Last Monday, as Bayou wrote about, the Football Writers Association of America unveiled its 2015 All-America team. Irish players Ronnie Stanley, Jaylon Smith, Will Fuller, and Sheldon Day were all selected to either the first or second team.
While the collegiate career of Sheldon Day will conclude on Jan. 1 no matter how much we all might like him to stick around, the other three all have a choice to make about whether to declare for the NFL draft or not. If each wanted to return, they all have a year of eligibility remaining to further their mark in ND history. Along with Smith, Fuller, and Stanley, breakout senior C.J. Prosise will also (theoretically) be making a decision between returning for a 5th year versus taking his chances in the NFL waters. The question I ask is: Who should stay and who should go?
There is a subtle but important distinction to be made on the front end. I am not necessarily making a prediction on whether or not I think they will go but rather from a strict self-interested perspective what the player has to gain and lose by selecting between his options. Let’s take each of the four candidates in order from “definitely should leave” to “definitely should stay”:
Definitely Should Leave: Ronnie Stanley – This marks a second straight season of ascension for Stanley among the college football lineman rankings.
Stanley had a very strong 2014 season. He was named Notre Dame’s Offensive Lineman of the Year and appeared to gain momentum on a near hourly basis leading up to the deadline to declare for the NFL Draft.
As the deadline approached, a visit and talk from Brian Kelly swayed Stanley to return for his senior season to continue to improve. Stanley made a variety of preseason lists and found himself at or near the top of numerous “NFL Prospect” lists for offensive linemen.
He did little throughout the season to diminish his draft stock: another year of health; another season of great pass protection and being part of a line that improved significantly in the rushing game should in no way tarnish his likely position in the top 10 of next year’s draft. Most of the lists put Stanley as the expected second offensive lineman off the board behind Laremy Tunsil of Ole Miss.
There’s nothing left to prove and nowhere left to go for Stanley for draft purposes. To forgo an opportunity to be a top 10 pick in the NFL Draft for a second time goes from loyal and cautious to outright crazy. Stanley can leave Notre Dame with his degree and continue the great lineage of ND offensive lineman at the next level. Stanley’s 15 year NFL career would be over by the time you could come up with a good reason for him to stick around in 2016.
Should Almost Definitely Leave: Jaylon Smith – Look, this hurts to write.
Would I love to see Jaylon stay around one more season to terrorize opposing offenses? Absolutely.
Can I make you the sales pitch that he should stay around to get his degree (one of the major reasons Smith stated he came to ND in the first place) and complete the mission? Sure.
Those are good, noble things that “ND Men” do. If Jaylon comes back for another year, those two things are basically the only reason for doing so. From a football standpoint, he’s ready to move on and probably should.
I’ve seen people make comparisons between Smith and Te’o, which is kind of a silly comparison. They may both play linebacker and give you the feels, but they are quite different players who played in different systems.
From a raw physical standpoint, Smith is far superior to Te’o. In fact, Smith is far superior athletically to the vast majority of people to play the linebacker position. For the past 2 seasons, he’s spent a lot of his time covering up the mistakes of an otherwise unremarkable linebacker group who has also had its share of injuries.
Smith’s consistency, ability to cover half of a field by himself, and health make him a top prospect for the next level. Linebackers rarely go in the top 5-10 of the NFL Draft, but many of the experts think Smith will comfortably find himself drafted that high. He’s also a guy that I think could, if possible, actually enhance his draft stock at the NFL Combine. Wait and watch Smith run a 40-time faster than several of this year’s running back prospects and listen to the effusive praise that will follow for his character.
From a football standpoint, there’s nothing left for him to do. Some people will suggest he could get bigger or stronger, but he can do that just as easily (probably easier in fact) at the next level where he no longer has to concern himself with classes. I get the impression, without knowing him, that Smith genuinely enjoys being a student at Notre Dame. It would not stun me to see him stay, but he certainly doesn’t need to. Like Stanley, there’s really nowhere higher he can go as a draft prospect, and of the 4 guys I’m discussing in this post, he might have the most to lose should an injury befall him given the NFL’s reluctance to draft linebackers high to begin with.
On the Fence: C.J. Prosise – When Greg Bryant was declared ineligible and Tarean Folston tore his ACL, my heart sank quite a bit. It seemed like the chances of Notre Dame finally establishing a dominant rushing attack had been foiled yet again.
