The buzz around Tuscaloosa is that the Crimson Tide's draft-eligible juniors will be making their intentions known very soon, some possibly as early as tomorrow.
With that in mind, I thought I'd take a moment to review their performance this past season, consider where they likely figure into the NFL Draft, and give you my best guess on whether they'll stay or go.
And my opinion on whether they really should or not. We'll start with the easy ones...
2010 Stats: 5 sacks, 11 tackles for a loss
Dareus went from relative anonymity to being projected as a Top 5 draft pick almost overnight following his performance in the 2010 BCS Championship game. He seemed poised to dominate in his final season, but his year was thrown off track before it even began when he fell into a scandal with an agent (you may have heard about it). He missed two games, but then suffered a high ankle sprain in his 2nd game back at Arkansas. He would struggle with that injury for the rest of the season, which lessened his ability to fight through the constant double-teams he drew. As a result, his statistical productivity fell far below expectations. However, he played his best games at the end of the year against Auburn and Michigan State, and his draft stock does not appear to have dropped significantly. Most mock drafts still have him going in the Top 5 and none have him going later than the Top 10. His freakish mix of size and athleticism is too much to pass up on.
What Should He Do? He should ABSOLUTELY enter the Draft. You can't turn your nose up at that kind of money.
What WILL He Do? He ABSOLUTELY will enter the Draft. It's been a foregone conclusion since Mel Kiper's first 2011 big board came out.
2010 Stats: 875 rushing yards, 282 receiving yards, 14 total TDs
Much like Dareus, Ingram didn't have quite the follow-up to his Heisman-winning 2009 season that had been expected. A freak knee injury the week of the Tide's season opener kept him out of 2 games. But while he looked sharp immediately upon his return, the grind of the SEC schedule clearly wore down his surgically-repaired knee. He also wasn't helped out by an offensive line that was far less dominant up the middle than the 09 unit. Nonetheless, Ingram remains far and away the top-rated running back in this year's draft. Most mocks have him projected somewhere between 11 and 19, which sounds about right for a back without elite top-end speed. He's going to fall more in the Knowshon Moreno range than the Adrian Peterson range.
What Should He Do? GO. Running backs only have so many hits in them, so you better start getting paid for them as quickly as possible. With the aforementioned lack of CJ Spiller-esque speed, it's unlikely he could improve his draft stock in his senior season. At least this year, he's certain to be the first back off the board, which will be a big check.
What WILL He Do? He's gone already. At least that's what Barry Sanders Jr. said Saban told him a few days ago.
2010 Stats: 78 catches, 1133 receiving yards, 135 rushing yards, 9 total TDs
Julio bounced back from an injury-marred sophomore slump and finally fulfilled the promise he showed as a freshman. Oddly, he was at his most productive after breaking his hand on his first catch in the South Carolina game. Of all the Bama juniors, Julio did the most to help his draft stock this season. He's gone from being perceived as maybe a fringe 1st round pick to the solid #2 receiver behind AJ Green, likely getting drafted somewhere in the top 15 picks. If Justin Blackmon from Oklahoma State declares, he may push Julio for that spot based on his production this season, but Julio is a genetic freak who will dominate the workout circuit and his team-first attitude will draw raves from coaches.
What Should He Do? He should enter the draft. It's possible he could increase his productivity next year with a strong-armed new QB (McCarron OR Sims)...or his productivity could be dragged down by a strong-armed new QB. It's a crap shoot there. Meanwhile, he'll face similar competition for the #1 receiver spot from the likes of Alshon Jeffery or Blackmon in the 2012 draft. The risk/reward is just too great.
What WILL He Do? This is a closer call than you might think. Julio is an interesting cat, to say the least, and he doesn't look at things the way most big-time wide receivers do. He loves playing at Alabama and, unlike most college athletes, actually comes off as sincere when he talks about his desire to get his degree. That said, there are a lot of ways to finish your degree in 2011 that don't involve playing college football and a 1st round NFL contract will pay for it just as well as a scholarship will. Ultimately, the money will be too much.
