- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- La'El Collins would have been an NFL draft pick this year. He might have even been an early-round pick this year. But unlike seven teammates, Collins announced on Tuesday that he will return for the 2014 season at LSU in order to complete his degree and improve his pro stock.
“Going to the draft early and maybe going late first, early second -- who knows? -- I know for a fact that if I came back to school, I could earn my degree and have a better chance and a better opportunity to go higher in the draft next year,” Collins said. “It all kind of came together and it all made sense.”
Collins announced his decision at an on-campus press conference alongside coach Les Miles and fellow rising seniors Jordan Allen, Kenny Hilliard, Elliott Porter and Jermauria Rasco -- all of whom also plan to return in 2014.
Miles credited the returning players for making decisions that will allow them to further develop before making the leap for the pros -- often a risky proposition, as several of the 11 Tigers who left school early after last season can attest. Only nine of those 11 got drafted and six were taken in the third round or later.
“I'm absolutely sure,” Miles said when asked if the departed Tigers' fates this season might have impacted the decisions of the players who chose to stay. “There were some unusual decisions made last year in my mind.”
Collins, Miles said, was a safe bet to become an NFL draft pick, but he emphasized that players need to strongly consider the possibilities should their pro stock sits on shakier ground.
“What we try to tell them is this: let's not give the NFL a deal. There's no reason for it,” Miles said. “The guaranteed money, the best position to go into the draft is the first round. What we want to encourage is to really view your decision in relationship to where you can be and where you are. These guys, they made great decisions.”
Collins was a second-team All-SEC selection this season after taking over as the Tigers' left tackle. He started all 13 games in 2012 at left guard, leading to some question about where he might eventually land in the pros.
He said NFL teams have offered mixed feedback as to which position he will play, but Miles said another college season at tackle will provide an opportunity to convince scouts that he can be a tackle.
“If I was sitting in an NFL room right now, I'd be sitting there questioning that. That would be a real question,” Miles said. “I think this year his piece is to improve and to make his last year his best year. And then I see tackle (in the NFL).”
The Tigers' offense lost five productive underclassmen with eligibility remaining -- receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., running backs Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue and offensive guard Trai Turner -- as well as senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger, so LSU's 2014 offense will feature an entirely new set of skill-position players. The offensive line should return four starters, however, in Collins and center Porter, right tackle Jerald Hawkins and left guard Vadal Alexander.
Miles said he expects the group to be dominant next season and Porter and Collins both predicted that it will be the strength of the rebuilding offense.
“Last year was our first year really playing together as a whole and I think that with another year under our belt, it's going to be a great season,” Collins said. “For me the game is won in the trenches, so if we come out and do the things that we're capable of doing, I think we'll have a great season.”
Getting Collins back makes that a much more likely proposition. He didn't give the NFL a deal, to use Miles' expression, giving LSU another season with arguably its top offensive lineman and providing Collins with another season to prove where he belongs on 2015 draft boards.
“I don't think there's any question that he has the potential to be a very early draft pick at left tackle,” Miles predicted.