As our Pitt Panthers begin preparation for the Pinstripe Bowl match-up against Northwestern, there are many thoughts on the minds of us diehard fans. Can we pick up that elusive win number nine, which will allow us to progress in year two of the Pat Narduzzi era?
Will a win in the Pinstripe help us to land Lamont Wade or perhaps other recruits, to fill the cupboard that will be emptied by the departure of a large group of graduating seniors?
Do I need to wear 3 or 4 layers of clothing on December 28 in Yankee Stadium, where with my luck it will be 15 degrees with a minus wind chill factor?
OK, so while all of the above are important, there is one other subject that has been dominating my thinking as we await the final game of the year. What will RB James Conner do? Will he stay or will he go? And which will be the “right” decision?
Let me first say this; James Conner has given so much of himself as both a player and as a person to the entire city of Pittsburgh. Whatever he decides, the entire Pitt community should not only support him, but applaud him. He is as fine as a young scholar athlete as there is in this country.
My favorite moment of this season was immediately after Chris Blewitt drilled the winning 48 yard field goal against Clemson. As the bulk of the team celebrated the kick and the anticipated victory, James Conner made his way over to the bench. He put his arm around his teammate, Jordan Whitehead, who had been injured earlier in the game, and whispered something into his ear.
Only the two of them know what was said, but I have no doubt that it was something inspiring. What a teammate he is.
While he is a great ambassador for our fine University, he is a darn good football player also in case you haven’t noticed. The question is, will his skill set translate well to the NFL? If so, is he better served testing the waters after this year, or alternatively if he’s not a high pick projection, wait and give his knee and body one more year to heal after his injury and cancer.
History is full of good and bad decisions made by Pitt players who have left early for the NFL, as well as one particularly bad decision one player made to stay for his senior year. Here is a brief review…..
THE NO-BRAINERS: Larry Fitzgerald, Darelle Revis and LeSean McCoy.
WR Larry Fitzgerald (Third overall to Arizona in 2004) and DB Darrell Revis (14th overall to the Jets in 2007) have had Hall of Fame caliber NFL careers, while RB LeSean McCoy (2nd round to Eagles in 2009) is not far behind. All three of these players have made many, many millions to further justify their early departures from Pitt. Certainly their decisions to leave early have been rewarded handsomely both on and off the field.
THE SOLID DECISIONS: Antonio Bryant, T.J. Clemmings, Jon Baldwin and Tyler Boyd
WR Antonio Bryant went from being the last recruit in his freshman class (and a two star recruit if memory serves me correctly), to a Biletnikoff award winner after his junior year at Pitt. After being drafted in the second round by the Cowboys, he played seven seasons in the NFL. His best year was in 2012 when he had 83 receptions for 1248 yards and 7 TDs for the Buccaneers.
LT T.J. Clemmings was projected to be a late first or early second round pick when he decided to forgo his Senior year and enter the draft. A poor showing at the Senior bowl practices and a rumor of a stress fracture in his foot dropped his draft stock. He was selected in the fourth round by the Vikings.
Had he known that he would be taken in the fourth round, he may have stayed at Pitt for his final year. But with the information he had at his disposal at the time, he made the right decision to go. He started all 16 games for the Vikings in his rookie season, and barring injury, looks to have a prosperous NFL career ahead of him.
WR Jon Baldwin was the 26th overall pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2011 NFL draft. His NFL career was over before it really ever got started, and his total stat line reads 44 receptions for 607 yards and 2 touchdowns. He was traded to the 49ers in 2013 and waived in 2014.
Obviously his NFL career was a disappointment, but he got paid handsomely for the four years that he was in the league. Perhaps another year at Pitt would have helped him to mature, but perhaps not. Can’t blame him for leaving when he got picked in the first round.
WR Tyler Boyd, thus far, has had a very solid rookie year for the Cincinnati Bengals (sorry Upittbaseball, but its true). While it may be a little early to make the call on this one, it does appear that Tyler Boyd has the skill set and ability to succeed in the NFL. With 5 games to play, he has 42 receptions for 477 yards. His decision to leave early really cannot be faulted at this juncture.
THE MISTAKES: WR Greg Lee and DE Greg Romeus
WR Greg Lee had two solid seasons at Pitt as a receiver. As a Sophomore in 2004, he was fifth in the country with 1297 receiving yards, earning him pre-season All American status going into his Junior year. His numbers slipped in 2005, though he still had 962 yards and seven touchdowns.
He had prototypical NFL size (6-2, 200 lbs), yet his best draft grade at the time had him going in the fourth round. Unfortunately, shortly before his Pro Day at Pitt, he pulled a hamstring. He ran a poor 40 time, and was not invited to the NFL combine. He went undrafted. He never played a down in the NFL.
DE Greg Romeus’ story is a sad one. Having played only one year of organized football before enrolling at Pitt, he evolved into a star performer at Pitt. He was Big East co-defensive player of the year in 2009, recording 8 sacks and 11 tackles for loss. He was projected to be a first or second round selection in the 2010 NFL draft had he chosen to enter.
He was plagued by injuries to his back and knees and missed the bulk of his Senior year at Pitt. His draft stock plummeted, and he was selected in the 7th round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints. He spent his rookie season on the Injured Reserve and was released by the Saints in 2013.
So, what do I think about the decision that lies before James Conner? It is a complex decision. It really depends on his draft projection, and whether one more year of college will help improve that projection. I’m hearing that he has a 4th or 5th round projection.
I’m not sure that another year in school bumps him up much further than round three, unless maybe if he has a Heisman caliber season next year. Of course with James Conner, where he is drafted means nothing. He can and likely will prove people who doubt him wrong.
I do think that if he stays, he’ll be a better player next year than he was this season. It took him a little while for him to get going this year, and justifiably so. One more year of healing to his knee will help him. However, there is always risk of injury, and his offense will not likely be as strong next year as it has been this year.
The graduation of Dorian Johnson and Adam Bisnowaty will certainly affect the quality of the offensive line. And while I expect Thomas MacVittie to eventually be a solid producer at quarterback, I don’t expect him to come out of the gate as an asset next year.
Selfishly, I think we’d all love to see James Conner stay at Pitt for his final year. But whatever he decides will undoubtedly be supported by all of Panther Nation. In the event that the Pinstripe Bowl is his final game I’m not going to miss it. My tickets are purchased.
I suggest that anyone who can afford the time and money to get to NYC try to figure out a way to make it happen.