NFL Draft 2024: Top 20 college football players who spurned the pros to return for another season

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The deadline for eligible players to make their NFL Draft decisions has come and gone, and several college football superstars are returning for another shot at college glory before they move on to the NFL. While there are always risks in coming back, the NIL era gives players a chance to make a nice chunk of change during their college career, with some deals reportedly competing with NFL rookie salaries. This year, we saw several potential early-round draft prospects spurn the league for at least one more season. 

With NFL Draft announcements coming hard and fast the past couple of weeks, it’s easy to miss which players will be back in 2024. 

Who are the best college football players that made the decision to return? Let’s break them down.

1. Quinn Ewers, QB, Texas: Ewers was phenomenal in 2023, throwing for 3,479 yards and 22 touchdowns as he led to the Longhorns to the College Football Playoff. On Jan. 11, Ewers announced that he will put the NFL off for one more year and return to Texas for his redshirt junior season. Get ready for the hype train because Ewers’ success in 2023 combined with the Longhorns’ move to the SEC will make him an early favorite for Heisman Trophy next year.

2. Xavier Watts, DB, Notre Dame: Watts pulled down seven interceptions — tied for first in the country — and notched 52 tackles en route to earning the Nagusrski Award and unanimous All-American honors. Add in Duke transfer quarterback Riley Leonard and the Fighting Irish look like real contenders to earn a CFP berth in 2024. 

3. Ollie Gordon II, RB, Oklahoma State: Gordon enjoyed a breakout season, amassing more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage (1,732 rushing and 330 receiving) with 22 total touchdowns. The unanimous All-American’s explosive ability as both a runner and receiver would have made him an easy pick for an NFL team, but he chose to return to a Cowboys squad that is loaded with returning offensive talent.

4. Billy Bowman Jr, DB, Oklahoma: The CBS Sports first-team All-American recorded 63 tackles and a Big 12-best six interceptions, three of which were returned for touchdowns. The 5-foot-10, 192-pound rising senior from Denton, Texas, has nine career interceptions after signing with Oklahoma as one of the top prospects in the Class of 2021. He’ll be on the short list of candidates for the Jim Thorpe Award in 2024. 

5. Jay Higgins, LB, Iowa: Higgins was one of the leaders of a defense that carried the offensively inept Hawkeyes to the Big Ten West title. He led the nation in tackles with 171, had five tackles for loss and picked off one pass. The 6-foot-2, 233-pound senior from Indianapolis, Indiana, was awarded first-team All-American honors from multiple outlets. 

6. Cameron Ward, QB, Miami: Ward’s long, strange trip has included stops at Incarnate Word and Washington State. He threw for 6,968 yards and 48 touchdowns and added 13 more scores with his legs over the last two seasons with the Cougars. He chose to head to Miami after briefly flirting with the NFL and should provide an instant upgrade under center for the Hurricanes.

7. Trey Moore, EDGE, Texas: Moore wasn’t part of the Longhorns’ run to the CFP, but that’s only because he was busy notching 14 sacks (No. 3 in the nation) and 17.5 tackles for loss for UTSA. The 6-foot-3, 235-pounder from San Antonio, Texas, should provide some much-needed firepower off the edge as the Longhorns retool on the defensive line in 2024.

8. Carson Beck, QB, Georgia: Beck rose to superstardom in his first season as the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback. He completed 302 of 417 passes for 3,941 yards, and 24 touchdowns. Behind his leadership, Georgia rolled to a 13-1 record that included a blowout win over Florida State in the Orange Bowl. Scary as it is to imagine, but Beck could be even better with a full offseason of work and a loaded talent pool around him.

9. Tahj Brooks, RB, Texas Tech: Brooks finished fourth in the nation with 118.3 rushing yards per game. He scored 10 touchdowns on the ground and earned first-team All-Big 12 honors. The 5-foot-10, 230-pounder from Manor, Texas, has 3,052 yards and 28 touchdowns in four seasons.

