The LSU football team likely will have fewer players leave early for the NFL draft after this season than have exited early the past two years.
But, then again …
“So many times it’s a very personal decision, and it’s not something that’s really based many times on draft status,” coach Les Miles said Monday. “If it was, I would think that we would have a lesser number in a group that would be here pretty much intact.”
LSU lost a nation-leading 16 underclassmen to the draft over the past two seasons, but this year’s crop of redshirt sophomores and juniors isn’t as highly touted as the ones in 2012 and ’13.
The Tigers have just a few players who are on national draft boards: defensive end Danielle Hunter, left guard Vadal Alexander and cornerback Jalen Mills.
As LSU (7-4, 3-4 Southeastern) prepares for its regular-season finale Thursday night at Texas A&M (7-4, 3-4), the question looms: Who will leave?
It’s unclear at this point. Underclassmen won’t submit requests for opinions to the NFL draft advisory board until December, and normally players’ decisions aren’t made public until well after the Tigers’ bowl game.
Either way, LSU probably will avoid the early exodus of the past two years. Six left early last year, excluding running back Alfred Blue, who passed on a fifth year of eligibility. Ten left the year before, excluding Tyrann Mathieu, who was dismissed from the team during fall camp of his junior season.
No LSU underclassman this season is highly rated enough to be considered a lock to make the jump — players like receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry last year — but Hunter might have the best draft outlook. He is listed as the eighth-best defensive end in CBSSports.com’s draft rankings. The site projects him as the 38th pick — a first- or second-round selection. Hunter has 4.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss in his past two years as a starter on the line.
Rob Rang, a draft analyst for CBSSports.com, said Hunter could be a top-50 pick and “potentially much higher than that.”
“You wish the production was higher. The stats sheet isn’t that impressive, but watch the tape and he’s a destructive force,” Rang said. “He’s got a bust off the edge as a pass-rusher. You can see why LSU continues to be successful at that position.”
Rang compared Hunter to former LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo, who was drafted sixth overall in 2013.
“He’s not that athletic,” Rang said, “but he’s longer.”
Mills, a junior who was moved from cornerback to safety late last season, was rated the fifth-best cornerback by ESPN analyst Todd McShay. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. pegged Mills as the second-best safety in the draft in his rankings released a month ago.
“They make some flashy plays,” Rang said of Mills and Jalen Collins, a junior who’s also eligible to leave early. “They’re interesting players. Those are two names I wouldn’t be surprised if they asked the committee for a grade.”
Alexander, a starter at left guard in all but one game this season, was listed as the fourth-best guard available by Kiper, but Rang isn’t as high on the junior from Georgia. Still, “he’s certainly powerful,” Rang said.
Left tackle Jerald Hawkins is eligible as a redshirt sophomore, and linebacker Kwon Alexander, the team’s tackle leader this season, could make the leap, too.
Miles said Monday that he’ll wait to discuss futures with draft-eligible players until after the regular season. Teams this year are limited to having five players request opinions from the NFL draft advisory board, though additional players may be evaluated with approval from the committee.
In the past, Miles has said that he encourages players to return if their draft opinion is something other than a first-round grade. The committee will deliver one of three grades: first round, second round or that the player should remain in school. Seven of the 16 players who left early the past two years were drafted in the first two rounds.
The amount of early departures in college football has skyrocketed recently. A record 98 underclassmen made the early leap to the draft this year. That number was 56 in the 2011 draft and 74 last year.
At SEC Media Days in July, Miles was asked which LSU underclassman would headline next year’s NFL draft.
“I hope nobody!” he said to laughter.
LSU has lost 16 players early to the NFL draft over the last two years:
Year, Early departures (Players)
2014: 6* (DL Anthony Johnson, DL Ego Ferguson, WR Odell Beckham Jr., WR Jarvis Landry, OL Trai Turner, RB Jeremy Hill)
2013: 10** (DL Barkevious Mingo, DB Eric Reid, OL Chris Faulk, RB Michael Ford, DL Bennie Logan, LB Kevin Minter, DL Sam Montgomery, DB Tharold Simon, RB Spencer Ware, P Brad Wing)
2012: 3 (DL Michael Brockers, WR Rueben Randle, DB Morris Claiborne)
2011: 2 (RB Stevan Ridley, DB Patrick Peterson)
2010: 1 (DB Chad Jones)
2009: 1 (DL Ricky Jean-Francois)
2007: 1 (QB JaMarcus Russell)
* — Running back Alfred Blue passed on a fifth-year of eligibility.
** — DB Tyrann Mathieu declared for the draft, but he was dismissed from the team before the season.