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2012 NFL Draft: Will Ray Graham Return To Pitt Next Season?

Wow, what a slow week it was last week for Pitt Football.  This whole bye weekend thing was really, really dull. That said, a topic that's been mentioned pretty often is the chance that Ray Graham returns for his senior season.  Now, the more I hear about it, the more it seems as if fans aren't expecting him back. But for some reason I don't feel that way.  

Ray's statistics have been very good and as long as he continues to get carries (which didn't happen in the Utah game), he should post good numbers.  The problem is that I think his draft stock could be hurt because Pitt has been a subpar team so far.

Next season, Graham will be the number one running back if he returns - that's a given.  His game translates well in to the new offense because of his ability to run and catch the ball.  If he were to enter the NFL Draft after this season he would probably end up falling into the second round or lower just as LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis have.

Graham wasn't only there last season when Dion stumbled out of the gate, he was the guy that took a lot of carries away from him.  He is an amazing player and is going to be a professional whether he opts to leave after this season or next.

Okay, so I've told you that I think Ray should return - here's why.  My reasoning lies in the offense that Todd Graham is running - it's tailor-made to produce a lot of yards.  If Coach Graham has this whole pseudo-quarterback controversy figured out (and, yeah, that's a big 'if') and the offensive line improves even a bit, the running back could have an even bigger year.

Ray put up nearly 1,000 yards last season and is on pace to total over 1,700 if the Panthers make it to a bowl game. While these statistics are great, NFL teams want players that they know can withstand a few years of carrying the ball at a high level. Another year of big-time numbers should help his stock and make him a first-round pick, in my opinion.

To be honest, his decision should almost depend on the choices of two other players: Oregon's LaMichael James and Alabama's Trent Richardson. Both are on better teams in better conferences and almost assuredly have a leg up on Graham in terms of perception.  If they were all to enter the draft after this season, Graham would likely be slotted below them.  Entering the draft next year could mean he doesn't have to contend with either.

Sure, Lewis and McCoy are both in the league and making money. But the higher Graham is selected, the larger the contract he'll receive. And while Graham could be a long-shot in terms of being an early first-round pick, the money there is significantly better than even that given to a middle or late first-round pick.

The top five picks in last year's draft signed contracts averaging about $20 million. The 20th pick signed for 'only' $8.2 million and the last pick of the first round, $6.6 million. The difference between being ranked third or fourth at a position from first or second is literally worth millions of dollars. The gap from pick from the No. 1 overall pick to pick No. 10 was about $10 million.  The gap from No. 10 to the final pick in the first round was only a little over $5 million. In other words, teams pay considerably more for those upper tier of prospects.

If he is ranked as the first, second, or third running back in the country entering the draft, then he should probably consider leaving early. But if he falls below that, it may benefit him to return to for one more season.

By the way...

Follow me on Twitter (@jcoltogirone) for plenty of tweets about Pittsburgh sports (mainly Panthers, Penguins, and Steelers).  Keep in mind this is my personal account and some of them won't be as interesting as others, but I'd say 95% of them relate to sports.  I'm trying to spark more sports talk and have come to really enjoy Twitter - I love the conversations.  Also be sure to follow Cardiac Hill's twitter account (@PittPantherBlog). Thanks guys!