Rating Florida juniors’ chances of bolting for NFL

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Florida defensive lineman Jachai Polite sacks LSU Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow (9) and forces a fumble during a game against LSU at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

Earlier this week, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson became the first Florida underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft. There certainly will be others doing the same in the coming days and weeks.

There appear to be at least two other locks for leaving early, and others who could be leaning that way.

Here’s a look at the UF juniors who will have a decision to make between now and the Jan. 14 deadline to declare for the draft:

Jachai Polite, Defensive end/outside linebacker

Reason for leaving: He’s coming off a breakout season in which he led the Gators in sacks (11) and tackles for losses (16) and some draft analysts are projecting him as a first-round pick, maybe even going in the top 10.

Reason for staying: There really isn’t a good one, other than maybe wanting to get a little bigger and stronger with another year under UF’s Director of Football Strength & Conditioning Nick Savage.

Chances he leaves: 100 percent.

Jordan Scarlett, Running back

Reason for leaving: After missing the 2017 season, Scarlett rushed for 717 yards and four touchdowns this season sharing reps with Lamical Perine and true freshman Dameon Pierce. He showed that he’s physically ready for the next level, and with Scarlett likely sharing carries again in 2019, it’s unlikely his draft status would improve significantly if he returns.

Reason for staying: Just like Polite, it’s hard to come up with one for Scarlett. Maybe to try and become a dominant back and possibly play for a championship.

Chances he leaves: 99.9 percent.

Lamical Perine, Running back

Reason for leaving: He’s had a strong junior season, emerging as UF’s leading rusher. He’s rushed for 750 yards and six touchdowns and averaged 5.9 yards a carry. He also showed the NFL coaches and scouts that he’s become a complete back, a guy who can stay on the field in all situations with his ability to protect and catch passes out of the backfield.

Reason for staying: With the likely departure of Scarlett, Perine would have the chance to be the No. 1 back and gain more reps, giving him an opportunity to improve his draft status. Another year under Savage would make him NFL ready physically.

Chances he leaves: 50 percent.

Jawaan Taylor, Offensive tackle

Reason for leaving: He quietly had a breakout season at right tackle, one that has caught the attention of NFL coaches and scouts. His arrow is clearly pointing up with the pros.

Reason for staying: As a true junior, Taylor is still developing physically and would benefit from another year in UF’s strength and conditioning program. One of only two returning starters up front, he would be one of the leaders on the offensive line.

Chances he leaves: 50 percent.

Jabari Zuniga, Defensive line

Reason for leaving: Like Polite, he’s had a breakout junior season, recording 6.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss. He’s been dominant in the second half of the season and is physically ready for the NFL.

Reason for staying: He showed considerable improvement between his sophomore and junior season. If he does the same as his senior season, his draft stock likely would be considerably higher than it is now.

Chance he leaves: 50 percent.

Van Jefferson, Wide receiver

Reason for leaving: He’s a polished receiver who runs excellent routes and has sure hands. Since an early age, he’s been getting NFL-like coaching from father, former NFL standout wide receiver Shawn Jefferson, who is an assistant coach for the Miami Dolphins. So, he may be ready to take the next step.

Reason for staying: He led the Gators in receiving, but had only 31 catches for 439 yards and six touchdowns. So, he did not have the kind of breakout season many were expecting. He could if he returns.

Chances he leaves: 45 percent.

David Reese, Linebacker

Reason for leaving: He plays with great instincts and is considered one of the best run-stopping linebackers in the SEC. His consistent production has gotten him noticed by NFL coaches and scouts.

Reason for staying: He probably needs another year to get physically ready for the NFL. Another year would also help him to continue his ongoing progress in pass coverage.

Chances he leaves: 15 percent.

Vosean Joseph, Linebacker

Reason for leaving: Fast and physical, he led the Gators in tackles this season with 87 and may feel it’s time to take the next step in his career.

Reason for staying: His consistency improved in 2018, but he still has a long way to go in that area. A second year in Todd Grantham’s attacking defense likely would improve his draft status.

Chances he leaves: 10 percent.

Between now and the Jan. 14 deadline, the Gators could lose two, three maybe even four more juniors to the draft, which will have an impact on the 2019 recruiting class.

With the departure of Gardner-Johnson, the Gators currently have 68 scholarship players on their roster, 17 below the 85 limit. UF currently has verbal commitments from 16 prospects.

The ultimate size of the recruiting class will be determined by how many juniors leave and what other players decide to transfer.

