Mountaineers an offense more than capable of making noise in the Big 12.
Missouri: It’s hard to argue that any quarterback raised his stock more from September to December than Drew Lock, whose cannon arm lifted the Tigers out of an ugly 1–5 start and into bowl eligibility. Rather than scrap for attention behind the likes of Josh Rosen and Josh Allen in this year’s class, Lock is putting his draft-season dissection off one more year to defend his nation-best touchdown pass total (44) and preserve some of Missouri’s momentum after offensive coordinator Josh Heupel was hired away by UCF.
Stanford: Bryce Love will return to improve upon his runner-up finishes in the Heisman Trophy voting and the nation’s rushing yards standings—and get his degree in the process. Stanford is losing a handful of talented defenders, including gap-clogger Harrison Phillips and cover corner Quenton Meeks, but the Cardinal can be trusted to reload more effectively on that side of the ball than on offense, where they sputtered when Love was banged up this year.
Washington: Quarterback Jake Browning will have a familiar backfield mate for his final season under center in Seattle: Myles Gaskin will be the Pac-12’s leading returning rusher behind Love, with 1,380 yards and 21 touchdowns last fall. All-Pac-12 left tackle Trey Adams will also be back for his senior year after missing the back half of the season with a knee injury. Dominant defensive tackle Vita Vea is off to the pros, but the Huskies got a gift by having him stick around for 2017 in the first place.
Texas: The Longhorns lose three highly regarded defenders—linebacker Malik Jefferson and defensive backs Holton Hill and DeShon Elliott—left tackle Connor Williams and, perhaps most upsetting, punter Michael Dickson, the MVP of their Texas Bowl win. The talent of Tom Herman’s first two star-studded recruiting classes may be tested early.
Florida State: The departure of star safety Derwin James was no surprise, but rangy cornerback Tarvarus McFadden and end Josh Sweat will be equally critical losses for a Seminoles defense that may be called upon to keep up with the frantic pace of new head coach Willie Taggart’s preferred offense. That unit will be forced to replace a blossoming contributor of its own in Auden Tate, who became just the second FSU receiver in the past 10 years with double-digit touchdown catches in 2017.
Virginia Tech: With a first-round projection in hand, linebacker Tremaine Edmunds’s decision to leave Blacksburg early was more than understandable, and his brother, safety Terrell Edmunds, followed suit. A more surprising loss for Bud Foster’s defense was the departure of hulking, high-ceiling tackle Tim Settle, who left two years of eligibility on the table after registering 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in his only year as a starter.
Somewhere in the Middle
Auburn: The Tigers lose a pair of bruising runners early with the departure of Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway, but Gus Malzahn’s offense has proven it can make productive backs out of lesser lights. Linebacker Jeff Holland and cornerback Carlton Davis represent huge losses for the defense, but coordinator Kevin Steele has earned the benefit of the doubt for the way he filled last year’s holes. The draft decision deadline’s key victory for Auburn was the retention of quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who will enter the fall as a marquee member of the top tier of SEC passers.
NC State: Ryan Finley’s decision to return to Raleigh has been overlooked amid the flurry of quarterback moves elsewhere, but the Boise State transfer made it to mid-October without throwing an interception and sits third on the school’s career completion percentage list at 60.4%. Running back Nyheim Hines’s decision to capitalize off his breakout junior season should put some pressure on a Wolfpack offense that was already losing Swiss Army knife Jaylen Samuels. Much will be expected of defensive end Darian Roseboro, who’ll see four senior defensive linemates move on to the next level this winter, including All-America Bradley Chubb.
Ohio State: Many of the Buckeyes’ big early entry losses were painful but expected, potential first-rounders pass rusher Sam Hubbard and cornerback Denzel Ward chief among them. But the return of speedy wideout Parris Campbell and D-lineman Dre’Mont Jones ensured that the Buckeyes’ 2019 draft class won’t be short on first-day talent either.
USC: In July, Sam Darnold seemed to be as good as gone after the conclusion of his redshirt sophomore season. In October, reports began to swirl amid an inconsistent campaign that the Trojans’ star quarterback may return to L.A. for one last tune-up year. Now in January, USC is back where it started, looking to replace a prodigious talent at QB. Setting aside Darnold’s decision and the no-brainer call for running back Ronald Jones to go pro, the Trojans can take solace in the pieces that will be returning to the Coliseum, especially on defense, where linebackers Porter Gustin and Cameron Smith and physical corner Iman Marshall passed on the draft.