January is always a tough time for college football fans. The season ultimately comes to a close, and fans are forced to say goodbye to some of their favorite players due to the NFL Draft. As usual, Florida fans are forced to do just that, with four players leaving early for the 2015 NFL Draft. (The deadline to declare for the pros was Thursday.)
But it's not all doom and gloom. For every bittersweet "Good luck!" fans send off, there might be a joyous, "I'm coming back!" tweet or letter that gives fans hope for one more guaranteed season with a certain player.
The question, though, is whether the "Good luck" is destined for a player making a good decision.
The choice to declare or return is about more than chasing money; there are plenty of factors that go into these decisions (we hope). Before we analyze a few Gator players' choices for this year's draft, let's introduce one of the main factors potential prospects measure when making their announcements.
The NFL Draft Advisory Board was created in 1994 to assist potential prospect in make the right decision whether to declare or not based on a panel consensus on which round they may be drafted in. The purpose of this was because after the NFL allowed underclassmen to make the jump in 1989, sports agents had falsely persuaded athlete to take the money and run, just so they could get a quick check. This was hardly in the best interest of the player's present and future, thus, the board.
Players who wish to obtain an idea of what NFL executives are thinking can submit their names to the board in December, then receive a grade back before the declaration deadline mid-January. The grades are as follows: in the first round, as high as the second round, as high as the third round, after the third round, in no round at all.
So with that in mind, let's run down Florida's draft-eligible underclassmen, the choices they made, and the potential wisdom or folly of those choices.
Dante Fowler Jr., DE/OLB - Declared
It hasn't been an easy three years of goodbyes for Gators fans concerning the defensive line. In 2012, they lost Sharrif Floyd (first round). Last year, it was Dominique Easley (first round). This year, it's Dante Fowler Jr. (soon to be taken in the first round).
In his final season, Fowler recorded 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss, with three of those sacks coming in his final bowl game. At 6'3" and 260 pounds, Fowler is the perfect size to make the jump right now. To me, his skills best fit as a 3-4 defensive end, but, more than scheme, he needs to be in a pass-rushing position where ever he goes.
Fowler has a chance to be the first defensive end taken in this draft, depending on how you classify USC's Leonard Williams. This was a no-brainer for him.
Matt Jones, RB - Declared
Matt Jones' decision came at a bit of a surprise to some, but when you look at the big picture, it makes sense.
True, Jones was never the same running back he was his freshman year after his stint with whatever the heck that sickness was a year ago. But staying another year at Florida might not have done him any good, even if he did manage to stay healthy.
The offense has already shown signs of using Brandon Powell more and more, and with the possibility of a faster-paced offense coming under Jim McElwain, along with a depleted offensive line, I'm not sure there would've been enough time or space to improve his draft stock in 2015.
And, of course, Jones is a running back. All running backs are on borrowed time; it's only a matter of time before they get hurt. Jones needs to get what he can, when he can. His choice was the correct one.
D.J. Humphries, OT - Declared
At 6'5" and 290 pounds, Humphries is a nice-sized lineman for a spread offense or zone blocking scheme. He's had his ups and downs this year, but I saw some bright spots, at times. NFLDraftScout.com ranks him as their 15th best OT in the class. That's certainly a draftable rank, but another healthy year could've done Humphries some good. He's taking a chance, and I don't think it's a poor choice, but I think the better choice would've been one more year.
I will note, though, that health is a big risk for some offensive lineman. Part of me believes God never intended for humans to be that big, and injuries can be common; Humphries, of course, has dealt with many nagging injuries during his time at Florida. One more false move and his dream might be done.
In that light: Might as well take it and run if you can.
Antonio Morrison, LB - Returning
The Antonio Morrison journey, for me, has been a roller coaster. His freshman year was fantastic. The EJ Manuel hit was almost too awesome to watch. Gators fans figured they had their stud linebacker for years.
Then, in 2013, Morrison put on weight and lost speed by doing so. He was strong, but simply couldn't keep up. His underclassman-level instinct kept him from making the right plays.
In the beginning of 2014, it looked like a sophomore year replay. We saw Morrison get torched in coverage during the Bama game and my hope in him was slipping.
But then, Morrison pulled me back in. He finished the season very strong, and as the team's leading tackler, with almost 10 tackles per game, before suffering what appeared to be a serious injury against East Carolina.
Morrison's ability to read and react was greatly improved by the end of this year, and because of that and his injury, I think he made the right choice to come back for one more ride. He has the chance to continue that upward trend of playmaking abilities and could propel himself to a Day 2 grade next season.
Jonathan Bullard, DT - Returning
Bullard was an important stay for Gator fans, and in the end, it was the right choice for him to give it another year, too. He was second on the team to Fowler in tackles for loss and also added two sacks. His versatility is what would've given him at a draftable grade this year, but another solid, healthy year could bump him up another round.
Marcus Maye, FS - Returning
As just a redshirt sophomore, I never intended for Maye to leave this early. In 2013, he was beaten badly in coverage (note the Miami game) and wasn't as reliable as a back end player needed to be.
But, just like Morrison, the end of the 2014 year was Maye's high point, despite his woeful attempts to cover Nick O'Leary against Florida State. Going into 2015, he could be a valuable asset as a coverage safety, allowing Neal to roam free.
I like Maye coming back from a prospect standpoint, but that secondary unit gets more crowded and more talented every year. He might be out in 2016, regardless.
Tyler Moore, OG - Declared
This decision was kind of a head scratcher for me, just like virtually every other Gators fan, since Moore was forced to play all across the line (due to injury and lack of ideal fit) during his Florida career, and still didn't land a consistent starting spot. I'm sure the draft panel gave him something like a draftable grade, but I wouldn't be surprised if he slips out of Round 7, and has to try to make a team as an undrafted free agent.
Brian Poole, CB/S - Returning
If you followed me on Twitter this football season, you quickly realized I am a fan of Brian Poole's talent ... just not at cornerback, where Florida continues to play him. The Gators have loved to play Poole at the nickel corner position. That's cool and all, but Poole is so much better with the play in front of him in a zone spot than he is man-to-man. If Poole is better than Maye at that second safety spot, give it to him!
Trip Thurman, OT - Returning
Thurman was never a real threat to leave, at least not now. He'll be one of two returning starters on the offensive line, so Gator fans will need him.