29 COMMENTS

  1. Perine is more NFL ready than Scarlett and will jump to the NFL. I am sure Scarlett is done with college, but he is the Florida running back that would benefit the most by coming back and establishing himself as a true number one and well-rounded running back. I think Jefferson is coming back to get better and stronger. Reese should come back, as I doubt he would make an NFL roster right now. Joseph, too, but I think he will foolishly declare. Zuinga would benefit by returning for one more year and I think he will. Polite and Taylor are NFL bound and both possible first round picks and for sure high second round picks.

  2. I’d say I agree pretty much down the line with these predictions. My view (which matters not) is unless you are pretty certain to be a first round pick, then consider another year in Gainesville. Of course that is only if you think you are potentially a first round pick next year.

    I’d say Jefferson’s numbers were held down by the QB play and the offense which was a work in progress all year. Another year and I think he could put up first round numbers for next year’s draft….IF we get better QB play. Joseph…..needs another year of S&C to get his body NFL ready. I’d say along with Johnson, Polite and Scarlett are gone. I’m not sure anyone else is first round material so another year might help.

    • Rog. It is not always about the round one will be selected. It is sometimes about current opportunity, economics, and family situations; which sometimes overrides moving up a round or two the following year. Might be the case with some of the players this year. I know it is not the case for Jefferson, and I think he wants to first earn his degree. But a team telling him that he would be picked in the first or early in the second round could change all that for Jefferson.

  3. These guys have tough decisions to make. Choosing wrong could be there end of football for them. The way I see it and I matter not. If you’re a 1-2 round protection then you should go. If your close to 3 stay. Unless your position is projected to be light in the draft. Law of supply and demand. There is also the risk reward of injury. Ugly side of football guys get hurt. I’m sure we could do all kinds of studies of injuries% to see but shit happens in this game. What these guys got from a new regimen may be motive for them to go (they’re bigger stronger etc.) but it may be motive to stay as well. Can i get even bigger stronger better? It has happened before that players came back and killed it. Bottom line is we have some good players who have some serious decisions to make. Good luck to all in your journeys.

    • I think that’s the most common sense way of viewing this issue, 65. I personally let lots of old fashioned concepts get involved in my thinking about it, although I do understand contemporary economics and the drive to market special talents while one still can. Still, it’s disappointing to see the team prematurely lose important members — especially when that team is about to take a very important step in its own collective development. As you say, “The way I see it and I matter not”. (I’m going to use that phrase three times and call it my own 😀)

      • 6, many teams have been on the cusp of making the jump only to have their best talent leave. Part of the game. That is where the recruiting areas and talent of the coaches comes in. Sit on your laurels and you’re empty handed when someone leaves or is injured. Something that was happening here are the end of Myers stay in some positions. Guys are always going to jump. Good coaching and good advice will mitigate that. Always have minimum three people for key positions. Competition makes us better.

  4. Bama has proven that yo can lose lots of guys to the draft, and not l;ose much in performance, if you keep recruiting well. Wed are in position toi do that now with Coach Mullen and staff.
    I agree that if you are a strong 1st or 2nd round draft prospect you should consider the draft as a junior.
    If you are a 3rd round prospect or lower you may be better served by staying another year and getting better.

    • You’re right, of course, Lakeland. I’m sure CDM has factored all this in and will compensate. Just an unfortunate time to be losing loads of talent, probably a critical year at that. I’m sure we’ll do VERY well on the recruiting trail this time around just the same.

    • Gator Nation will need some patience. Given the losses that may come on the D and O lines, we may take a small step backwards next year until the replacements get experience.

      The 2nd string O line had issues when they played. It’s likely we lose the RT Taylor in addition to Ivey and Jordan. I think Stone Forsythe will be a serviceable. LT Gouraige or Bleich will have to step up big time at the other tackle spot. We currently do not have a big name tackle recruit committed for 2019.

      On the D line, a lot will depend on Zuniga’s decision. He has shown flashes of greatness. I’m not sold on Moon at the buck position. Carter is an unknown with potential. We don’t have a playmaker like Polite ready to be the next great pass rusher other than Zuniga. I hope he stays to develop into a 1st rounder.

  5. here in sarasota we have IMG that really does a lot of legal cutting edge things with athletes, and from what i’ve learned the right equipment in areas like workout recovery can really pay off for some of these guys. i suspect some schools leapfrogged us in this area, and fear any advantage from upgrading may be lost as we catch up. Also, unless you are elite, the NFL is not an easy place for you. even the injury risk can be offset by good medical and rehab here vs. the alternatives. playing time against good competition is huge. so i think most of these guys would be making a mistake by leaving early. i think too many unscrupulous agents play to their hot buttons (ranging from egos to anxieties and 50 things in between) and wish the NCAA would find a better strategy for dealing with that part of the game.

