The decision for college underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft is one that has seen significant changes in recent years.
With the introduction of NIL deals, college athletes are now able to make money while playing sports for their schools. This affects the draft pool in that college prospects can still make big money in college and not have to make the jump before they’re ready to do so. That’s not to say that everyone who bypasses the draft does so because of NIL deals, but it surely impacts a process that had already resulted in big names staying in school.
Underclassmen have until Jan. 16 to declare for the 2023 draft, but there have already been some notable prospects who have decided to return to college for another year. Keep in mind that this list does not include players who have entered the transfer portal and not announced their new landing spot. While this move indicates that the prospect will likely stay in school, he can still choose to declare for the draft after entering the portal.
That said, here are some of the top prospects to bypass the 2023 NFL Draft and return to school thus far.
Penn State OT Olu Fashanu
Arguably the biggest surprise of the bunch, Olu Fashanu opted to stay at Penn State for another year rather than go to the 2023 NFL Draft.
I had a top-10 grade on Fashanu when he decided to stay in school for another year. The last two players with Round 1 grades on my board who chose to stay in school were Chris Olave, Creed Humphrey and Justin Herbert, and things seem to be working out pretty well for them! In all seriousness, Fashanu is a remarkable athlete at left tackle with great footwork and lateral agility in pass protection, and his play strength is impressive. He has all the physical tools to develop into a Pro Bowl tackle in due time.
2022 marked Fashanu’s first year as a full-time starter for Penn State, so he doesn’t have as much tape to work off of as most of the other top offensive linemen in the nation. He still needs to work on keeping his weight underneath him and his pad level, and his weight distribution can stand to get better. With another year of starting reps under his belt, Fashanu has more time to develop and eventually make an immediate impact in the NFL. He was a likely first-round pick in the 2023 draft, so there’s no telling how high the ceiling could be for him in 2024.
LSU WR Kayshon Boutte
After showing tremendous flashes in 2021 pre-injury, Kayshon Boutte didn’t have quite the 2022 season many were expecting from him.
In 6 games in 2021, Boutte had 38 catches for 509 yards and 9 touchdowns. With 11 games this year, he had 48 catches for 538 yards and 2 touchdowns. He looked dominant in some outings, like his 107-yard performance against Georgia and his 115-yard game against Florida, but he disappeared in many others. The upside is still obvious with Boutte, though. Even if it only came in flashes, he still displayed route-running intelligence, good athleticism traits to work with and impressive physicality.
Boutte will have to answer questions about effort and consistency. When the lows are low for him, he’s practically nonexistent in LSU’s offense. When he’s cooking, however, he’s as talented as just about any wide receiver in the nation, and if he takes a leap this offseason, he could easily be at least a top-15 pick in the 2024 draft. In my mind, he made the right choice from a developmental perspective to stay in school for another year.
Missouri CB Kris Abrams-Draine
Allow me to let my Missouri bias shine through my admiration for Kris Abrams-Draine.
I kid about my fandom for the Tigers clouding my judgment; Abrams-Draine has serious NFL potential. He broke out in 2021 with 3 interceptions and 7 pass deflections, and though he didn’t tally any interceptions this season, he deflected 13 passes and allowed a completion percentage of just 36.7%. He’s sub-6 feet and weighs just 178 pounds, but he’s fluid, explosive, scrappy and has a nose for the football. Plus, his football IQ and tackling ability have developed quite a bit compared to 2021, having ironed out some inconsistencies in his game.
Though Abrams-Draine led the SEC with his 13 pass deflections, he still faded into the background this year. It hasn’t resulted in an increase in wins yet, but there’s a sense of optimism surrounding Missouri, and for as questionable as his play-calling can be at times, head coach Eliah Drinkwitz has been an incredible recruiter who has aided the culture for the Tigers’ program. When you consider that Abrams-Draine is only in his second year playing cornerback — he started off as a wide receiver — it becomes apparent that learning the position in college for another year could help prepare him to make an immediate impact once he gets to the NFL.
Arizona WR Jacob Cowing
Jacob Cowing first got on my radar as electricity in a bottle in his 2021 season at UTEP, and he carried that momentum over to Arizona this year.
With 85 receptions for 1,034 yards and 7 touchdowns, Cowing was among the best offensive weapons in the Pac-12. Though raw as a route runner and skinny at 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, he brings an element of speed that cannot be overstated. He is one of the fastest weapons in college football and offers playmaking ability that’s apparent almost every time he touches the ball. He’s not a bonafide WR1 type at the next level, but he’s a dynamic slot who should test very well once the time comes.
Nobody would’ve faulted Cowing for declaring for the draft after his second-straight season with over 1,000 receiving yards. However, Arizona seems to be turning things around, going 5-7 after winning just 5 games in the previous three seasons. The Wildcats had a ranked win on the road against UCLA, beat Arizona State for the first time in 6 years and played strong programs like USC and Washington within 10 points or fewer. Things look bright for Arizona’s future, and with more team success next year could mean more exposure for Cowing.
Florida State OT Robert Scott Jr.
As a three-year collegiate starter with impressive physical tools, Robert Scott Jr. seemed like the type of project NFL teams would take on to bet on upside, but he will be returning to Florida State and have a chance to round out his game a bit.
Listed at 6-foot-5 and 334 pounds, Scott has very good measureables and offers long arms with very good natural strength. He has a powerful anchor, and when he gets his strikes located properly, he has the capability to overwhelm defenders and lock them out at the point of attack. For a bigger lineman, he’s also quite nimble; he showcases impressive lateral agility and initial burst off the line of scrimmage.
Scott appeared raw to me in terms of his pad level, weight distribution and spatial awareness in pass protection. Having another season to develop allows him to work on those deficiencies before getting drafted, and it also helps him avoid an offensive tackle group that is loaded in terms of Day 2 talent. I had Scott as an early Day 3 talent, but a player with his upside could shoot up boards in 2024 with a strong year next year.
Washington QB Michael Penix Jr.
I had Michael Penix Jr. as an undrafted free agent heading into the 2022 season, but he did more than any quarterback not named Hendon Hooker to boost his draft stock this season.
The flashes had been there for Penix throughout his collegiate career, but he struggled to find stability prior to this year. He developed quite a lot in terms of his accuracy and general sense of timing behind his throws, and he also proved capable of making full-field reads within Washington’s offense. His throwing velocity has also improved quite a bit since I had last watched him in 2020. The lefty quarterback played a big role in the Huskies going 10-2 this year, and he deserves a lot of credit for how much he’s developed.
Penix is currently a fifth-year senior, meaning that his 2023 campaign will be his sixth year in college. Given that each of his seasons at Indiana ended early due to injury, it could be helpful for him to put together another full, healthy season of starting tape. If he plays as well as he did in 2022, he could end up in Heisman contention when it’s all said and done. Even though his significant injury history might scare off NFL teams, he still stands a legitimate chance to make a case for himself in Day 2 territory.