NFL draft looms for pair of star Trojans

To me, awaiting word on whether USC will play in the Holiday Bowl or Sun Bowl carries about as much intrigue as the Chevron car races we’re forced to watch at every football and basketball game. Frankly, I don’t care, although it is entertaining to watch people go bonkers when the fire truck wins.

I’ll tune into the game and cheer for the outgoing seniors to finish strong, but the bowl game’s outcome will bear far less significance on the program’s future than another winter event: the Jan. 15 deadline for underclassmen to declare for the 2013 NFL draft, held in late April.

Much like last season when core USC juniors Matt Barkley, T.J. McDonald, Matt Kalil and Nick Perry faced the decision to fast-track or postpone their NFL dreams, two standout underclassmen are currently entertaining the thought of departing a year early.

Wide receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Nickell Robey will likely soon submit requests for NFL scout evaluations in hopes of gaining industry feedback on where they can expect to be drafted after this season.

Recent chatter indicates that Woods is leaning ever so slightly toward returning for his senior year and Robey is almost a certified lock to turn pro.

Though neither player asked for — nor needs — my advice, I’ll offer my two cents anyway: I think they have it wrong; it’s in Woods’ best interests to go and Robey’s to stay.

Woods’ desire to play a full four-year career and complete his degree upholds the integrity of the “student-athlete” term and should be commended.

But I would caution Woods that the risk of returning greatly exceeds the reward.

USC’s all-time receptions leader saw his draft stock dip from probable top-10 selection before the season to a possible mid- to late-first round pick in 2013, according to various draft experts. Naturally, some assume that Woods wishes to rebound next season and re-assume his top-prospect mantle.

But several realities complicate that logic.

First, getting drafted in the first round versus the second round makes a big financial difference, and for Woods to hazard slipping even further makes little financial sense.

In 2012, former Baylor wide receiver Kendall Wright received a four-year, $8.2 million contract as the 20th overall pick. Compare that figure to Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery’s four-year, $4.52 million contract, which Jeffery earned as the No. 45 overall pick in the second round. Incredibly, Wright received almost double Jeffery’s contract for getting picked a mere 25 spots ahead of the former Gamecock.

Second, wide receivers invite a lot of contact and often do not enjoy the career longevity of their counterparts at other positions. But even assuming Woods avoids injury, there’s no guarantee his numbers will improve next season, especially with a rookie quarterback at the helm.

Given all the flak USC coach Lane Kiffin received for his predictable and unbalanced play-calling, you can expect to see the Trojans run the ball more often and distribute passes more evenly across their embarrassment of riches at tight end and receiver. Rising junior wide receiver Marqise Lee will almost assuredly continue to overshadow Woods and get drafted ahead of his Gardena Serra teammate in 2014 should he elect to leave early. Not to mention rising sophomore and third receiver Nelson Agholor, as a budding deep threat and game-breaker, will also deserve more targets.

As a result, there appears to be little opportunity for Woods to improve upon his current draft projection by returning for another season.

Curiously enough, many will offer that same argument for Robey: No matter how well he plays in 2013, he won’t get drafted any higher.

Yet, I tend to disagree. Right now, various draft experts rank Robey anywhere between No. 7 and No. 15 among draft eligible cornerbacks, earning him a third round grade. Since most questions about Robey’s NFL potential center around his diminutive 5-foot-8, 165-pound frame and not his play, there’s not much he can do — except experience a growth spurt — to improve his stock, experts argue.

But Robey has yet to maximize his potential and become the Pac-12’s best cornerback. On Monday, the Pac-12 announced its all-conference teams, and Robey checked in on the second team behind three first-team cornerbacks: Oregon’s Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon State’s Jordan Poyer and Washington’s Desmond Trufant.

Though making the Pac-12’s second team shouldn’t be discounted, Robey’s talent should unquestionably rank him as the conference’s best. For most of the season’s first half, opposing quarterbacks didn’t even bother scrutinizing Robey’s coverage zone, expecting the Florida native to blanket whichever receiver lined up opposite him. But ever since offenses began routinely torching the Trojans’ defense, opposing quarterbacks have started to attack Robey almost as relentlessly as they take advantage of much-maligned junior Torin Harris and sophomore Josh Shaw, who, to be fair, is really a safety masquerading as a cornerback because of depth issues.

If Robey returns to lock down the Pac-12’s best receivers for an entire season, while also flashing more explosiveness on punt returns, his resume would then boast the following: four-year starter, three-time all-Pac-12 performer and two-year captain. In that scenario, it’s not difficult to imagine some team taking a flier on him in the second round.

Undoubtedly, Woods and Robey belong to that rare breed of college football stars who stormed into a national powerhouse’s program as true freshmen, wrested control of a starting position and never made their coaches think twice about re-opening their spots for competition.

The fact that they matched the greatness of their on-field play with infallible character off the field only endears them to USC fans that much more.

No matter what happens, the Trojan faithful should support Woods and Robey’s decisions. That doesn’t mean, however, that the recruiting class of 2010 standouts don’t clearly have choices that would better serve their professional interests.


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