    • Mveal, I have thought about that too in the NCAA should help the athletes in a fair review of their prospects at the stage they are in independent of agents. Maybe more like scouts reviews or something that would let players know where they likely would go and then let them make the decision. Maybe even like basketball where they can declare and then return. That might make things difficult on rosters if they have already been replaced. I agree these guys are student athletes yet they are bringing in a lot of revenue. This would be a way to help them w/o monetary compensation.

    • How would the NFL respond to a change in the NCAA rules similar to that of baseball? Players get drafted but don’t lose their eligibility until they sign. It would cause complete chaos in the NFL, but would eliminate the shenanigans of unscrupulous agents/runners pumping up players.

      The NFL is potentially starting their own minor league of sorts. It’s been a cozy relationship between the NFL and the NCAA for a long time. However, the dynamic of the NCAA being the NFL’s farm system might be changing in the near future. A lot will depend on the financial success of their new venture in spring ball. There are a lot of talented short sighted high school players who would rather skip the whole idea of becoming a well-rounded and educated human being for the chance to just play football.

    • mvE=L–I live right across the street from IMG and know some of the sports “developers” there. You are spot on when you say they are right on the edge of legality, but I won’t into those issues as it might reveal my sources. Zuniga is going pro as is Jefferson. Joseph wants to go pro, but the developers say he likely would not be drafted until 5-6 round, if at all. He is not ready. Zuniga is 3rd round. Jefferson is 5-6 round if he splits. Polite is first round. Gardner-Johnson is 2nd round, but could move up with a top bowl performance. Perine is 4th round, Scarlett is free agent. Evaluations on other Gators going pro are not yet available, I am told. Scarlett would benefit from a senior season.

  6. Robbie, Thank you for the analysis. It certainly is poignant and overall pretty fair. I only disagree with your assessment on the RT Taylor. I believe he will project to be a low 1st or 2nd rounder and will leave. I’d say 75/25 he leaves. He will go higher than Ivey most likely. I don’t see MLB Reese as a 50/50, more of a 25/75 as a 3rd or 4th rounder. Zuniga’s a toss up as you state. He could stay to become a 1st rounder in 2020.

    A lot of it depends on the family situation. Do they want the money now or potentially more money later?, and is the degree important? Jachai Polite has made his position known. I’m not sure it is PC, but an analysis of their family/financial position would offer tremendous insight into the decision making process for the players.

  7. Ok I could see all of these guys possibly making the jump except for Vocean Joseph. No way this guy has an nfl body ready to play linebacker. He is just too small. He needs to come back and add some weight or I don’t think he would get drafted at all. Too small for an nfl linebacker and too slow to be a safety. I can’t remember how many times he got dinged this year when tackling bigger backs. I think Polite and Scarlett are locks to go. Really no reason for them to come back. That’s why the Gators really need to add two more running backs and a couple of good rush ends to next years class even if they take a year to develop. If they don’t then the numbers at those positions could be low especially if people get injured.

  8. I like Mexi’s thought process. If you are not a “first team all SEC” player, you are not a first round pick. If you are a second team SEC player, you MIGHT be a 3rd round pick. There is a long list of players that declared early, that went undrafted. Some found success, but not the big signing cash they were told would happen. Coach Mullen accurately stated ~not many professionals on this team~ If players are in academic trouble, that is a variable. If they are academically fine, and not a 1st team all SEC, stay in school, get better and get drafted higher next year.

    • I wish they would too Nassua, but UF like every winning school in America is a defacto minor league for the NFL. When we are back on top and contending again, it will be the norm like it always has been for juniors to leave if the opportunity presents itself.

  9. Reese has poor cover skills against the TE. Remember the Georgia and South Carolina games? Although Joseph was supposed to cover the TE on some of those throws during the SC game. Grantham did change the defense to bring up the strong side safety to cover the TE

  10. only 1 Junior Gator in the top 44 SEC players. 32 NFL team, ACC, SEC, Pac12, Big 10, Big 12 plus independents plus all the other 65 FCS schools, Other than Polite, it is unlikely any of the Gator Juniors will be a 4th round pick. Each league has their 1st & 2nd teams, plus the group of 5 top 44, plus a few clear all Americans from the independents. Thus the 32 teams have more than 264 (6X44) 1st or 2nd team “all-stars” to select from. Why would anyone believe they would be one of the top 64 picks (1st or 2nd round) if they are not in the top 300 players available? Heck even when considering a specific position, say DB, If there are 30 ahead of you, why leave now? you are only costing yourself $$$ next year, when hopefully you will be a 1 st or 2nd All SEC selection.