Updated: Feb 4
The No. 9 Florida Gators have made it to their second New Year’s Six bowl in as many years. They are heavily favored over No. 24 Virginia and have an opportunity to cement their place as a Top 10 team while showcasing younger talent. But when the game is over, the confetti has been kicked away and players are finally resting in their lockers, there will be one topic that quickly rises to the top.
Who’s staying and who’s going?
The Gators have, by our count, 12 guys who are draft eligible as juniors and redshirt juniors along with a redshirt sophomore who is technically eligible and the most likely of that classification to explore the idea. Two of those 12 have already removed their name from the roster to seek transfers and/or the NFL—tight end Lucas Krull and quarterback Feleipe Franks respectively.
Of the remaining nine, head coach Dan Mullen has said he expects eight to seriously consider the NFL Draft with five putting in for their grade, which is the allowed limit. This simply means they are allowed to send paperwork into the NFL to request a grade on where they would likely be drafted, which comes into play when making the choice. Draft eligible players have until January 20 to declare their intentions.
“You can turn five in and you petition for more with specific reasons," explained Mullen in early December.
"I talked to the guys and tried to limit it to five. So, I think it was five but we’ll see. We did it the day after the Florida State game, like the first day possible to turn stuff in so we could get it back a soon as possible.”
From those nine, the number can be whittled down more.
Quarterback Kyle Trask has told GatorBait Magazine he intends to return for his final season of eligibility. He seemed shocked when asked, as if the possibility of leaving had not even arisen.
“I mean, I still have a whole 'nother year here, so I don't plan on leaving,” he said back in November.
Defensive lineman Kyree Campbell also told GatorBait Magazine during Orange Bowl media opportunities that he would return for his final season, saying he needed to grow personally but he also knows what this team can be next season and he “wants to be a part of it.”
Corner CJ Henderson has already announced his decision to forego his final season and will sit out the bowl game as well in preparation. He has been a projected first rounder—second rounder at most—in many mock drafts.
That leaves around six players who will be question marks until they decide their future.
Once of those is corner Marco Wilson who says he will talk with his family after the bowl game.
“I'm not really waiting on anything right now, I'm just trying to focus on preparing for this game,” he told reporters on Saturday.
Wilson is a redshirt sophomore after missing much of last season with a torn ACL injury. He has returned this season and hauled in three interceptions, laid 34 tackles from the defensive back position (four for loss), and tallied a pass breakup with a quarterback hurry. But a freshman season that included four interceptions with two returned for touchdowns was followed by a missed year with injury. This created a vacuum of needed buzz around his name, according to Wilson.
"Considering I started my freshman year and I got a lot of tape, I don’t think it messes with the tape but it definitely just messes with the amount of hype around my name cause I had hype going into my sophomore year after my freshman year and since I got hurt, all that hype just went out the door so I didn’t really have much being said about me coming into this season so I maybe get overlooked sometimes.”
Fretting about being overlooked can seem like a personal concern that isn't validated by a scouting report. But consider the sheer amount of prospects that enter the NFL Draft every year. There are 224 selected from the near thousand hopefuls. The hype, as Wilson explains, is necessary.
“It definitely does cause if you get a lot of people taking about you then you get more attention to your name and then a lot of more people might look into your tape and see that you’re a really good player.”
So how does one determine that the hype, the tape and the possibilities are all aligned?
Mullen and his staff have long preached that draft eligible players should be extra careful when weighing their options. Outside opinions can sway a player to declare before their game is ready, or during a year when their particular position may be loaded, pushing them further down the board than if they entered in a year when their position was at a premium.
After a decade of head coaching, Mullen has examples to point to when asking for players to listen to him and the staff. But it’s the Old Spice commercial that really helps make the point.
There’s Montez Sweat, on screen as the deodorant brand’s spokesperson with a graphic boasting Mississippi State, the defensive lineman’s alma mater.
Following the 2017 season, Sweat had respectable statistics with a feasible shot at a good draft spot. His coaches talked him through his draft grade and felt it would be in his best interest to return for his senior season. He did and those same coaches had to face him the following year when Dan Mullen took Florida to face Mississippi State in Starkville. But Sweat used his extra season to increase the number in three of his four major statistical categories.
He went from being “possible fourth round to staring in Old Spice commercials” jokes Mullen. The spokesperson gig came courtesy of Sweat’s first round draft status; a status that arguably came thanks to the tape from his final season in college.
During the bye week before the regular season finale against FSU, Mullen and coaches met with eligible players to talk about their options.
"Coach Mullen just wanted to bring all of those eligible guys into the team room, and just inform them on how the process works, whether you want to leave or not,” explains Trask.
“Just so you can let everyone know how it works, and the consequences of doing one route vs. the other, to really inform us and let us know.”
