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USC Underclassmen with NFL Prospects: Will Anyone Leave Early?

Last year, our team was decimated by early entrees to the NFL draft, losing three key players: Jared Cook, Captain Munnerlyn, and Emanuel Cook. This year, there's not much talk about the possibility of us taking a big hit due to early entrees. Should we be worried, or are we right to be confident? From where I'm standing, there are four players who could consider leaving early. In order of their status as prospects, those are Weslye Saunders, Chris Culliver, Cliff Matthews, and Clifton Geathers. Let's take a closer look.

Weslye Saunders

Saunders would almost certainly be drafted were he to declare. He is a prototypical NFL tight end: he's huge, is a good blocker, has nearly infallible hands, and is fast for his size. Most league still rely on sets that feature TEs, so Saunders wouldn't have to worry about finding a home for his skills.

The question is where he would go. He would have to compete with a number of highly touted ends, such as Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham and Arizona's Rob Gronkowski. At the very least, I think he would fall behind these two prospects and perhaps slightly further. That would probably mean third round or lower.

If Saunders stays, on the other hand, he could be a first round pick. Most projections I've seen call him the top TE prospect of the 2010 senior class. The difference, of course, between first and third round money is enough to give prospects some incentive to stay another year; a player can easily make up whatever he loses with another year in college by signing a first-round contract that will pay him a few times more than he would receive with a third-round contract.

The coaching staff believes that Saunders is the player most likely to declare. However, Saunders vows to return. Although one couldn't blame him too much for leaving, Saunders would be wise to follow his instincts and come back. Like Sidney Rice and Jared Cook before him, he'd probably be a first-day pick if he declares. However, as would have probably been the case for Sidney and Jared had they returned, if Saunders comes back and has a big year, he could go early first round.

Let's take a look at the other players after the jump.

Chris Culliver

Although he had something of an up and down year, Culliver is still one of the better safeties in the league and made All-SEC second team. Culliver also has the speed and versatility that NFL teams look for in a safety. How would he fare in the draft, though? While Culliver might be taken, my feeling is that he would be making a huge, Emanuel Cook-sized mistake by leaving. At best, Culliver would be a very late-round pick, which would mean the likelihood of trying to gut out a spot on the third team somewhere with no guarantees that he wouldn't eventually just end up on a scout team. That doesn't sound like as much fun as trying to help the Gamecocks win a title, now does it? On the other hand, if Culliver stays, he has a puncher's chance at being a first-day pick and, with a big year, could make it to the first two rounds.

Despite the talk in the air about Culliver declaring, I just don't see it. After seeing what happened to his backfield buddies last year, Culliver has to know that he'd be taking an unwise risk by leaving. I say Culliver stays, works on his tackling mechanics, and comes back poised for big things in 2010.

Cliff Matthews

Big Cliff had another great year in 2009 being a game changer off the end. However, Matthews is smallish for an NFL end, so like Eric Norwood, Matthews faces the challenge of making NFL scouts believe that he has a place in a league that can be quite dogmatic in its understanding of what players at certain positions should look like. With a big year, Matthews could make that case in 2010, but I doubt he would be drafted this year. That combined with Matthews clear dedication to the team makes me think there's little chance of Matthews even considering leaving.

Clifton Geathers

Geathers is something of a wildcard here. He has yet to make a huge name for himself around the country, so many might be surprised to hear his name mentioned in regards to the draft. However, I suspect more NFL scouts know about Geathers than you might think. At 6-7 / 281 and with the speed to blow by blockers, Geathers has the potential to an unblockable sack, pass deflection, and punt blocking machine when he fulfills his potential. Gamecocks fans have seen hints of this ability, particularly late this year, but Geathers has yet to put it all together for an extended period of time. That won't stop agents from getting in his ear, though.

That said, I seriously doubt Geathers would be drafted if he were to declare, and I would imagine he's intelligent enough to know that. Geathers will stay, and if he works hard, you could see him skyrocket to the top of the charts for the 2010 draft.