What could have been?
Imagine the 2013 Tigers with Eric Reid still patrolling the secondary and Kevin Minter and Bennie Logan up the middle of the defense. With Sam Montgomery or Barkevious Mingo still rushing from the edge. Imagine last year's squad with Odell Beckham Jr. or Jarvis Landry running comeback routes with their eyes closed and making circus catches?
People asked questions like "how did LSU lose three games with an offense loaded with players that are now tearing up the NFL?" The answer was simple -- a defense gutted of playmakers due to early defections to the NFL. This year, the offense was similarly gutted. Sure, the bad quarterback play would have been frustrating regardless, but the impact of still having an uncoverable future NFL star like Beckham or Landry would be incalculable, especially given that the areas where this passing game struggled would have fit in line perfectly with their skill sets.
Improved quarterback play is the biggest variable in setting the ceiling of the 2015 LSU team, which will be swimming with talent. But the variable in setting the floor will be how the program comes through the NFL Draft declaration deadline on January 15. Who stays and who goes will set the experience level of the offensive line and determine whether there are one, two or three big-time playmakers back in the defensive front seven.
Honestly, at this point, I'm more or less programmed to believe players will leave until they make a hard and fast decision and the deadline passes. The bottom line is that rightly or wrongly, a lot of players view the NFL's rookie slotting system as an incentive to try and grab any draft position now, quickly, and to start the clock and get to a second contract, which will be the bigger pay day. But with 85 percent of these players not getting to said second deal, there's been an effort on a lot of ends to try and better educate these underclassmen.
Now, the NFL's advisory board, rather than giving a full and detailed draft range, will be giving five players at each school that asks grades of "first round," "second round" or "go back to school, kid." Whether this will make a difference, well, we'll see. Schools can request grades for more than five players, which the NFL board will grant on a case-by-case basis (likely more for the schools that have more players that warrant the grades). LSU, for its part, will sit each draft-eligible player down and give them a full work-up based not just on the board's evaluations but also on the coaching and support staff's own NFL contacts and scouting relationships. The goal is to give each player as much information as possible so that they can make their own informed decision. Some kids -- Chris Faulk and Anthony Johnson being recent examples -- will do what they will no matter the advice. They're determined to come out, regardless of draft position. Some will find out that staying or going may not make a big difference. You're a fifth- or sixth-round type pick now, and your ceiling's maybe in the third or fourth. In that case, the financial reward of the higher slot might not be worth the risk of injury.
A year ago, had he declared for the NFL Draft La'el Collins would have found himself in the midst of a very loaded offensive tackle class -- one where he'd project in the middle of the pack and in the second to third round. A year later he's picked up conference and national honors and is now a slam dunk No. 1 pick. Here's hoping that for some of these players, example holds meaning. There aren't many lock high-round picks here. The question is just whether the incentive will be enough.
He's probably the safest bet to head to the NFL this January. Collins reportedly projects as a top-100 pick, possibly on the high side. He's coming off a fantastic junior year, and Collins is the prototype of what the NFL wants at corner. Big, fast and fluid. With more teams trying to copy the Seattle Seahawks model of picking up big, six-foot-plus, physical defensive backs and playing towards their coverage strengths. A guy like Collins may not be the no-doubt, lock-down guy like a Patrick Peterson, but can be protected in the right scheme, are going to jump in the ratings. I'd be shocked if Collins is playing for LSU in 2015. And if he can post some impressive workout numbers, he might even crack the top 40 or 50 picks.
Mills was kind of a dirty work player that went unnoticed this season for LSU, but his ability to handle multiple roles was invaluable for the defense. He's a safety that can slide down the matchup on slot receivers man-to-man, and that makes for an interesting double-edged sword for his NFL prospects. On the one hand, some teams will love that versatility, but on the other, he doesn't really have great NFL measurables for either safety or corner . The thing is that kind of sets a ceiling for him in the middish rounds. Maybe a dominant senior year could change that, but scouts may tell him that he could only raise his stock from a fifth/sixth rounder to a third/fourth, which might not be enough reward for his risk.
He's got the most to gain. Hunter is probably the strangest pro prospect on this team. He looks every bit the part of a dominant pass rusher. He's 6-6, 250 pounds and cut out of granite. He can run and jump of the gym and will dominate in workout settings. But when teams pop in the tape they're going to see more steak than sizzle. Hunter's a damn strong run defender that sets the edge and hustles in pursuit. He holds at the point of attack and is rarely out of position -- all the little things you love to see out of a defensive end, and yet he had all of 1.5 sacks this season. It's a head-scratcher. Hunter will still project as a solid pick, probably anywhere from the second to the fourth round based on what teams fall in love with his upside. But come back and put it all together with a double-digit sack total on top of the rest? He'd skyrocket into the first.
Another factor here is that this draft should be loaded with defensive end prospects: Leonard Williams, Joey Bosa, Shane Ray, Randy Gregory, Bud Dupree -- all these guys project as first-round picks. The numbers game alone could favor Hunter next year.
Hunter would probably be harder to replace for the Tigers from a personnel standpoint, but Kwon Alexander is more important potential returnee. He's the ideal 4-3 weakside linebacker, with the speed to run ball-carriers down sideline-to-sideline and still drop in coverage. His athleticism has been a huge key in John Chavis' schemes versus spread offenses the last two years. But while he's coming off his best season, he still hasn't totally put it all together to really meet his All-SEC type potential, and that likely slots him somewhere in the middle of the draft. The question is, with fewer and fewer teams really prioritizing 4-3 linebackers unless they're special talents, what's his ceiling? Could a return possibly net him life-changing money in the top 100 or just a few more spots in those middle rounds? That's the big question mark here.
He's the other potential lottery winner in this group with a return. Hawkins could be looking at potential top-100 money in a year, assuming that he would move over to man La'el Collins' left tackle spot. He's already a big, athletic lineman coming off his best year playing on the right side. There's a lot of upside for a guy that didn't even play offensive line in high school, and you know how NFL teams love to invest in upside. That could inflate his status up in to those middle rounds. But a good look at the NFL's premium offensive line position could push him even further up and possibly into the first round. The question is whether his present grade is high enough to make coming out now worth it. From there, it's a lot to ask for a 300-pound guy that only has so many snaps out of his knees to put off the paycheck another year.
He definitely doesn't have Hawkins' upside, but Alexander can a dominating presence inside at times. The issue is that he's never quite been able to put it all together for a full season here. Most of that is due to injuries, but it's not like the NFL won't weigh that against Alexander either. But the double-edged sword there, is that Alexander has to weigh another year of wear-and-tear, against the potential benefits of putting together a complete season from start to finish of dominant play. If he and Hawkins both return, LSU has its left side locked in for next season.
Dural has been expected to return and that would probably be the best thing for him. He's kind of a one-trick-pony at the moment as far as the NFL is concerned -- a fast, tall deep threat. I'll say this much though: the NFL LOVES tall, fast deep threats and with some eye-popping workouts, it's not hard to imagine some clubs desperate for a speed guy that can get vertical falling in love with Dural and reaching on him a bit. But another year of weight training and polish could do wonders and help turn Dural into a complete wideout. The speed will always be the layer on the cake, but better routes and a consistent ability to get off the jam would throw a whole lot of icing on that cake.