What each player decides is ultimately his prerogative. Mullen says the key is making sure it’s in his best interest long term.
“All we want is guys to make good decisions and have success with that. You know, so guys that are going to get drafted in the first or second round, that they know that, they feel good about it, this is what you need to do to maintain that draft status.
“Make sure you’re doing these things, get drafted and know you made a great decision to leave. And educating guys that maybe shouldn’t, say, ‘Hey, these are reasons you should stay. Here’s how it affects you. This is why this is what we see happening in the future for you.’ It’s just that they and their families are very educated to make the best decisions for their future.”
It would be understandable to assume a coaches motives here wouldn’t be entirely altruistic. So let’s contemplate the cold hard numbers.
There are currently 44 former Florida Gators on NFL rosters. Of that group, 19 were early entrees. Nine of those 19 began as undrafted free agents who worked their way onto roster spots.
In the past decade (since the 2010 draft following the 2009 season) there have been 31 Florida Gators declare early for the NFL. For the sake of this article, we are considering draft eligible to be any player that has remaining NCAA eligibility—i.e. redshirt sophomores, juniors or redshirt juniors. There have only been two of the latter and none of the redshirt sophomore variety.
Of those 31 players, five declared early between the years of 2010-2012. Of those five, three remain in the league (Joe Haden, Carlos Dunlap and Maurkice Pouncey). The fourth is Major Wright, who played in the league for seven seasons. The fifth is Aaron Hernandez.
It’s been more recent years that the trend to leave early has gained steam. From 2013-2019, there have been 26 Gators declare early. Of those, 16 are still in the NFL on 53-man rosters. As for the remaining 10, two are currently on practice squads for NFL teams (Jachai Polite-Los Angeles Rams; Teez Tabor-San Francisco 49er's). One is playing in the Canadian football League (Alex McCalister), two are in the XFL (Matt Jones and Matt Elam), one had to retire due to injury (Sharrif Floyd) and four are out of football as of now (Antonio Callaway, Kelvin Taylor, Dominque Easley and Ronald Powell).
It’s a chilling reminder of the uncertainty that is the shaky foundation for so many’s dreams.
Simply making it on a team isn’t the only goal of someone leaving school early though. That can just as likely be achieved after a senior season. When departing ahead of schedule, it’s typically because one believes they have a great shot at a high draft pick. It’s what was weighed in the case of Montez Sweat, for example, when it was determined he could become a higher draft pick at his position if he waited a year. This is where the grades become a factor as most coaches, agents and experts advise to not leave early unless you are a near guaranteed pick in the first or second round.
In the 2019 NFL Draft, first round overall pick Kyler Murray signed a $35.2 million contract. Pick No. 32 in the first round for the New England Patriots, N’Keal Harry, signed a contract worth $10.1 million, a $25.1 million difference.
The second round contracts started at $7.7 million and went to 4.6; the third round went from $4.3 million to 3.4; the fourth round stayed around $3.3 to $3 million. The fifth round began at $2.9 million and trickled down from there through the seventh round.
Of the 26 early departures since 2013, half were selected in the first or second round.
Those now staring down their own futures have an eye on those in the past who have had to make similar decisions and might not have seen it pan out as planned. There’s one factor though that Marco Wilson is confident can make a difference.
“I definitely consider that but I feel like the ones that it didn’t work out for really was just a mental part, not really their game play. Like I know all those guys that left can really play. If you’re not ready mentally, it’s not gonna work out and I feel like that’s not a challenge for me at all, mentally. I know I’m mature, I don’t have problems off the field. So really, I feel like the mental aspect’s really the most important part.”
In the past three seasons alone, three of the early departures—all of whom were projected high with enormous expectations—have found themselves much farther from where they planned to be still at this point, lending some credence to Wilson’s argument. Two of the three are on practice squads which means they have a shot of being activated to the 53-man roster. It also means they can be the first to go. The other was cut from his team before this season concluded after multiple disciplinary issues.
“Just [make] sure you’re doing the right things off the field, hanging around the right people,” continues Wilson.
“Understanding like the maturity level that they’re gonna have at the next level. It’s grown men out there and coaches who are expecting a lot out of you or else they’ll replace you like it’s nothing. Cause some dudes, they get in the NFL and they think just cause they’ve made it in the NFL they’ve made it already and that’s it. But it's really not. So I’m glad I have my brother [Quincy Wilson] in the NFL [with the Indianapolis Colts] so I can understand what it really means and what it takes and what they expect out of you so when I do get to that next level I’m not gonna be surprised by it.”
Quincy was an early departure for the league and was chosen in the second round.
So who’s staying and who’s going? As of right now, no one knows for sure, and that includes the players themselves who are still contemplating. It will become the primary focus though as the Florida Gators put the last touches on the 2019 season and turn towards the future.