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To go pro or not to go pro?

Now that the 2016 season is done, there’s still work to be done for the Washington Huskies. There are two big questions that will be answered within the next month: who will sign with the Huskies for 2017, and who will exercise their option to turn pro?

There are a handful of third year sophomores and juniors that could very well decide that now is the right time to make that jump to the NFL. We’ll look at who those players are, and give arguments for and against that decision. 

The deadline to make a decision is January 16th. 

Offense

Lavon Coleman

FOR: There’s a few reasons Coleman could decide now is the right time to test the waters. First, his family grew by one recently as he became a father. That puts financial concerns first and foremost. Secondly, the season he had in 2016 showcased his versatility not only as a runner that can do damage inside and out, but also as a coveted special teams performer. And lastly, with Myles Gaskin going into his third year, the best Coleman could reasonably expect in 2017 is a repeat of 2016, meaning the number of carries would probably be similar to what he already got, so what else is there to prove?

AGAINST: Since he didn’t put up monster numbers, yet still showed a ton of potential as a featured back, Coleman could come back in the winter determined to win the job from Gaskin and be the guy the Huskies go to in the crunch. And, as we all know, running backs take a ton of pounding and all it takes is one injury for Coleman to become that featured guy by default. One could argue that the more tape he puts out there of him doing damage as a running back and special teams performer, the more he puts himself out there in the shop window, but who knows how much his stock would rise. 

John Ross III

FOR: Simply put, Ross is a hot name out there right now. And even though he didn’t have the Peach Bowl many were expecting, that doesn’t take away from the fact that he had a MONSTER 2016. The numbers speak for themselves, and that doesn’t even talk about his abilities as a returner. He caught 81 passes for 1150 yards, statistics that haven’t been matched from the receiver position since Reggie Williams. And since he’s coming off a couple of knee injuries, you might reasonably expect that his shelf life as an NFL player is limited. He’s not the biggest guy in the world, and he would take a pounding as a pro. It’s 50/50 as to whether or not he’d had the same statistical season in 2017, so if there’s nothing more to prove out there why not go now? Grab the financial security while you can. Like Coleman, Ross was splitting the limelight with Dante Pettis, and the two turned into a record-setting duo. If Ross were to return, UW fans would love it because both John and Dante would be a year older, but would that jump his already soaring NFL stock high enough to warrant staying? It’s hard to see how right now. 

AGAINST: Ross is just starting the scratch the surface of his potential as a technician. You can already see in dramatic fashion how his work with Bush Hamdan paid off when you look at his statistics. So who knows what another year of Hamdan’s tutelage would do for Ross’s overall game. You could argue that, as good as Ross was in 2016, he might be even better with another year of building chemistry with Jake Browning. And like with Hauol’i Kikaha, another year of getting through a season relatively healthy and no major setbacks means another year away from those knee injuries, which would calm the nerves of many general managers that might balk right now at whether or not Ross is back to 100 percent health. Call it the ‘Valley Girl’ argument: for sure, for sure.  

Dante Pettis

FOR: Like Ross, teams are going to see a ton of value in a true two-way performer. Pettis has set school records already for his punt return ability, and while Ross has one attribute that puts him head and shoulders above Pettis on draft boards - pure speed - Pettis does have a 40-inch vertical that will have scouts double-checking their notebooks. And while Dante didn’t get the same amount of ink Ross did, make no mistake - he’s got NFL future written all over him. Just like Jermaine Kearse, Pettis will make a roster and he’ll stick because he’s just a really good football player that steps up and makes big plays. It’s just a matter of whether teams think that year is this year. 

AGAINST: With Ross most likely gone, that catapults Pettis into the No. 1 receiver position. That means he’ll be Jake Browning’s preferred target, which means a run toward 100 catches and well more than 1000 receiving yards if he stays healthy. That means even more opportunities to get bigger, faster, and stronger in the weight room this off-season, which would translate into an even bigger push up draft charts for 2018. As Ross is considered one of the top-5 receivers available for this year’s draft, Pettis should be considered top-20 at a minimum. With another super-productive season as a receiver and return man, Dante would solidify his draft status and maybe even move up a round or two, which would be a nice return for a player who decided to wait and chase another Pac-12 Championship (and possibly beyond). 

Defense 

Elijah Qualls

FOR: The Washington defense played really well in their Peach Bowl loss to No. 1 Alabama, and the defensive front are getting a lot of praise for their work - and rightly so. Qualls is one of three defensive tackles/nose tackles that could jump if he wanted to. He was used in a variety of ways by DC Pete Kwiatkowski, which should make him attractive to GMs regardless of what kind of front teams play. He showed he could rush the passer, as well as hold an edge and contain quarterbacks. And UW fans need to face facts: big men as athletic as Qualls are in short supply, and always have been. It’s likely he gets a high grade, which would also push his inclinations toward going pro.

AGAINST: Qualls said during the Peach Bowl media day that he told everybody when he got to Washington that they were going to win a national championship. They made the college football playoffs in 2016, which was an amazing first step in achieving that goal. But they didn’t win a championship. With his help, they can get back to a championship semifinal next year and he can get that much closer to realizing his dream. If he did go pro after this year, that would be a major goal unfulfilled, and who knows how much of a driving factor that would be for him. 

Vita Vea

FOR: You don’t see too many defensive tackles 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds move the way Vea does. I suspect general managers were drooling watching the cutups of Vea this fall. When he wants to dominate, he can dominate. And just like with Qualls, big men that athletic are in very short supply. Vea could certainly realize a dream right now by going pro. And many mock drafts have Vea going higher than Qualls, so there’s no doubt a lot of interest due to his potential. And over the years we’ve seen teams take big fliers on nothing more than potential. Vea could be in for a big payday. 

