PITTSBURGH — The football careers of 15 Pitt players came to an end on Friday as the 2017 season ended with Pitt’s dramatic 24-14 upset of then-No. 2 Miami at Heinz Field.
Cornerbacks Rob Boatright and Avonte Maddox; defense end Allen Edwards; fullback Colton Lively; offensive linemen Brandon Hodges, Jaryd Jones-Smith and Alex Officer; punter Ryan Winslow; quarterback Max Browne; tight ends Nathan Bossory, Devon Edwards and Matt Flanagan; and wide receivers Mark Bernsdorff and Jester Weah all saw their four years of NCAA eligibility expire, while redshirt junior linebacker Brian Popp walked with the seniors, signifying that he will forgo his final season.
Popp might not be the only player with eligibly remaining that doesn’t return to Pitt. While Popp, a walk-on, is likely graduating and focused on pursuing his life’s work, football reasons may play a factor in other players’ decisions.
For some, it’s the allure of the National Football League and a professional career. Redshirt junior tackle Brian O’Neill and junior safety Jordan Whitehead have been the most-discussed players with the potential to turn pro a year early, with some suggesting that Whitehead could be a first-round pick.
In speaking with the media after Pitt’s win on Friday, O’Neill certainly sounded like a player that intended on finishing his college career.
“I’m super proud for all these seniors,” he said. “Especially with it being the seniors’ last game, we wanted to get it for them and kind of be able to send them off on a high note. They’ve meant so much to this program. … That added an extra meaning for us, their last game at Heinz Field.”
Whitehead did not speak after the game and was not made available to the media in the final two weeks of Pitt’s season. The junior has a tough decision to make when it comes to his future, and it’s not just because of the usual uncertainty about whether a player should leave early or not.
WalterFootball.com, a draft ranking site, has Whitehead listed as the No. 7 safety in the 2018 class if he came out, behind Florida State’s Derwin James, Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison, Stanford’s Justin Reid, Virginia Tech’s Terrell Edmunds and Texas’ DeShon Elliot.
But it’s not that simple. All six of the players ranked higher than Whitehead are also underclassmen. So Whitehead could come out and end up the top-ranked safety in the class — or slide as far as No. 7 — without anything he does having much of an impact.
The difference between being the top-ranked safety and the seventh-ranked one is fairly significant.
Over the last five years, the average draft position of the highest-taken safety has been No. 17 overall. The average draft position of the seventh-highest-drafted safety is No. 88.
That’s the difference between a signing bonus of $2.26 million and $686 thousand, according to OverTheCap.com.
Whitehead is expected to participate in a program where underclassmen send in their tape to get graded as part of the draft process. He can also attend Pitt’s senior day workout without committing to be drafted as part of that process.