McCoy: Should he stay or should he go?
What surprised Justin King about LeSean McCoy was the number of questions the Pitt tailback asked this past fall about the difference between college football and the NFL.
"I think (underclassmen) should leave when it's their time," King said, "not just for the hell of it."
McCoy, pondering an early jump to the NFL, is expected to make a decision this week. The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft is Thursday.
King, a former Gateway High and Penn State star and now a St. Louis Rams cornerback, can relate to McCoy. Like McCoy, King received a first-round grade from the NFL Draft advisory board. King's report suggested he could go as low as the fourth round.
Like McCoy, King believed he could elevate his status by wowing teams with his workout. King then ran a 4.31-second 40-yard dash that ranked second only to Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson at the NFL Combine.
Yet, King slipped to the fourth round (101st overall) and signed a three-year contract worth $1.526 million that included a $376,000 signing bonus and a rookie salary of $295,000. King tore ligaments in his big toe and missed his rookie season, but he still earned his salary plus bonus. Had he missed the season at Penn State, his draft stock may have taken a serious hit.
King says McCoy's decision on whether to declare himself eligible for the NFL Draft or return for his junior season should depend on whether McCoy feels he can become a better running back by returning to Pitt.
"That's a big misconception," said King, who had earned his degree by the end of his junior season. "You're not guaranteed to get better. You could get worse. It's a risk both ways. It's just, which risk are you willing to take: not getting drafted as high as you want, or getting hurt if you come back to school• There's no 100 percent, safe-proof choice."
One factor weighing heavily with McCoy is the possibility of sustaining an injury that could threaten his career or adversely affect his draft status. It's a legitimate concern, as McCoy was rated the nation's No. 1 running back prospect entering his senior year at Harrisburg's Bishop McDevitt High School before fracturing his right leg early that season.
Two McCoy family members told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Thursday that he was ready to announce his intentions to declare for the NFL Draft. Following an emotional meeting with Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt Friday, McCoy is delaying the decision until this week.
At least two running backs have been selected in the first round of every NFL Draft since 1999. Five were taken last April, including Rashard Mendenhall by the Steelers at pick No. 23.
The difference between going late in the first round and slipping to the second or third rounds is costly. Mendenhall signed a five-year contract worth $12.55 million with a $6.83 million signing bonus, but a pair of Big East backs who left early got a fraction of that.
Rutgers' Ray Rice, selected in the second round (55th overall) by Baltimore, signed a four-year deal worth $2.805 million with a $1.1 million bonus. West Virginia's Steve Slaton, chosen in the third round (89th) by Houston, signed a four-year, $2.37 million deal and received a signing bonus of $664,500.
One thing that could cause McCoy to change his mind and return to Pitt is the growing number of underclassmen running backs who have declared for the 2009 NFL Draft: Connecticut's Donald Brown, Alabama's Glen Coffee, Iowa's Shonn Green, Wisconsin's P.J. Hill, Georgia's Knowshon Moreno and Ohio State's Chris Wells.
By returning, McCoy could be considered the top back next year.
ESPN Draft analyst Todd McShay, director of college football scouting for Scouts, Inc., regards McCoy as one of the top three backs and predicted that McCoy would be a late first-round selection.
"Outside of Moreno and Wells, he doesn't have anything to worry about, in my opinion," McShay said. "To me, it goes Moreno, Wells, McCoy."
There also is a belief in the McCoy family that he could improve his stock with an impressive showing at the NFL Combine or Pitt's Pro Day. That's what former Pitt star cornerback Darrelle Revis did in 2007, when he was selected 14th overall by the N.Y. Jets.
"Those drills will confirm that (McCoy) is an athlete," McShay said, "and has the ability to do at the next level what he did in college."
Ready or not
The most celebrated player in Pitt football history shares the same feelings as many Panthers fans about McCoy.
Selfishly, Tony Dorsett admits, he wants McCoy to come back and lead Pitt to a Big East championship.
Dorsett, the only Heisman Trophy winner in school history, can offer a different perspective as a running back enshrined to both the college and pro football Halls of Fame.
As a potential NFL first-round draft pick, McCoy is holding a winning lottery ticket. It's just a matter of whether he should take his chances and cash in now or see if the pot increases next year.
"It would be ludicrous to say to turn down that money. Still, you have a commitment to your university and to your teammates," Dorsett said, prior to Pitt playing in the Sun Bowl. "I think another year would do him good. I can say that because I'm prejudiced.
"But let me tell you this: He's the truth. The man can run. He's got good balance and vision. He's got the speed and shake. I see him as the whole package."
McCoy finished with 1,488 yards and 21 touchdowns on 308 carries and was second on the team with 32 receptions for 305 yards in 2008. His 2,816 rushing yards and 36 touchdowns are the most ever by a Pitt player over his freshman and sophomore seasons, bettering the respective marks set by Dorsett (2,690 from '73-74) and Fitzgerald (34 from '02-03).
Although McCoy has drawn comparisons to Dorsett, the Pitt legend says how McCoy's talents will translate to the NFL depends on his willingness to work at his craft.
"I don't know how much more he's going to learn," Dorsett said. "The NFL is a much faster and more physical game. The mental approach becomes much more important than it is at any other level. Running back is one of those positions where it's a natural thing, a gift that you have. Going in and taking a lot more hits is not a thing that's conducive. But he's young."
McCoy, only 20, is torn between his fondness for playing at Pitt and a sense of obligation to provide financial security for his family. Although he still appears to be leaning toward turning pro, the meeting with Wannstedt was described as emotional and McCoy could reconsider.
"If you're second-guessing yourself, you're not ready," King said. "You have to expect the worst and hope for the best because you have no control of the draft. When you make the decision, you have to do it wholeheartedly.
"It's not always about the money."