As we enter the final weeks of the regular season, top underclassmen will inevitably field the question of whether they will stay for their senior seasons or bolt for the NFL. The standard 'I'm only focused on the rest of the season', will of course be given, and it won't be known who actually plans on declaring for the 2012 NFL draft until after the bowl season.
But that doesn't stop us from speculating. As the fantasy season is winding down, those in keeper leagues need to look ahead to 2012. There are always surprises, but below is a list of underclassmrn to keep an eye on. If you're in a keeper league, start snatching up their backups in preparation. Chris Bennett has already been breaking some these guys down in his waiver wire features.
Back in September I was asked to give my top 25 NFL rookie fantasy picks coming out of the 2012 NFL Draft for SI.com. Matt Barkley was in my top five and was met with a little eyebrow raising. He doesn't have the size or cache of Andrew Luck, but he's been just as good. Luck will be the #1 pick in the draft, but don't be surprised to hear Barkley's name enter the conversation. We'll need something to talk about for four months.
To come out early as a quarterback, you typically need to be a top first round pick. So I would expect the bubble guys to come back, but they will get some love from NFL scouts.
Good as Gone: Andrew Luck (Stan, Jr), Matt Barkley (USC, Jr), Landry Jones (Ok, Jr), Robert Griffin (Baylor, Jr).
On the Bubble: Alex Carder (WMU, Jr), Tyler Wilson (Ark, Jr)
Should be Back: Aaron Murray (Ga, r-So), Seth Doege (T-Tech, Jr)
What happens in Oregon will be the focal point as it has huge fantasy implications. LaMichael James got a whiff of the injury bug this year, and I simply can't see him risking a more serious injury and damaging his career.
With James as good as gone, the interesting one to watch will be Kenjon Barner. Make no mistake, he can play in the NFL and is attractive to NFL scouts. He has speed and can catch the ball out the backfield. As someone that drafted Barner in 2010 -- mainly for the Week 1 tilt against New Mexico -- I'm holding out hope he returns. He's been a great spot starter when James has been out, but I'm greedy, I want a full season's worth of fantasy use and a return on my investment. But running back is such a physically-demanding position, I would never blame a kid for putting his hat in the ring.
Good as Gone: Trent Richardson (Jr), LaMichael James (Jr), David Wilson (r-So), Chris Polk (Jr)
On the Bubble: Kenjon Barner (Jr), Montee Ball (Jr), Lamar Miller (r-So) , Andre Ellington (Jr), Bernard Pierce (Jr) , Cameron Marshall (Jr), Stepfan Taylor (Jr), Charles Sims (Jr)
Should be Back: Zach Line (Jr), John White (Jr), Robbie Rouse (Jr), Ray Graham (Jr, injured) , Christine Michael (Jr, injured)
Justin Blackmon shocked a number of people when he decided to return to Stillwater for another season. Coming off a huge campaign the then-redshirt sophomore could have made the leap last year. He's done nothing but boost his draft stock, and it seems improbable that he will return for another round. Especially with Brandon Weeden graduating. It is a good thing running back Joseph Randle is only a true sophomore and not draft eligible this year, or the Cowboys offense may be further depleted.
South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery has suffered through inconsistent quarterback play for three seasons. It is time to catch passes from an NFL quarterback.
Good as Gone: Alshon Jeffery (Jr), Justin Blackmon (Jr)
On the Bubble: Mohamed Sanu (Jr), Rueben Randle (Jr),. Emory Blake (Jr), Stephen Hill (Jr), Tavon Austin (Jr), Tommy Streeter (Jr)
Should be Back: Eric Page (Jr), Chris Givens (Jr), Josh Boyce (TCU, rSo), Stedman Bailey (WVU, r-So), Ryan Swope (A&M, Jr), DeVonte Christopher (Utah, Jr)
Game breaking tight ends are few and far between. Clemson's Dwayne Allen is arguably the best of the bunch, and the Tigers will likely be without this weapon next fall.
One of my personal favorite tight ends in college football may get the itch as well. Philip Lutzenkirchen's numbers aren't what we expected this season, but he's still a monster in the red zone.
Good as Gone: Dwayne Allen (Clemson, Jr),
On the Bubble: Orson Charles (UGA/Jr), Philip Lutzenkirchen (Aub, Jr), Tyler Eifert (ND, r-So),
Should be Back: Vance McDonald (Rice, Jr), Luke Willson (Rice, Jr), Jacob Pedersen (Wisc, r-So)