Draft-eligible underclassmen have a tough decision

TUSCALOOSA _ If the University of Alabama football equipment managers are looking for some music to play in the locker room this week they may want to consider the English punk rock band The Clash.
Specifically, the song "Should I Stay or Should I Go."
Although the Crimson Tide boasts few seniors on the roster, it has numerous high-profile third-year players who have to consider making the jump a year early to the National Football League. Topping the list are, of course, defensive end Marcell Dareus, wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Mark Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner.
"Not yet," said Ingram when asked if he had any future plans. "My main thing right now is to prepare for a great bowl game and finish out the season strong.
"After the bowl game I'll set down with my family and coach and we'll make a decision. We'll figure out what's best."
Players are in the process of requesting evaluations with the NFL Underclassmen Advisory Committee, which studies them on film and provides a draft-round projection. Nick Saban and the rest of the Crimson Tide coaching staff also use some of their connections in the league to help players make a decision, which has to be made by Jan. 15.
This year, though, is a bit different because of the ongoing labor situation that could result in a lockout and possible rookie salary scale.
"It could really affect how much a guy can develop this year," Saban said. "There's no minicamp, there's no training camp, it's going to be much more difficult to learn a system and make an impact. But at the end of the day it comes down to what's really in the player's heart about what he wants to do."
Nevertheless, while Saban usually advises players to make the jump if they're expected to be a first-round pick, this year with all the uncertainty he's altered that to just top 15 picks or if the player doesn't have a realistic chance to move up in the future.
On his latest Big Board, ESPN's Mel Kiper has Dareus rated the ninth-best prospect, Jones 10th and Ingram No. 22.
"I don't look at the rankings or the big boards, or any of that," Dareus said, and probably with good reason because the rankings can dramatically change during the months leading up to the April draft depending on how players fare in all-star games, the NFL Combine and individual workouts.
Possibly having even tougher decisions are sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower, linebacker Courtney Upshaw, strong safety Mark Barron and wide receiver Marquis Maze.
Hightower is finally beginning to look like he's fully recovered from last year's knee surgery and could potentially improve his draft stock by returning. Upshaw struggled through an ankle injury this season while Barron recently had surgery on a pectoral muscle and there's a deep and talented group of safeties this season. The same is true at wide receiver, where Maze has indicated he's looking forward to putting the classroom behind him.
"I'm not really thinking about it right now," Hightower said. "We try not to talk too much about trying to leave early. There are a couple of guys who are in that position right now, but right now we're all focused on the ball game."
Among those who could declare but have given no indication of doing so include guard Barrett Jones, wide receiver Darius Hanks and nose tackle Josh Chapman.
Last year, 53 underclassmen declared for the draft, but concerns over the guaranteed money the class received figures to be a significant part of the negotiations between the players and union. First-round selections alone signed for $528.59 million guaranteed, up from $462 million the previous year, with all 255 picks securing for $656 million guaranteed.
While that worked to the advantage of Rolando McClain (five years, $40 million, $23 guaranteed) and Kareem Jackson (five years, $16.3 million, $13.35 guaranteed), who were selected eighth and 20th overall in 2010, like usual the money dropped significantly after the first round.
So it truly is a gamble, especially with the union telling its membership to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
"I think the NFL labor agreement will be taken care of long before the draft," senior quarterback Greg McElroy said. "I think when it comes down to it we all need to realize that the players just don't have as much bargaining power, they're not as financially set as the owners so they don't have as much leverage. So I think the sides will reach a compromise."
Maybe they will, maybe they won't. The 2010 season is being played without a salary cap and the current collective bargaining agreement expires in March, well before the draft but long after underclassmen have to make a decision.
"Just wait and see," Dareus said.
Christopher Walsh, who covered the NFL for seven years before arriving in Alabama, takes a stab at where some of the Crimson Tide players could get selected in April:
First round: Marcell Dareus, Julio Jones and Mark Ingram.
Third round: Mark Barron (depending on injury status).
Fourth round: Dont'a Hightower and James Carpenter (might be moved to guard).
Fifth round: Greg McElroy.
Seventh round: Preston Dial.