Dont'a Hightower2010 Stats: 70 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss
Prior to suffering a catastrophic knee injury against Arkansas in 09, most would have guessed Hightower was a lock for the draft today. But, despite a preternaturally quick recovery that saw him back in contact drills by spring practice, Hightower struggled to regain his footing on the field this season. Beginning the season in two knee braces, he was noticeably slower and seemed to struggle taking over for Rolondo McClain at the Mike position. A move back to Will and the loss of a knee brace midway through the season seemed to help, but he was still clearly less than 100%. A completely knee-brace free Hightower appeared in the Capital One Bowl and looked faster and more violent than he had all year. As of today, his draft buzz is practically nil and he would have to do a significant amount of work in the evaluation period to get his stock back up to pre-injury levels.
What Should He Do? He should return for his senior season (or redshirt junior season, however they're classifying it this week). It's probably in his best interests to take another offseason getting his knee back to 100% so he can have a dynamite senior season and maybe crack the top 2 rounds. This year, I think the 3rd round is his ceiling, and that's no given.
What WILL He Do? I'm fairly certain he'll be back. He's a smart guy. The potential lockout may be a factor here as well. The 2nd and 3rd tier (and below...) prospects are really the only guys who's draft decisions will be affected by the threat of no season, and that's where Hightower is right now.
2010 Stats: 75 tackles, 3 interceptions, 6 pass breakups, 2 sacks
Barron followed-up his breakout sophomore season with another strong year. He was slightly less productive but that was mainly due to opponents choosing to take their shots elsewhere in an inexperienced secondary. Like Julio, Barron is an incredible physical specimen who might actually play linebacker in other systems. He, too, would likely dominate the workout circuit. He was a lock to declare for the draft until about halfway through the Iron Bowl, when he tore a pectoral muscle attempting to break up a pass. His recovery time is currently thought to be 4-6 months, meaning there's no way he'll be able to show scouts much of anything prior to draft day.
What Should He Do? No question: he should stay. Prior to the injury, he was a surefire second rounder with the possibility to work his way into the 1st like Kareem Jackson did last year. Now, there's no limit to how far he could fall. He needs to stay in school, rehab his pec, and have a good, healthy senior season. He'll cost himself a lot of money entering the draft this year.
What WILL He Do? This one is tough. I think Barron knows the best thing to do, from a football perspective, is return for his senior season. However, there's also some word that his family has a tough financial situation and he's feeling obligated and/or pressured to go pro now to support them. This is too close to call right now.
2010 Stats: 52 tackles, 14.5 tackles for a loss, 7 sacks
Upshaw was my pick to be this season's breakout player, but, much like Dareus, a high ankle sprain suffered in the very first game of the season derailed those projections. He recovered well enough to play his best game of the season against Auburn, after which he indicated he would be returning for his senior season. And then he showed up at the Capital One Bowl and played the lights-out game of the year. Now his return is not so certain. He's currently getting post-bowl performance buzz similar to what Dareus was getting at this time last year. He has great size and athleticism, and NFL scouts are always looking for elite pass rushers.
What Should He Do? I honestly think he could go either way. Like a lot of Bama's top guys, he'll test out very well on the workout circuit and could very easily earn a 2nd round grade this year. I also think he could return for his senior season and raise his stock to the 1st round as a top pass rusher. It just depends on if he wants to take the injury risk.
What WILL He Do? My gut says he'll be with the Tide in 2011. He also may be one of those 2nd tier players who could be scared off by the lockout.
2010 Stats: 38 receptions, 557 receiving yards, 3 receiving TDs, 1 passing TD
This might be a surprising name. Maze has been one of the great underrated (and some might argue, underutilized) players for the Tide over the past 3 years. He's been a very consistent player the past 2 seasons with great speed and mobility and good hands. That said, while he clearly has all the tools to be great, he has yet to actually prove himself as more than a capable supporting player. He certainly doesn't have very strong draft buzz, if any at all. And yet, the word for a while has been that Maze will declare for the draft. Why? Who knows. There is some speculation that he may have a baby on the way and needs the NFL check to support the new addition, but take that for what it's worth.
What Should He Do? Stay in school. If you're a 5'10" receiver, you better be special if you hope to get drafted. Maze hasn't shown anything like "special" yet. He needs to return next season, free from Julio's shadow, and show what he can do as the 1st option at receiver. I'm 100% sure that he will NOT be drafted this year. Maybe he'll make a team as a free agent, but I don't see how that chance is worth giving up a free college degree.
What WILL He Do? He has his mind made up. He's entering the draft. I've been hearing that he has considered this his final year since before the season started. I don't get it, but best of luck to him.
I'll be back to check upon these guys as their decisions become official.