ANN ARBOR — Nearly a year ago, Taylor Lewan received paperwork from the NFL draft advisory board declaring that he was a sure-fire first-round selection. He prepared to play in one final sun-drenched bowl game. He’d hold the news conference to announce his future intentions.
It was all but certain that Lewan would leave the Michigan football program and head to the NFL.
Instead, Lewan went in the opposite direction. The All-American left tackle announced in January that he was returning to the Michigan football team to fulfill his final season of eligibility. While Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel cashed their paychecks as the top two offensive linemen selected in the draft, Lewan prepared for another year of college.
“People might think I might regret my decision to come back,” Lewan said this week. “Absolutely not.”
He likely wasn’t prepared for how the season would unfold for the Wolverines, who are 7-4. Yet Lewan considers his personal gains.
“I’ve taken so much from this,” said Lewan, who will play his final game at Michigan Stadium this weekend. “But most importantly, I’m taking away friendships, being with these coaches for another year, and being a part of this university for another year. I really can’t explain how huge this is for me. Even though we didn’t have the season we wanted, I’ll never regret this decision, ever.”
Yet did returning to Ann Arbor for one more season cost Lewan, financially or draft-stock-wise?
ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper, Jr., still pegs Lewan as a first-round pick come May — even though a week after Lewan announced his return, Kiper wrote on ESPN.com that it was “a bad call.” Still, little changed for Lewan, who also had the benefit of an injury-free season.
Earlier this month, Kiper placed him at No. 14 on the most recent update of the “Big Board” projections for each year’s NFL draft.
"He's been up in the top 10," Kiper said. "He's right in that same area, and [he hasn’t dropped ] because of performance. It's because other kids have stepped up. There are a lot of underclassmen on this board."
Charles Davis, an analyst for Fox College Football, explained that the decision to go pro is best examined on a case-by-case basis. If Lewan had turned pro after last season, he would have joined a lineman-rich draft class; NFL teams selected nine offensive linemen in the first round.
“Each year is a different situation,” Davis said. “We’re in a you’ve-got-to-do-it-right-now society, but some things may come to you later than you want or expect them to. I don’t think Taylor lost anything. Last year, look at the pool he was dealing with, as far as offensive linemen. Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel. Would these guys have been better than him? But right now, look at the pool that he’s in.”
Among the offensive linemen who are draft eligible this year, in addition to Lewan: Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews, Auburn tackle Greg Robinson, Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, and Iowa tackle Brandon Scherff.
“All in all, Taylor didn’t lose a thing,” Davis said.
Davis also points out the leap that has to be made in going from college football to the NFL. Lewan would have done more than just earn a paycheck and enjoy the spoils of being a professional athlete. Lewan would have had to assimilate to a locker room and a community of grown men and veterans who aren’t just playing for the love of the game or for a scholarship — they’re playing to support themselves and their families.
“An NFL locker room is not a safe haven for growing up,” Davis said. “At Michigan, he gets a chance to be a leader, and he was able to do it. Has the year turned out how he wanted it, as far as wins and losses? No.”
What has emerged from Lewan, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said, is a stronger sense of leadership in going through the struggles and the constant shifting of the offensive line, which has fielded several different combinations this season.
“Taylor’s played his best, in trying to mother-hen and lead some younger guys at the same time,” Hoke said. “He’s gained a lot. He’s a better player, he’s a better technician, fundamentally. Those things are huge. We have [NFL] people come and grade guys and look at guys, and every one of them say he’s much better this year.”
Ultimately, Davis believes Lewan made the right decision in returning to Michigan.
“He wasn’t ready to go out,” Davis said. “Technique-wise, skill-wise, he was ready. But if you don’t wholeheartedly think it’s time to go, if you’re not fully into it, that makes it a bigger choice.
“If Taylor Lewan had any hesitation and any doubt, he played it the right way.”