The official count on underclassmen entering the 2014 draft is 98, easily breaking the record of 73 that was set just last year. Here's how the early entries break down by position: 4 QBs, 19 RBs, 19 WRs, 10 TEs, 9 OLs, 18 DL, 5 LBs, 14 DBs.
By my estimation, less than half of the players who declared early will probably be drafted in the top 100. Here are five who stood out to me as guys who would have benefited from staying in school, becoming better players and improving their draft stock.
Dion Bailey, DB, USC: Bailey (5-foot-11, 211 pounds) is a three-year player who earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors. He was good but did not dominate at the college level and could have benefited by getting stronger and gaining more experience. He might have been influenced by the success of Bills rookie Nickell Robey, who left USC a year early and has played very well for Buffalo after going undrafted. I think Bailey would definitely have improved his chances and moved up in the draft if he had stayed another year.
Brett Smith, QB, Wyoming: What stands out to me about Smith (6-2, 195 pounds) is that he needs to develop more consistency as a passer, which staying in school would have helped him achieve. In 2013, he had really good games -- like a 383-yard, four-touchdown performance against Nebraska -- and a handful of games where he wasn't good at all, like his effort against Utah State (16 of 29, 162 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT). He needs to be more consistent, and you learn the game much better by playing it every day rather than staying on the sideline. I see six or seven quarterbacks being taken ahead of Smith in the 2014 draft.
Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M: It's hard to make a case for Evans on this list, because he's a good-sized player who posted 1,394 receiving yards, including 200-yard games vs. Alabama and Auburn. But a big issue I have with Evans is that he's not a good route runner. He often pushes off on his defender and gains a big advantage with offensive pass interference. I can see why he didn't want to stay -- for one thing, he's losing a great quarterback to the draft --but I really believe that staying and improving his route-running and understanding of the passing game would've made him an even better player than he already is.
Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado: Richardson is a very, very slim guy at 6-0 1/2, 158 pounds. He had a good statistical season, including 1,343 yards receiving and two 200-yard games to start the season. But those games came against Central Arkansas and Colorado State. I think he should have stayed in school because there will be at least 10 receivers taken ahead of him. Returning would have allowed him to build up his body and learn the nuances of receiving.
James Wilder Jr., RB, Florida State: Wilder's father was a great player, which might have an effect on the way people view and speak of Wilder Jr. Wilder Jr. is one of those guys who is good at everything, but not outstanding at anything. One thing he really needs to do is learn how to pass protect, something that's required once you get to the NFL.
Five who made the right decision
And here are five underclassmen who I think did well by coming out early:
Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: I don't know how Manziel could have done any more as a college player. I don't like that he played only two years, but he's accomplished everything you can as a passer and runner. He won the Heisman Trophy in his first year, and this year he played even better. So much was expected of him, and he's exceeded all expectations.
Xavier Su'a-Filo, OL, UCLA: Su'a-Filo is old for an underclassman because he took two years off to go on a Mormon mission. He played tackle at UCLA, but I believe he'll be a really good guard who will step in and really play well. Staying another year at UCLA probably would not have helped much, because he's fully mature now.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson: Watkins is coming off a great year, is losing his quarterback to the NFL (Tajh Boyd) and will probably be a top five or six player. He made a good decision.
Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State: Shazier is a smaller guy, but I see him as a Derrick Brooks clone. I don't know how another year would help him in any way at all.
Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn: Robinson has played only two years, but he's a fully matured man with a big, strong upper body. He just got better and better each week. He could use some work on pass protection, but he's already an excellent run blocker.