10. Danny Stutsman, LB, Oklahoma: Stutsman recorded 104 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and three sacks, which earned him first-team All-Big 12 honors. Those numbers are even more impressive considering the Lombardi Award semifinalist battled an ankle injury during the back half of the season. 

11. Jalen Milroe, QB, Alabama: Milroe finished sixth in Heisman Trophy voting and led the Crimson Tide to the CFP in 2023. He threw for 2,834 yards, tossed 23 touchdowns and finished third in the nation in yards per attempt (10.0). In addition to development throughout the year as a passer, Milroe rushed for 531 yards and 12 touchdowns. How he develops under the wing of first-year Alabama coach and known quarterback guru Kalen DeBoer will be one of the biggest storylines to watch next season. 

12. TreVeyon Henderson, RB, Ohio State: Henderson led the Buckeyes in rushing yards (926) and touchdowns (11) despite fighting through injuries, a performance good enough to earn him first-team All Big Ten honors. He burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2021 as he totaled 1,248 yards and 15 touchdowns, and he has proven since to be one of the most dangerous running backs in the country.

13. Dillon Gabriel, QB, Oregon: The former UCF and Oklahoma quarterback moved west to Oregon after a tremendous junior season with the Sooners. He threw for 3,660 yards, rushed for 373, tossed 30 touchdown passes and scored 12 times on the ground. Gabriel is one of the most prolific dual-threat quarterbacks in the country and is moving to an Oregon offense tailor-made for his skillset.

14. Jaxson Dart, QB, Ole Miss: Ole Miss won 11 games for the first time in program history last season, and Dart was the biggest reason for that success. The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder threw for 3,364 yards, rushed for 389 and scored 31 total touchdowns. Dart should have enough playmakers around him to equal or better those lofty numbers in 2024.

15. Shedeur Sanders, QB, Colorado: Sanders was an absolute monster in 2023, throwing for 3,230 yards with 27 touchdowns. He did all this despite playing behind the second-worst offensive line in the country. The Buffaloes gave up 56 sacks in 12 games as Sanders was often under pressure even when he was able to get the ball out of his hands. 

16. Landon Jackson, DL, Arkansas: Jackson might not be as well known as others on the list, but coaches in the SEC certainly know who he is. He was awarded first-team all-conference honors after notching 13.5 tackles for loss 6.5 sacks for the Razorbacks last season. The 6-foot-7, 281-pounder is an absolute game wrecker in the middle of the defensive line for Arkansas. 

17. Malachi Moore, DB, Alabama: Moore and freshman Caleb Downs were the anchors of a loaded Crimson Tide secondary in 2023. Moore had 52 tackles, five tackles for loss, one interception and five pass breakups. With Downs’ future uncertain, Moore will be counted on to be one of the defensive leaders as they transition to the DeBoer era.

18. Caullin Lacy, WR, Louisville: The South Alabama transfer hasn’t received as much notoriety as some other players on this list. Make no mistake, though, he is one of the best receivers in the country, finishing third in the nation with 1,316 yards receiving last season. Lacy is taking a step up in competition in 2024, looking to prove he can replicate that success against ACC defenses.

19. Nazir Stackhouse, DL, Georgia: Stackhouse had NFL scouts salivating before he decided to come back. The 6-foot-3, 320-pounder from Stone Mountain, Georgia, doesn’t have video game-like stats in comparison to some of the other stars on this list, but his importance to the Georgia defensive front can’t be ignored. Stackhouse is almost unblockable in one-on-one situations, and his ability to consistently command double teams helps create opportunities for the rest of the Bulldogs defense. 

20. Denzel Burke, DB, Ohio State: Burke earned first-team All-Big Ten honors after he recorded 24 tackles and broke up nine passes. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder from Phoenix will enter the 2024 season as one of the centerpieces of the Buckeyes defense.

 

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