USA TODAY Sports
Nine underclassmen leaving. Nine. NINE!
As of Tuesday, nine underclassmen from the 2012 LSU football team have made their decision to forego next season and enter the 2013 NFL Draft. Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo, Bennie Logan, Kevin Minter, Eric Reid, Tharold Simon, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Brad Wing.
Offensive tackle Chris Faulk is still mulling over his decision, and per Matt Moscona, will announce his choice on Friday. Update: Faulk has declared, per Wednesday afternoon.
It's an LSU record for draft attrition and for all I know it could be a national one (and honestly I'm too lazy to look it up). Naturally, the unusual occurrence is begging questions regarding the general health of the program. Especially following a demoralizing bowl loss. "ZOMG! The players know what's up! They're all abandoning ship! We're doomed! Miles is throwing us off a cliff we gotta do something! ATTICA!!! ATTICA!!!!"
Now, I'm not about to say that everything is going to be fine, because that's not the case and certainly this attrition is going to have an effect on the 2013 team that we'll get into later. But this isn't a mass exodus or a flight of disgruntled players.
When has any team had this many veteran juniors with high enough NFL projections to leave en mass?
The 2006 Tigers, largely considered the most talented team LSU has ever fielded, had a junior class that included future draft picks Glenn Dorsey, Jacob Hester, Chevis Jackson, Early Doucet, Matt Flynn, Craig Steltz and Keith Zinger. Of that group, only Dorsey would've been considered a high choice as a junior. The rest of this group had yet to really have their chances to shine, and did so as seniors. The 2012 Tigers simply happened to feature a lot of third- and fourth-year players that had been playing significant roles for multiple seasons, and of the nine players, at least five were known to project really high coming into the season.
Montgomery, Mingo, Logan and Reid all entered this season widely regarded as some of the top prospects at their positions. And while they might not have necessarily all had the best seasons possible, they still have a chance to go in the NFL's first two rounds, making the decision somewhat easy.
Minter's decision could be considered surprising, but then so was his emergence as an All-American-caliber playmaker this season. With 130 tackles and 15 tackles for loss, he just had one of the best single seasons any LSU linebacker has ever had (including the best single game any linebacker in the country played this season in October versus Florida). Minter projects as a top-three round pick, and as a known workout warrior, he has a chance to improve on that grade come the Scouting Combine. Meanwhile, his largest drawback -- LSU listed him as 6-2, but he's likely closer to 6-foot -- isn't something that would change with another season. And what's more, Minter received his degree last month. The old adage of "striking while the iron is hot" applies.
Both have had their share of moments the last two seasons, but Ware and Ford are somewhat limited backs whose roles will likely only decrease next season with Jeremy Hill's emergence and Alfred Blue's return from injury. What's more, with running back becoming an increasingly disposable position in the NFL, more and more teams are looking for backs with lower mileage numbers on their odometers. That's especially true in the case of a power back like Ware, whose football future could be short regardless of his draft status. Better to get paid for the punishment while you can still dish it out and take it.
In Wing's case, it's no secret that, after Tyrann Mathieu, he's one of the most recognizable faces on this football team, and by most accounts he's spent the last year enjoying his fame. His Peach Bowl suspension is indicative of what's been reported by multiple program insiders: that he'd long since made the decision to get to the pros as soon as the opportunity to presents itself. If anything, the signing of Jamie Keehn last spring illustrated that LSU was aware of the possibility. And yeah, punters will never get drafted to high, but few have ever shown Wing's talent for hang-time and accuracy either.
If one of the players on this list could be making a mistake, it's Simon. He's flashed first- or second-round ability at times, and the NFL loves physical corners with his long frame, but the bottom line is that he's never quite shown the consistency to be a top-shelf corner. His size and workouts will likely net him a spot in the draft's top half, but a star senior season could've possibly moved him into the top two rounds. That's where family pressure to push for those pro paychecks as fast as possible comes in. None of us know if that's what drove Simon's decision, but it's been hinted at, including the fact that he's recently become a father.
Another factor here, which I mentioned in comments recently, is the smaller wage scale for rookies that the NFL ratified two years ago. The days of first-round picks landing $30-50 million contracts have passed, and that's filtered down the draft board. The difference between a fourth-round pick and a second-round pick may be just tens of thousands, as opposed to hundreds. That changes the reward level for those players who want to take the risk on the larger check, and it's hard to blame those who don't want to take the risk with their body. And while Poseur does make the good point that being a higher pick means that a team is more likely to view you as an investment than a spare part, very few players will think beyond the opportunity to sign that first contract.
Overall, this is one of the healthy, albeit occasionally unpleasant, side-effects of running an elite program and stocking it with talent. You're recruiting players who view the NFL as their ultimate goal, and you're recruiting players good enough to make it happen quickly. This isn't a case of players running away -- those that have commented have expressed nothing but love for LSU and the coaching staff. And if it were, they'd likely be accompanied by mass transfers of other veterans (yes, Chris Davenport has left for Tulane, but he fits the profile of a little-used player making a move for playing time, and has even graduated to attain instant eligibility at Tulane). And veterans like Craig Loston, Lamin Barrow, Travis Dickson, J.C. Copeland and Kadron Boone among others that had varying degrees of production, are all staying.
That being said, this definitely makes LSU's go tougher for 2013, specifically on defense. There are still bright spots: the Jalens showed a lot of promise at cornerback, and they'll have the senior Loston, coming off a quiet, but very productive 2012 season, at safety. Even without Minter, the linebackers return the very productive Barrow and a slew of young talents on the rise like Kwon Alexander, Tahj Jones, Debo Jones and Lamar Louis.
But the defensive line will have just eight scholarship players this spring due to this draft attrition and the departures of valuable rotation guys like Josh Downs, Lavar Edwards and Chancey Agahyere. And that's including little-used backups like Jordan Allen, Justin Maclin and Mickey Johnson. Anthony Johnson, Ego Ferguson, Jermauria Rasco, Danielle Hunter and Quentin Thomas all have talent, but the numbers leave little room for error or injury, and puts a premium on the 2013 recruiting class to contribute instantly. Granted, there are some studs in this class, but needing freshmen is rarely the ideal. Of course, the offense could always step up and take up some slack, right?
Sure, it would be nice to return all these names for the 2013 season. Real nice. But this is the price you pay for having players that the NFL wants. Sometimes they want the NFL sooner, rather than later.