It's hard to look at QB Andrew Luck's decision to return to Stanford for his redshirt junior year and believe it's about anything other than what he says: the chance to earn his degree and experience another year of college life.
Yes, it's a business decision to some degree. Luck's father, Oliver, is a former NFL quarterback and the current athletic director at West Virginia, and the family is plugged-in enough to know that no 2011 rookies will get paid until a new NFL collective bargaining agreement is in place and any new agreement will likely contain a rookie wage scale.
That means no matter what, Luck would not have topped the $50 million guaranteed that Sam Bradford got as the No. 1 overall pick last year. And in the event the players are locked out by their owners, Luck will be playing the college season instead of working out and waiting for the business of the NFL to be taken care of.
Even if he wasn't going to surpass Bradford's contract Luck left a lot of money on the table, but he seems to genuinely enjoy the college experience and everything it entails, and he seems truly committed to earning a diploma. Kudos to him.
The football fallout
So what does Luck's decision mean from a football standpoint? First and foremost, it means the Carolina Panthers organization is in a tough spot and current Panthers QB Jimmy Clausen is one of the happiest guys in the league.
All the buzz out of Carolina was that the Panthers were going to take Luck at No. 1 overall despite choosing Clausen in the second round last year, and rightly so given Luck's NFL-ready skill set. But with Luck no longer in the mix Clausen has gone from a guy looking to wait out his rookie contract and get out of town to the returning starter despite an underwhelming rookie campaign.
So who do the Panthers take with the top pick? As much as we like Missouri junior QB Blaine Gabbert and his enormous physical tools, he's no Luck. Gabbert has the arm and intangibles to be a starter in the NFL for a long time but he played in a spread system in college and will need time to transition to a pro-style offense.
Clemson junior DE Da'Quan Bowers has announced his intention to enter the draft, and as an impact pass rusher he would have to be an option for Carolina. It's uncertain from there, though, because the remaining players in the top five overall include a pair of defensive tackles -- neither of whom is on the same level as Ndamukong Suh, the second pick in 2010 -- and a cornerback and wide receiver who might not have the positional value to be No. 1 overall. There's no franchise left tackle in this year's class, either.
As for the remaining quarterbacks on the board, Luck's move certainly helps them. Teams always seem to be reaching for quarterbacks in the first round, and Washington's Jake Locker, Auburn's Cam Newton and Arkansas' Ryan Mallett all have the kind of upside that could tempt teams at the top of the board.
Eight of the teams picking in the top 10 -- Carolina, No. 2 Denver, No. 3 Buffalo, No. 4 Cincinnati, No. 5 Arizona, No. 7 San Francisco, No. 8 Tennessee and No. 10 Washington -- have some kind of quarterback need and all will certainly consider whether the quarterbacks listed above are worth the risk.
One or more teams will likely reach for one or more of the quarterbacks above, but the reality is that all three are a long way from being NFL-ready. They are physically talented but they're also developmental projects with bust potential and it's scary for teams to think about investing first-round money in that kind of boom-or-bust prospect, especially at quarterback.
Some have also wondered whether Luck's decision might move Ohio State junior Terrelle Pryor far enough up the quarterback board to entice him to enter the draft, but Pryor's too far away from NFL-ready to be considered with the top players at his position.
Even if all the eligible underclassmen returned to school Pryor would not be a first-round pick, and he'll be making the right decision if he honors his commitments to stay in Columbus for his senior year.
In the end, Luck's decision bumps the quarterbacks behind him up a bit and creates plenty of chaos for the teams and prospects involved in the early part of the first round. We've suddenly gone from a once-in-a-decade kind of prospect locking down the top spot to a whirlwind of questions to be answered over the next three-plus months.
Scouts Inc.'s Top 5 QBs
1. Blaine Gabbert, Missouri
2. Jake Locker, Washington
3. Cam Newton, Auburn
4. Ryan Mallett, Arkansas
5. Christian Ponder, Florida State
Steve Muench's Stock Report
Syracuse RB Delone Carter -- Carter turned in an excellent performance against Kansas State in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl and his film reveals a lot of upside. He is a powerful between-the-tackles runner who stays behind his pads and has a low center of gravity. He could show better vision and patience at times but Carter has the lateral mobility to exploit cutback lanes and bounce runs outside. He doesn't appear to have great top-end speed so it's important that he run well for scouts, but he appears quick enough to turn the corner in the NFL. One of the biggest concerns I had about Carter was his ability to contribute on third down because of his lack of production as a receiver, but I feel far better about his potential in this area after watching more film. He's shown the ability to snatch passes out of the air and is a willing pass blocker who generally gets into sound position.
Michigan State ILB Greg Jones -- Alabama exposed Jones' inability to stack and shed blockers in its 49-7 blowout win over Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl. Jones was frequently caught out of position trying to beat blockers with his quickness, and while Jones has made strides in coverage this year it's still an area of concern. Part of the problem is that he doesn't show great awareness. Quarterbacks can manipulate him with their eyes and by stepping toward the line of scrimmage. Jones still has the range and tackling ability to come off the board in the middle rounds but don't be surprised to see him slip in our next projection. It doesn't help that one of his top competitors, North Carolina State's Nate Irving, has had an excellent 2010 season after missing all of 2009 with injuries.
Kevin Weidl's Stock Report
Texas A&M OLB Von Miller -- I've had a chance to watch more film on Miller this week and there is no question he's one of the top pass rushers in the 2011 class. His elite first step jumps out on film, and he is a sudden athlete with impressive lateral mobility to stick his foot in the ground and redirect inside after setting offensive tackles up to the outside. He also shows great torso flexibility, a wide array of pass-rush moves and an elite closing burst to get to the quarterback. Miller is also a versatile prospect who stood up and played in space more this year, and while his best fit is at outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme he could also play on the strong side in a 4-3. He might not be a starter as a rookie but Miller will make an impact as a situational rusher and is worth a top-15 pick.
Oklahoma DE Jeremy Beal -- I like Beal's strength, motor and the way he plays the game, but he is undersized (6-foot-3, 263 pounds) for an NFL defensive end and lacks the athleticism to transition to 3-4 outside linebacker. He does not have the quick first step to gain the edge as a pass rusher, and while Beal has good strengh he does not hold up well against the run. He was seen on film being rag-dolled to the ground at times, and while Beal was the 2010 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year he looks like a third-round pick at this point.