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January 16, 2013

Stay or go?



Gamecock junior wide receiver Ace Sanders announced yesterday that he would forgo his final season in Columbia and enter the NFL Draft on the last day for underclassmen to declare. Is it the right decision? We take a closer look in this feature.

Why he should go

The shifty and elusive Sanders has been projected by some as a top-three round or top 100 pick in April's draft. Some believe he could actually go as high as the second round, some believe it will be in the lower range of that. Other pundits believe he will be more of a fourth or fifth round choice.

For Sanders, the thinking is to strike while the iron is hot. He just capped off a junior season in which he posted his best receiving numbers (45 catches, 531 yards, nine touchdowns) and had a great year as a punt returner with three highlight-reel returns against Georgia, Missouri, and Michigan. Sanders tallied 429 return yards on 29 attempts and took two back for a score while finishing fourth in the country in yards-per-return average (over 15 per attempt). One of the final memories scouts will have of him before April is his electrifying punt return in the Outback Bowl and two more touchdowns as a receiver.

There is no doubt that Sanders can play at the SEC level, as he has proven, and this writer believes he can play at a high level in the NFL. Naturally, questions about Sanders' size (listed at 5-foot-8, but more like 5-foot-7) have come up in terms of how that may affect his draft status. There are a few guys in the league that Sanders could take a look at and hope to follow.

One is former Ole Miss star Dexter McCluster. The 5-foot-8 all-purpose player is a wide receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs and did a little bit of everything in college between running back, receiver, and special teams. Like Sanders, he's lightning-quick although not a blazer as far as straight-line speed. His two best statistical seasons as a receiver in college fall short of Sanders' best year (junior season) in Columbia. McCluster ran just a 4.58 forty-yard dash at the NFL Combine, but was still drafted in the second round in 2010.

The New York Giants' Jerrel Jernigan played at a school in Troy that does not get as much exposure, but he was a four-year starter for the Trojans and racked up 77, 71, and 84 catches in his final three seasons at the school. Despite his 5-foot-8 size, that production was too much to ignore and he was drafted in the third round in 2011.

Mike Thomas is another receiver in the 5-foot-8 range, and he set the school and conference records for receptions at Arizona during his college career. He was drafted in the fourth round of the 2009 draft by Jacksonville and traded to the Detroit Lions in 2012.

All three of the players above are diminutive but showed similar playmaking ability to Sanders in college, and also have value in the return game. Sanders certainly brings a unique skill set being one of the top punt return men in the country, and he has shown great hands and increased production at receiver each year at USC.

In addition to riding a strong end of the season to a higher draft slot, there are a couple of other considerations for Sanders to make that could point to leaving early as the best decision. One, he is not going to grow any. Perhaps with the season he had, his stock is as high as it will get. Maybe he will get drafted in a range that's not terribly impressive (say he slips to the fourth or fifth round) but would he do any better as a senior with another strong season? Maybe, maybe not. That is a risk that may not be worth taking for Sanders, especially given the fact that teams will be likely to stay away from him in the return game next season. Secondly, there is always the major injury consideration. Sanders saw teammate Marcus Lattimore rehab a serious knee injury last season, only to come back this year and have another that was even worse. Lattimore is leaving early for the NFL as well and he will get drafted, but Sanders may not want to risk returning for his senior season and jeopardizing his stock further.

Why he should return

Above, a few examples were given pointing to the fact that players Sanders' size can get drafted and make the NFL. However, there are others that are currently in the league that were not drafted at all and had to take a circuitous route to the league. Every year there are plenty of excellent college players who either slip in the draft or even go undrafted.

First, a look at the other receivers similar in size to Sanders who did not get drafted:
Cincinnati's Andrew Hawkins blazed a 4.34 forty-yard dash at Toledo's pro day in college and had a pretty good college career (not on the level of Sanders), but went undrafted. He spent some time in the CFL before getting an opportunity with the Bengals.

Washington's Brandon Banks was a junior college player who transferred to Kansas State and had a very productive two years there (he tallied more catches and yards at receiver than Sanders did in three seasons, three less touchdowns) and has very good speed but also went undrafted before catching on with the Redskins in 2010 as a free agent. He and Hawkins are the most similar in size to Sanders of anyone on this list.

Dallas' Cole Beasley went undrafted out of SMU. Tulsa's Damaris Johnson had a prolific career at Tulane. He never caught less than 53 passes in a year through three seasons (17 total touchdowns), had four career returns on special teams for touchdowns, and averaged 8.7 yards per rush. He did have some legal troubles before his final season that could have altered his NFL Draft stock, but despite his production in college he went undrafted before he got a chance with the Philadelphia Eagles.

The 5-foot-6 Stefon Logan was another player who went undrafted and found his way to the NFL. Trindon Holliday is 5-foot-5 and a running back, but has electric capabilities in the return game and world-class speed. Even so, he was a sixth-round selection out of LSU.

