Marvin Austin knows what he would have done last spring with the "Should I stay or should I go?" dilemma facing Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford, the potential No. 1 overall selection in the 2009 NFL draft.
"That was a no-brainer; even my little sister could have told you that," Austin said.
The decision that Austin will soon be facing is not as clear cut, however. A tackle, Austin is one of several standout juniors on the North Carolina defense who could be playing in their final ACC game Saturday at N.C. State.
Austin, linebackers Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter, cornerback Kendric Burney and safety Deunta Williams are having successful seasons, and each has been an integral part of the Tar Heels' four-game winning streak. They're all considered pro prospects. Carter announced this week that he'll return to Chapel Hill for his senior season, but the rest must determine whether to return to UNC for one more year or head off to the NFL.
There could be a "Bradford Effect" for players considering the 2010 draft, prompting a surge of underclassmen to leave school early rather than return and risk a serious injury.
Bradford, the Heisman Trophy winner, put a face to the cautionary tales spun by agents who woo potential NFL prospects. Bradford decided to return to school, and as a result he likely left $41 million on the table when he injured his right (throwing) shoulder in the Sooners' first game of the season.
He returned to play in 21/2 games before reinjuring the shoulder and electing to have season-ending surgery.
He's still considered a first-round prospect but clearly not the No. 1 overall pick.
His Oklahoma teammate, tight end Jermaine Gresham, also returned for his senior season even though he was projected to be a top-15 NFL pick. Gresham missed the entire season because of a knee injury.
Weighing the odds
Austin said he doesn't anticipate that a worst-case scenario, such as what Bradford and Gresham face, will factor into his decision.
"There are pros and cons on both ends," said Austin, who added that he has not made up his mind about next year. "My situation is a lot different than theirs."
Austin, Carter and Sturdivant each are ranked by ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. among the top three junior players at their respective positions. Kiper's ESPN colleague Todd McShay ranks Carter No. 22 and Austin No. 34 on his top-100 list of draft eligible players. (There are 32 picks in the first round.)
Williams and Burney, considered second-day draft prospects, have said they're leaning toward returning.
Williams, who had three interceptions Saturday in UNC's 31-13 win at Boston College, said the decision gets tougher the better UNC's defense plays.
"Whenever you have a big game, you can expect the questions -- 'When are you going to the league?' -- especially back home," Williams said. "We all have to sit down after the season and talk. We have to be honest, because it's a grown-up decision."
UNC coach Butch Davis said he will meet with all the juniors at some point after Saturday's game, before the Tar Heels' bowl game.
Davis, who spent 10 seasons in the NFL as an assistant and head coach, collects data from general managers and scouts to gets a consensus ranking of the top 75 players in the draft. He said he tells any player projected to get drafted in the top 10 to go to the NFL.
Davis said he advised receiver Hakeem Nicks, a junior on last year's team, to skip his senior season. Nicks ended up as a first-round pick, 29th overall, with a five-year contract with the New York Giants worth a reported $12.8 million.
But the guaranteed money drops off significantly after the first round and then basically gets cut in half each round thereafter, which is why Davis encourages most juniors to return to college to improve their draft stock and complete their degree.
The average NFL career lasts less than 31/2 seasons. Going back to the draft class of 2005, there were 255 players taken. Of those, 158 (or 62 percent) are still in the league. The other 97 players are no more than 26 years old, and their football careers are over.
"The money you get up front on the first contract is important, because you may never get a second contract," Davis said. "The difference could be $450,000 to $6 million."
The average guarantee for first-round picks is $12.88 million, according to the NFL Players Association, with a five- or six-year contract. The guarantee drops to $2.14 million in the second round, $720,000 in the third round and $460,000 in the fourth.
That's why N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien told defensive end Willie Young to return to school this season. Young received a third-round grade from the draft advisory board after last season.
"My position has always been, if you're not a first-round guy or a first-day guy, it's not worth it to go out," O'Brien said. "Everybody wants to get out there and make a paycheck, but if you can increase your paycheck by waiting a year, I think your earning power in the NFL over the years is certainly greater than starting your career as a fourth-round or fifth-round draft choice."
Young said he was glad he returned to school. He's on schedule to graduate in May with a degree in science and technology.
"Coming back was a tough decision," said Young, who ranks third in the ACC with eight sacks. "It turned out for the best."
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