AGAINST: Vea was two years out from even playing organized football before last year. That means he’s been playing hard these last two years, but doesn’t really have a lot behind him. He’s got so much he could work on and improve under the guidance of Kwiatkowski and DL Coach Ikaika Malloe. The sky is truly the limit for Vea, and if Qualls did leave, for example, that would mean even more turns for Vea to hone his craft and get him ready for an even bigger 2017. 

Greg Gaines

FOR: Gaines provides a very specific skill set as a two-gap nose tackle. He’s a run stuffer and all around fireplug in the middle of Washington’s defensive line. He can handle double-teams and even triple-teams if needed. That kind of skill set can be extremely desirable to the right NFL defensive coordinator. As we’ve seen so many times in the draft over the years, all it takes is one team to fall in love with a player and his potential to get drafted much higher than expected. That could be the case with Gaines, depending on what kind of early feedback he receives. And unlike Vea, Gaines has been honing his skill set for a long time without interruption, so he could be pro-ready right now.   

AGAINST: There really isn’t a sense that he’s craving the NFL right now and seems to love the whole college experience. With Qualls and Vea earning the majority of the NFL talk, Gaines almost appears to be an afterthought. And if one of the three DL were to leave, that puts even more film of Gaines out there for GMs to digest. He’s never really been hurt for any substantial period of time, so the fact that he’s held up so well bodes for any future durability questions that may come up when he’s ready to test the next level.  

Azeem Victor

FOR: Until his injury during the USC game, Victor was well on his way toward jumping. It was all lining up for him, and I suspect if he had stayed healthy and was able to play the entire season, the Pac-12 title game and Peach Bowl would have simply showcased all the reasons why Azeem is pro-ready. He’s got the body and the mentality to be in the NFL right now. The fact that he’s got some rehabbing to do may scare off a lot of teams, but again - all it takes is one to feel like they are getting a first round talent with a third or fourth round pick because GMs aren’t willing to wait the injury out. It might be worth the risk for Azeem to go now if that’s the feedback he’s getting.

AGAINST: Obviously, with a full healthy 2017 season, Victor not only jumps back into the first round discussion, but he could jump into a scenario that includes guaranteed signing money. That’s a powerful incentive to heal up, get right, and do everything he was doing up until the injury. Secondly, the 2017 draft class for MIK also includes players like Reuben Foster and Raekwon McMillan. Next year’s class isn’t as front loaded with those type of impact names, which could vault Victor up to the head of the line. 

Keishawn Bierria 

FOR: In Victor’s absence, Keishawn really stepped up not only his game, but his leadership by example. The Huskies would have been dead dawgs if Bierria hadn’t stayed healthy. It’s hard to know exactly where a player of his size and ability projects at the next level, but again - it just takes one team to feel like they can snag someone they really, really love under the radar and make it worth their while as well. There’s no doubt Bierria proved his worth as a pro with his standout defensive play, but also the impact that was felt in his special teams work. 

AGAINST: With Victor being out, Bierria lost his running mate. The Victor-Bierria tandem was humming along like clockwork until Azeem’s untimely injury. With Victor likely coming back, it means getting the band back together. And even if Azeem were to skip off to the NFL now, it would mean Bierria becomes the bandleader. He would be again the one in charge of the group that would also include DJ Beavers, Ben Burr-Kirven, Brandon Wellington and Camilo Eifler. It would also mean another year of getting bigger, faster and stronger to help him get to where NFL scout project him. He will have gotten great feedback by then and would understand exactly what he needs to do in order to get drafted. 

Budda Baker

FOR: Budda’s family situation has been a well-known story around the Seattle area for years. His mother has been ill, and it’s one of the reasons Budda wanted to stay close to home and play for the Huskies. So on the one hand, a decision to turn pro would strictly be about the bucks. On the other hand, a decision to turn pro now would also be a statement about how ready he believes he is. As an All-American, you could certainly argue he’s done everything everyone expected he would coming in as a U.S. Army All-American. He was an impact player the first time he stepped on the field as a true freshman starter and has never let up. What else can he prove? 

AGAINST: Budda is the ultimate competitor, and like Qualls the chance to get to a national championship game could prove to be compelling. And his body transformation has been outstanding, but he could alway do with another year of getting bigger, faster and stronger. With the Huskies losing at least one, and probably two cornerbacks from their Death Row secondary, Budda could play an even larger role on Washington’s 2017 defense and increase his already sizable skill set. 

Sidney Jones

FOR: Hardly anyone threw to Sidney Jones’ side this year. His reputation as a shut-down corner was already so established, offensive coordinators just didn’t look his way. One gets the sense that, as competitive as Jones is, that lack of being tested isn’t something he wants to go through again. It’s a reflection on the fact that he’s done everything he can at the college level and is up for the next challenge. It’s time. And the NFL mock draft boards reflect that timing, as most have him a second-round grade at the very latest. 

AGAINST: With Kevin King gone, Jones’ status as Washington’s premier shut-down corner goes even higher (if that’s possible). He can continue to work on his skill set with Jimmy Lake, maybe even get some nickel and dime opportunities. There’s always things a cornerback can improve on. And Jones did play as a true freshman, so he might still have some work he can put in in terms of getting bigger, faster, and stronger. As high as he is on some draft boards now, if Jones were to come back and play for the Huskies in 2017 he could end up the top corner taken in the 2018 draft. That would mean guaranteed signing money, which would be big. 

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