Early Exits: ACC Players Headed To The NFL

With the 2014 college football season coming to a close Monday, it’s time to take a look around the ACC at some of the players who made their mark this season, and will move to the NFL to try and do the same next season. Several big names have declared early and we’ve got the details.

Florida State

Florida State went 29-1 over the last two seasons and won a National Championship, but the ‘Noles will have a different look in 2015 as several players have declared for the NFL draft.

There will be no bigger departure than sophomore quarterback Jameis Winston who has opted to turn pro. Winston won a Heisman Trophy and lost only one game during his tenure in Tallahassee. That lone setback for Winston was in what proved to be his final game as a Seminole, a lopsided 59-20 loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl. His lack of decorum on the sidelines during the loss exposed either Winston’s competitive spirit or his lack of maturity — depending on your opinion of the polarizing quarterback. Winston’s undeniable skill on the field, contrasted by his questionable choices off of it, leave him with a Manziel type draft projection. A team could roll the dice on him early, or he could see his stock tumble as the draft rolls on.

As expected, Seminole defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. will forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft as well. Edwards is a nimble 300-pound end who uses his athleticism to shake offensive linemen, and finishes tackles with strength. The junior finished the season with 44 tackles and three sacks. Edwards is a no doubt second round selection, but could well be taken in the first round by a team looking to upgrade its defensive line.

Edwards’ defensive teammate, cornerback P.J. Williams will also be moving onto the NFL following three seasons in Tallahassee. A season removed from finishing as defensive MVP in the Seminoles National Championship win, Williams finished with 74 total tackles, an interception and a sack in 2014. With other solid secondary players entering the draft as well, Williams figures to be a second or third round pick in the NFL draft.

One of those cornerbacks who could potentially be selected ahead of Williams is fellow Seminole Ronald Darby, who declared Thursday. Darby’s underwhelming stats (43 tackles, no interceptions), understate his value as a shutdown corner. The sheer speed and athleticism of Darby make him a tough player to gain separation from and a risky proposition to throw against. He could potentially be as high as a late first round pick for a team looking for an athletic defensive back (Philadelphia?).

A pair of Cardinals defensive backs will enter the NFL draft early, forgoing their remaining time in Louisville.

The first is redshirt sophomore safety Gerod Holliman, winner of the 2014 Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back. He recorded 14 interceptions this season, one short of a single-season record, and returned one for a pick six. Despite that impressive statistic, he’s considered a project at the NFL level. With a lack of options in the safety department in this draft however, he may be taken early by a team willing to take a risk with an incredible upside.

Joining Holliman will be fellow safety James Sample, who will forgo his senior season and turn pro. Sample is smaller in stature, but perhaps a more polished option than Holliman for teams that are searching for a ready-made defensive back. He lead the team in total tackles with 90 and added four interceptions in 2014. He projects to be a second or third round pick when teams go on the clock in a few months.

Tigers punter Bradley Pinion declared for the NFL draft this week. Huh? Yes, the junior punter who had the fifth best per punt average in the ACC at 42.6 yards, will attempt to take his talents to the NFL next season. This is the biggest head-scratcher of all the early declarations, and unless Pinion proves to  be the second coming of Ray Guy, he may have a tough time getting selected this spring.

With the likes of Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Georgia’s Todd Gurley entering the draft, Miami’s Duke Johnson could be an undervalued running back this spring. Johnson will enter the NFL draft a season early, leaving Miami as the Hurricanes all-time leader in rushing and all-purpose yards. That is no small feat for a school that has seen the likes of Ottis Anderson, Edgerrin James, Frank Gore and Clinton Portis in its backfield. Johnson will enter the draft as perhaps the best dual-threat running back, as dangerous after a catch as he is from scrimmage, and will likely be a steal for the team that selects him.

Junior offensive tackle Ereck Flowers will follow Johnson’s lead and leave Miami early to enter the draft. The two played together not only at Miami, but also in high school and will now enter the professional ranks at the same time. Flowers could fall to the second round, but his athleticism and solid run blocking should see him selected in the first round.

The stingy front seven of the Cavaliers defense in 2014 will take a hit next season with the departure of two of its dominant defensemen.

Sophomore linebacker Max Valles said he would return for his junior season in 2015 a month ago, but reversed course this week announcing his intention to declare for the NFL draft. Valles tied with fellow linebacker Henry Coley for a team-leading eight sacks and added 55 tackles. Despite his relative inexperience after only playing two seasons in college, Valles’ stellar pass rushing ability could make him a tantalizing option to an NFL front office.

Just behind the team lead with seven sacks was junior lineman Eli Harold, who will join Valles in this spring’s draft. At 6’4″, 250 pounds Harold is on the small side for the front line and could drop back to a linebacker position, in part due to his athleticism. Harold could potentially blossom into one of the NFL’s stellar pass rushers if given time to learn in a professional defensive setting.


6’4″, 200-pound safety Durell Eskridge will hope to turn his size and physicality into a highly-sought player in April after declaring for the draft this week. A season after leading the team in tackles and interceptions, Eskridge’s production dipped slightly, finishing third in tackles with 68 and only one interception. That one pick was returned by Eskridge for a touchdown, however.



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