If Nebraska defensive tackle Vincent Valentine hasn't already finalized whether he'll enter the 2016 NFL Draft or return for a senior season at NU, he'll have to decide soon. Underclassmen have until Jan. 18 to declare for the NFL Draft and one Husker, defensive tackle Maliek Collins, has already done so. Valentine is mulling over making the same choice, and almost certainly doing so without a first- or second-round grade from the NFL Draft advisory board.
Collins, as Husker fans know, has an outside shot at the first round. And even if he thinks he had a disappointing year with far fewer sacks and tackles for loss than he did in 2014, Collins also didn't have an elite pass rusher like Randy Gregory as cover. He also didn't have Valentine in the interior for several games because of an injury.
What Collins did have is what coaches — and reporters — saw every day and every game week. Hustle. Leadership skills. A willingness to stay way late after practice with younger players and work with them. A captain's designation. A voice that teammates quieted themselves to hear. Though a bit undersized at 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds, Collins has what he once called that "pit bull" in him. Collins plays the game like his breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next three weeks is at stake. NFL teams will do their homework — the vetting gets really deep after the draft-eligible pool is set, regardless of what mock drafts say before that — ask all the hard questions, and arrive at the conclusion that you'll win football games with guys like Collins.
Valentine doesn't have Collins' résumé. Heading into 2015, he'd actually started more games than Collins because of six starts in 2013. Even now, Collins has only two more career starts than Valentine.
But 2015 wasn't a great year on the field because of injuries and, once the season started, practice habits that carried over into mediocre games. Valentine still had that occasional burst play — three sacks show that — but he had only ten tackles.
This is not the typical résumé of player who gets drafted anywhere near the top 100 picks, which, with compensatory picks, is usually right at the top of the fourth round.
And if an underclassman defensive tackle goes below the top 100 picks, it's rare that he's selected at all.
In the last five NFL Drafts — 2011 through 2015 — five players designated as defensive tackles were picked after pick 100 of their respective drafts. There were underclassmen defensive ends, of course, drafted below pick 100, but it'd be hard to classify Valentine as an end at the NFL level, or to classify him as such going into the 2016 Draft were he to declare for it. So he's a better fit for the five defensive tackles. And those tackles are:
>> 2015 Darius Philon, Arkansas, pick 192, round six, Chargers
>> 2015 Christian Covington, Rice, pick 216, round six, Texans
>> 2015 Rakeem Nunez Roches, Southern Mississippi, pick 217, round six, Chiefs
>> 2014 Jeoffrey Pagan, Alabama, pick 177, round six, Texans
>> 2011 Lawrence Guy, Arizona State, pick 233, round seven, Packers
How'd those guys do?
Philon: Made the Chargers, finished with four tackles as a rookie.
Covington: Made the Texans' team and has two sacks as a rookie reserve.
Nunez-Roches: Made the Chiefs' team and has four tackles as a rookie reserve.
Pagan: Made the Texans' roster and has five career tackles over two seasons.
Guy: On his fourth NFL team, Guy had his best season as a pro this year with the Ravens, notching 4.5 sacks.
In that same time period, 12 underclassmen defensive tackles went undrafted. Out of those 12, two are contributing in games on NFL rosters:
Sealver Siliga (2011) is a part-time starter for the Patriots, which is his fourth team.
David Irving (2015) is contributing to the Cowboys this season. Irving, for what it's worth, is an interesting story. There was no question about his talent at Iowa State, but Irving was carrying a broken stop sign during the 2014 Veishea riots at ISU and the resulting picture taken of Irving holding the sign — while smiling — led Iowa State to kick Irving off the team. Nevertheless, the Chiefs initially signed Irving, who was cut, then landed with the Cowboys.
In other words, if you're below pick No. 100, you're more likely not to get drafted at all as you are in the bottom half of the draft.
Out of all 17 players, only two start — and they were drafted in 2011.
So unless Valentine's certain he'd get drafted much higher than any reasonable projection would have him, he'd be a NFL long-shot story, albeit a long-shot story with a college degree.
What does Valentine get if he returns?
Well, for one thing, his draft stock probably doesn't drop. The odds suggest he'll be better as a senior than he was as a junior. For another, with the degree out of the way, Valentine would get to concentrate more on his craft while taking fewer classes on his way to a graduate degree. He'd get another year in Nebraska's facilities, which are among the nation's best (and free, which personal trainers for the NFL are not). And he'd get more of a chance to be a team leader in ways that Collins and Jack Gangwish were in 2015.
Nebraska coaches want Valentine back, make no mistake. I don't think they're going to tell Valentine he's nuts to jump to the NFL, in part because they haven't been with him for four seasons, but there's a clear sense on the staff that he'd get better with an extra season.
If he returns, NU has a good interior duo of Valentine and Kevin Maurice, who grew into a good player last season when healthy. Maurice is poised for a big senior year, and, depending on whether Kevin Williams comes back, I like the young guys — Mick Stoltenberg, if he recovers from a knee injury, and the Davis twins, who will be in the mix, too.
If Valentine leaves, that puts the onus that much more on a great offseason from the Davis twins. Both Carlos and Khalil possess the ability to go get a sack on a passing down; they're quick, aggressive and violent at the point of attack. Where they'll have to grow is in down-in, down-out technique against the run. If they make that leap this spring, they could have the kind of impact Collins did as a true freshman and Valentine did as a redshirt freshman, when the two were thrust into duty because the Huskers didn't have very many defensive linemen to use.
But Valentine's return would slow the need to use their talents right away. A Valentine-Maurice-Williams rotation, should Williams decide to return for a sixth year, would put Nebraska in pretty good shape for next season on the interior.