As you know by now, LSU junior left tackle Jerald Hawkins declared for the 2016 NFL Draft on Wednesday evening. Was that only the beginning of what has recently become an annual tradition? Or will the program be able to hold on to enough veterans to help put a tremendous core of talent over the top in 2016?
The deadline for early entrants is Jan. 18, and to date Hawkins and four other underclassmen have requested reports from the NFL's draft advisory council: linebacker Kendell Beckwith, cornerback Tre'davious White, center Ethan Pocic and defensive tackle Christian LaCouture. The NFL provides players with "first round/second round/stay in school," grades, although the accuracy certainly has to be in question after cornerback Jalen Collins went 42nd overall last year despite a stay-in-school grade from the council. LSU's personnel department also provides the players with their own detailed report, based on contacts in league front offices, scouting departments and coaching staffs.
Players often make their own decisions independent of these reports (sometimes well before the reports are even issued) but the staff does its best to try and provide players with as much information as possible, even as they try to convince some to stay.
Hawkins is likely making a smart call -- his decision reminds me of Trai Turner's following the 2013 season. Turner was a pretty good, but not great, guard during his season-and-a-half in LSU's starting lineup, but you could see the athletic potential there, and he showed that off in workouts, boosting his stock and grabbing more eyes for his film. He wound up being a top-100 pick in that draft for the Carolina Panthers, and just made the Pro Bowl in his second year. Likewise, I expect Hawkins to work out really well, and to show that while he's not yet a great player, he was probably a year away from it (and Hawkins, like Turner, was mostly a defensive lineman in high school).
As for the others, here are some thoughts on how they break down:
He didn't quite break through and become a star as a junior, but the potential for LSU's starting middle linebacker is certainly evident, and with 80 tackles and 10 tackles for loss this year it's not like he had a bad season at all. Obviously, he's the most important underclassmen for the staff to try and recruit to return, especially with a new defensive coordinator like Dave Aranda, who really likes to create pressure from odd angles with his linebackers. That also happens to be a skill Beckwith flashed more of a knack for as a MIKE, whereas he struggled a little bit getting down the field in coverage.
Beckwith's athleticism should translate well to combine workouts, and that could definitely boost his stock, but his being a little incomplete puts him more in the mid-round range, in my opinion. Which means there is plenty to gain from a return. To say nothing of his value to the defense, which is ridiculously thin at linebacker. There have been reports that he's considering staying, along with multiple other players on this list. Recent history has me a little reluctant to get my hopes up there, but I'll say this much -- Beckwith is a different guy, not somebody who "dreams" of playing in the NFL (not that he doesn't want to, it's just not his biggest goal in life). The idea of returning, graduating and etching a place in LSU lore as a senior might be more appealing to him than some previous players.
White is a pure man-to-man cornerback, who again was very good, but not great this season. He doesn't quite have the height of some of the corners DBU has sent into the draft as of late, but he has long arms and the hips to translate well as a man specialist as the next level, and is likely a top-two round pick. Of the remaining juniors, he's the one I would most expect to declare. Although corner is one of the deeper positions in this draft, so sticking around for a chance to lock up a first-round grade may be worth it.
The next biggest key potential returnee for LSU, in my opinion. The Tiger offensive line will lose both tackles next season, but returning Pocic alongside freshmen guards Will Clapp and Maea Teuhema could create a dominant interior and help ease any potential growing pains for the front. However, I'm told that Pocic has graded out very well from reports, so leaving is certainly a possibility.
The junior defensive tackle had a better year than what showed up on the stat sheet, transitioning pretty well to more of a two-gap nose tackle type of player. Still, he's not the massive widebody that 3-4 teams tend to fall in love with, so he's likely still a mid-round pick baring some explosive workouts. Pocic returning for another year seems like a good bet, and with LSU returning its top six defensive linemen plus an infusion of talent from a loaded recruiting class, LaCouture has the opportunity to be a key cog in a special unit in 2016.
LSU's starting wideout considered leaving as a third-year sophomore, but returned for an uneven junior year. While he did show more polish on some of his underneath routes, Dural still struggled with his concentration and hands. Still, at 6-2 with a major vertical leap and big-time speed, he's the kind of deep threat scouting departments tend to fall in love with and overdraft, so his NFL stock is likely a little higher than most think.
But the hamstring injury he suffered against Ole Miss may ultimately be what makes the decision here. Dural faces a four-to-five-month rehab, which would take him well past the Combine and LSU's pro day. And if Dural can't run for NFL scouts, he can't show off his best asset as a player, meaning that another year may be the best call. Of course, some thought Dural had buyer's remorse on returning last year, so you never know.
The junior defensive end broke out under Ed Orgeron's guidance this season, leading LSU with 8 sacks. Still at 6-1 and 255, he's undersized for NFL end, and doesn't strike me as an outside linebacker type. Neal makes his plays with a good first step, good technique and relentless hustle more than elite athleticism, so its hard to picture him blowing up in workouts. A return and another season of good tape to show scouts is probably his best move. And if Arden Key continues to develop he'll draw the kind of attention that will give Neal even more sack opportunities.
We'll continue to update the process as it unfolds.