NORMAN, Okla. -- After the 2007 season, neither Malcolm Kelly, Curtis Lofton nor Reggie Smith were projected as first-round picks in the upcoming NFL draft.
But all three were top-three round picks. And that was enough to convince them to leave Oklahoma a year early and enter the draft.
This year, the Sooners again don’t appear to have any underclassmen that project as first-round picks. But up to four different underclassmen Sooners could be taken in the first three rounds if they to decide to come out in January. SoonerNation breaks down the four players who might be mulling their futures over the next month:
Free safety Tony Jefferson
The case for leaving: Jefferson has indicated before that he might jump to the NFL if he projected to be a relatively high pick. Mel Kiper Jr. wrote earlier this month that both Jefferson and Florida safety Matt Elam “have a shot” to go in the first round. “Both can contribute all over the field. Cover, tackle, get into the backfield -- you name it,” Kiper wrote. Given that Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro ranks as Kiper’s top senior safety on the board, it’s not unthinkable that Jefferson could be the top safety taken. At the least, Jefferson figures to be one of the top five safeties in the draft coming off an All-Big 12 junior season, which would make him no worse than a third-rounder.
The case for staying: As good as Jefferson was this season, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said two weeks ago that Jefferson still has much to work on before reaching his potential. “He does some things that really aggravate you, but he comes back and does so many good things,” Stoops said. “He has a chance to be special, and getting him to understand the little things — the finer things that make players great — has always been my struggle with Tony.” That doesn’t exactly sound like an endorsement that Jefferson is ready for the NFL. Scouts Inc. believes that Jefferson specifically needs to improve his instincts and recognition. With a strong senior season that improves on the little things like that, Jefferson could possibly lock up a place in the first round.
Who would replace him: If Jefferson left, the Sooners would be in a pickle at safety, considering senior Javon Harris is gone, too. Quentin Hayes was going to be OU’s third back safety this season, but that was before he was suspended indefinitely in the summer. Top backup Jesse Paulsen is gone after this season, too. The Sooners could bump Gabe Lynn to Jefferson’s spot, and move Julian Wilson to nickelback. Of course, they might need Wilson at safety, as well. With cornerback Demontre Hurst also graduating the secondary could face a major transition if Jefferson bolted, too.
Wide receiver Kenny Stills
The case for leaving: Like Jefferson, Stills has indicated that he might leave early if he projected relatively high pick. Stills doesn’t have a shot at the first round like Jefferson, but ESPN Insider currently projects Stills out to be a mid-to-late third-round pick. Stills has had a banner junior season, and has displayed tremendous hands around the end zone. Stills plays bigger than his 6-foot, 190-pound frame and would test well enough in the agility and speed drills at the combine. If he came back, he’s also have to deal with a QB transition that could affect his stats.
The case for staying: There’s no doubt that Stills could improve his stock with another year. Stills’ Scouts Inc. evaluation doesn’t give him an “exceptional” grade in any area, and gives him a “below average” intangibles grade. If Stills showed leadership next season with a new quarterback and improved his skills across the board, he could become one of the top receivers on the board.
Who would replace him: The Sooners have several young options at receiver. Trey Metoyer and Durron Neal could be ready to step into the starting lineup next season on the outside. OU also has Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard coming back in the slot next season.
Cornerback Aaron Colvin
The case for leaving: Colvin quietly had one of the better cornerback seasons in the country, earning All-Big 12 honors. Colvin is still a little bit under the radar. But once scouts evaluate his film, they’re bound to get interested. Colvin would do very well in interviews at the combine, as well. Also, this doesn’t appear to be a particularly strong cornerback class, and corners are at a premium in the NFL.
The case for staying: Because cornerbacks are at premium, if Colvin came back and elevated his stock even higher, he could solidify himself as a first round pick. Also, there isn’t a lot of film on Colvin playing corner (this season and a few games in 2010), and that might give NFL general managers pause.
Who would replace him: It would be a disaster if the Sooners had to end up replacing the entire secondary. The next two in line at cornerback appear to be promising freshman Gary Simon and Arizona transfer Cortez Johnson (although his status is somewhat tenuous after last week’s drug arrest).
Fullback Trey Millard
The case for leaving: A body can only take so many hits, and Millard might decide he wants to start getting paid as soon as possible for them. Fullbacks usually don’t get taken high, but whenever Millard declares, he figures to be one of the top one or two on the board because of his combination of blocking, pass-catching and rushing. Whoever drafted him would get the total package.
The case for staying: It’s difficult for a fullback to elevate a fixed draft stock. But if the money is going to be all the same, why not secure a college degree, and rack up more honors next season?
Who would replace him: Aaron Ripkowski is back and could continue to fulfill some of the blocking duties in the power packages. But because of his unique skill-set, Millard is virtually irreplaceable.