Using specifically South Carolina as an example, there have been numerous other players projected at a certain spot in the draft that ultimately fell short of that expectation. It has nothing to do with South Carolina as an institution of course, but everything to do with a draft process than can be fickle and at times a total crapshoot. Just a few Gamecock examples:

Former Gamecock Tori Gurley was not projected to be a potential top-three-round pick like Sanders, but left school early for stock reasons and went undrafted. Antonio Allen was an All-American who had a fine career in Columbia and was a superior player in college to a host of the safeties that came off the board before him. In the end, he still dropped to the seventh round, something nobody would have predicted. He raised his stock with a big senior year and still slipped. Would have have gone undrafted as a junior?

Clifton Geathers made an ill-advised decision to leave early and while he has stuck around in the league, he could have made himself much more money by staying another season in Columbia and improving his numbers. Safety Emanuel Cook, after being declared academically ineligible for the Outback Bowl after his junior season, decided to leave early and was not drafted. Many believed that Captain Munnerlyn, with the cover skills he displayed in addition to his return abilities, would be a mid-round type of pick but after coming out early, he slipped to the seventh round.
Here is what Munnerlyn told the Charleston Post and Courier back in 2010:

"If I had it to do it over again, I would have stayed another year at South Carolina. I honestly feel like I cost myself a lot of money because I came out early. I felt like if I had stayed I would have gone a little higher in the draft and gotten a little more guaranteed money. But I made my decision, so I've got to live with it."

Further highlighting the draft's unpredictability, The New England Patriots took Ohio State safety Nate Ebner in last year's draft as a sixth-round selection despite Ebner being strictly a special teams player at Ohio State. He was a former walk-on and logged exactly three snaps at safety in college.

Some sources that GamecockCentral.com has spoken with believe Sanders could improve his stock further with a big senior year at South Carolina. The thought process is that while Sanders has proven his ability as a punt returner especially this season, he could still show more as a receiver. It's not entirely about production; as seen in a couple of the previous examples some players who put up big numbers in the final year of college did not get drafted. It just goes to show that it's about what scouts see on tape, and some believe that Sanders could do more to impress league scouts in that department.

So what, you may be asking? It doesn't matter where Sanders is drafted because he will make a roster, prove himself and just make up for it with his next contract. That, unfortunately is a bet that players do not need to make. NFL careers are short on average. A 2011 study by the NFL indicated just less than seven years was the average, while other studies around the same time have said it is closer to three-and-a-half. Regardless of which it is actually closer to reality (numbers can be skewed in these studies due to agenda), in a cutthroat business like professional football it is very important to do as well as possible on the first contract as Munnerlyn indicated over three years ago.

The verdict

One cannot blame Sanders for giving the NFL a look, given the way he finished the season and the ever-present danger of injury in a violent sport like football. However, the reality is there are exactly two receivers currently in the NFL drafted better than the fourth round that is Sanders' size, and they are McCluster and Jernigan. Interestingly, both stayed around for their senior seasons despite highly productive junior years.

Of course, any player with self-confidence and/or people talking with them believes he will be able to move up higher than original projections after the NFL Combine, but Sanders may not be the type of player to "blow up" the combine as he is not going to blaze a forty-yard dash time (he probably will run a great shuttle) and will not capture the attention of teams from a physical standpoint as much as many others who will be there. Former Gamecocks Troy Williamson (out of the league) and Johnathan Joseph (has developed into a very good player) became first-rounders due to their combine performances but Sanders may not be someone who can do a lot better than his current projection unless he returns to school. Sanders has improved his receiving numbers every season at USC; a full year at slot receiver under an offense that could be better next year could improve them further and answer some questions scouts may have lingering. In the return game teams will probably be more careful, but given that Sanders has little experience at kick return perhaps he could ask to get a look on that team as well to show what he can do there.

In the end, the draft is just too unpredictable. If Sanders keeps his name in and does not withdraw before January 18, perhaps he goes on to get drafted in the top 100 as some feedback has indicated. Perhaps though, he falls lower than hoped, and maybe it is for no other reason than teams did not have a need for him when the clock started. All that will leave is a "what if". Sure, there are not many 5-foot-7 receivers in the NFL. There are some, and although a few took an odd route to get to the league, they are there. This is not a question about whether or not Sanders can play in the NFL at his size, because clearly he can. The question is what's best for him in terms of his draft position and financials (after all, that's the point of playing pro ball).

For a variety of reasons, player "shelf life" in the NFL can expire quickly. The next contract is never guaranteed, so players have to make the draft slot and first contract count. The best bet for Sanders: return. Ask for even more responsibilities on special teams, have the best year yet in college at receiver, try to win the SEC and finish with a bang, get a degree, and take every opportunity to leave no doubt in the minds of scouts. For a Sanders was not blessed with great size, but great ability. Another year to prove that can only help him.



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