Even with the glowing reports from the coaching staff that came out of spring practice regarding C.J. Prosise’s transition to the back field, it was impossible to see the season that Prosise put together coming. Prosise had just the second 1,000 yard rushing season in the Brian Kelly era (Cierre Wood, 2011), and his 6.6 yards per carry ranked 3rd in the Brian Kelly era behind 2015 teammate Josh Adams (7.5) and Jonas Gray in 2011 for backs who had at least 500 net rushing yards. Prosise exceeded expectations in every way imaginable.
The argument for Prosise leaving is straight forward: 1) The 2015-16 expected running back group for the NFL Draft is noticeably weaker than the expected 2016-17 group. Among players likely to declare only Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott and Alabama’s Derrick Henry would clearly be ahead of Prosise. The NFL Combine and pre-draft workouts would help figure out where Prosise might fall among the next group which includes UCLA’s Paul Perkins, Wisconsin’s Corey Clement, and Utah’s Devontae Booker.
The 2016-17 class could potentially include Leonard Fournette, Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook, and Christian McCaffery just for starters. Thus, Prosise may find it easier to gain traction in this year’s draft than in next year’s.
2) Assuming health (which given the last couple of season’s seems like an awfully big assumption), it seems unlikely Prosise would be able to match his volume of production next season. Tarean Folston should be back to full health by the time next fall rolls around. Josh Adams has done everything and more to demand an expanded role in the offense, and the team still needs to find a way to get Dexter Williams more touches. It’s a nice problem for Brian Kelly’s staff to have in terms of trying to find touches for so many talented players, but it might also be enough to convince Prosise that his best move is to leave following this year.
It’s a pretty strong argument. If Prosise decided to leave, I’m not sure I would blame him. However, I’m less convinced than others that Prosise is just naturally a NFL back. Prosise does not possess the downhill skills of a Gurley, Fournette, Chubb, Elliott, Henry, etc. that make NFL teams lose their mind. Prosise is a deceptive back with better than average speed and runs more physical than you think, but he also showed a tendency to get nicked up at times. That injury trouble may raise a few red flags for NFL teams about spending a high draft pick on him no matter how weak the draft class is. It’s just hard to envision the team that would want to use even a second round pick on Prosise and slot him prominently into their immediate running plans.
I think the skills that Prosise will bring to the NFL that is most desirable is his athletic versatility. The same skill that let him be recruited as a defensive back, show flashes of greatness at slot receiver, return kicks, and eventually break out at running back is what I think NFL teams will like him the most for. That skill, along with demonstrating just a little more durability, can only be enhanced by returning for one more season where his role will almost certainly evolve one more time. Yes, I do think his touches in the back field might diminish, but I do not think his role would diminish. Given his 2015, it will just be up to Mike Sanford and Brian Kelly to determine how they want to utilize the Irish’s near limitless Swiss army knife. Whether that’s enticing enough for Prosise to stay remains to be seen.
Needs to Stay: Will Fuller – It’s strange to think that Notre Dame’s biggest playmaker, record-setter, and second team All-American is the most in need of another year. And yet, that’s the state as things stand now.
Over the past two seasons no one has made more important catches than Will Fuller. How important is Fuller to the offense? Go back and watch the last 2 seasons. No one’s played a greater percentage of offensive snaps (I’m estimating here) than Fuller who rarely comes off the field. His speed and ability to create space have made him an invaluable asset to the Kelly offense. He’s a hard worker who may not be the best blocker on the team but is more than willing to help finish plays.
The issue – and this is kind of important for a receiver – has been his hands. For every big, game-changing catch on Fuller’s highlight reel, there seems to be a complimentary inexplicable drop on the routine catches.
Simply put: Fuller’s hands need work in order for him to succeed at the next level. The skill most coveted at the NFL level for receivers is the ability to make catches in traffic, and that’s by far Fuller’s biggest weakness. Whether this is something he can change over the course of one more season might be a bigger question, but Fuller’s got the most to gain by coming back and showing greater consistency on the ordinary. Fuller’s already pointed towards a return next season, and that’s a good thing. His pocket book and NFL future might thank him for that deferred decision down the line.
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