Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - It's difficult to say whether an underclassman's decision to leave school early and declare for the NFL will be the right one until the draft rolls around in May, and, in some cases, even longer.
It happens at the end of every season -- star juniors and redshirt sophomores leave the FBS in the rearview mirror in favor of pursuing their professional dreams. The top of this year's draft will be littered with outstanding early entries, among them Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, Jadeveon Clowney, Ka'Deem Carey, Tre Mason, De'Anthony Thomas, Marqise Lee, Sammy Watkins, Stephon Tuitt, Bradley Roby and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, just to name a small percentage.
The decision to remain in school is becoming less and less popular -- the NFL announced on Sunday 102 players declared for the draft before their eligibility ran out, demolishing last season's all-time high of 73 -- so when a high profile player returns to school these days, it's much more surprising.
Perhaps the most shocking declaration by an underclassmen this offseason came from Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who opted to return to school for his junior season. Even in a 2014 draft class stacked with quarterback talent at the top, Mariota would have certainly been a first-round pick, if not in the discussion for No. 1 overall, given his unique blend of passing efficiency (.635 completion percentage, 31 touchdowns, four interceptions in 2013), rushing ability (715 yards, nine TDs) and ideal size (6-foot-4, 215 pounds).
Given the Ducks' disappointing finish to the 2013 campaign, it's understandable why Mariota would want to return to a squad that will be one of the favorites to win the Pac-12 and compete for a national championship. If he approaches last season's numbers in 2014, his draft stock will remain unchanged, as he'll likely duke it out with Florida State's Jameis Winston (if he declares) as the top quarterback prospect in 2015.
Mariota isn't the only high-profile signal caller to delay his NFL dreams. Fellow Pac-12 QB Brett Hundley (UCLA) is built in a similar mold as Mariota at 6-3, 222 pounds, and showed flashes of brilliance this past season by completing 67.2 percent of his passes for 3,071 yards and 24 touchdowns to go with 748 rushing yards and 11 more scores.
Hundley also was a projected first-round pick, and some scouts considered him to have the highest upside of any quarterback early in the evaluation process.
Braxton Miller's decision to remain at Ohio State was an easier one to predict. In a QB-sacturated draft, Miller would have been relegated to the middle rounds this year, and it's not inconceivable that next season he improves upon his 2013 production (2,094 passing yards, 1,068 rushing yards, 36 total TDs) as the Buckeyes make a run at the national championship.
In recent seasons, NFL teams have been trending away from selecting running backs high in the draft, with the first tailback not coming off the board until the late first or early second round, which potentially scared away a couple of big names to return to the FBS to hone their skills for one more year.
Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska) took big steps forward in 2013, racking up 1,690 rushing yards and nine touchdowns while adding versatility with 26 receptions, and he hopes coming back as a senior will pay off.
Melvin Gordon (Wisconsin) has the type of explosion NFL executives salivate over (1,609 yards on 7.8 yards per carry with 12 TDs), and next year he'll be out to prove he can carry the full load with the departure of James White.
Offensive tackles are always in high demand at the top of the draft, with Auburn's Greg Robinson, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews, Notre Dame's Zack Martin and Michigan's Taylor Lewan all expected to be first-round picks. With another year of seasoning, La'El Collins (LSU), Cedric Ogbuehi (Texas A&M) and Camero Erving (Florida State) all hope to be in that same breath come 2015.
On the defensive side of the ball, the return of Mariota's teammate, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, came as nearly as big a surprise. Ekpre-Olomu is one of the premiere cover corners in the nation, racking up 84 tackles, three interceptions and nine passes defended a season ago, and he was in the discussion as being the top cornerback prospect in the country and a potential top-10 pick.
His return, along with Mariota's, emphasizes how serious the Ducks are about their national championship aspirations in 2014.
USC's Josh Shaw (67 tackles, four interceptions, 11 passes defended), who's experienced at both corner and safety, is another big-name defensive back returning to wreak havoc on the Pac-12.
With more NFL teams shifting to a 3-4 scheme every season, the demand for excellent pass rushers is higher than ever. Among the brave few star-quality defensive ends who decided to hold off their eligibility for one more season are Texas' Cedric Reed (19 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, 16 QB hurries, five forced fumbles) and Clemson's Vic Beasley (23 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, 12 QB hurries), who both have the potential to catapult into the top-10 discussion by adding another dominant season to their resumes.
The jury is still out on many of these decisions -- for every Andrew Luck, who was selected No. 1 overall the season after surprising many by returning to school, there's Matt Barkley, who lost millions of dollars by seeing his draft stock plummet several rounds in one year.
One thing that's certain, however, is the FBS will benefit from so many quality veteran players returning to the fold.