Trietley: Lewis makes risky decision

By Greg Trietley

Did Dion Lewis make the right decision?

Pitt’s top rusher this season announced Monday he… Did Dion Lewis make the right decision?

Pitt’s top rusher this season announced Monday he would declare for the NFL Draft, foregoing two remaining years of eligibility with the Panthers. The difficult question of “Should I go?” must have lingered in his mind all season — and probably still does.

Dave Wannstedt’s resignation undoubtedly had an impact on his choice. Lewis, like so many Panthers, played for Wannstedt as much as he played for Pitt. He had little incentive to stay and play for Todd Graham, someone he had no ties to. It’s like enrolling in a class because you hear the professor is straight out of “Dead Poets Society,” only to learn he’s not teaching it this semester.

The departure of assistant Jeff Hafley, who left for a job at Rutgers, might have also pushed Lewis out of town. Hafley discovered Lewis while recruiting in New Jersey in 2008 and brought him to Wannstedt’s attention. Without Hafley, without Wannstedt and with Graham’s radically different playbook, it would have been the first day of school all over again for Lewis next season.

Money doesn’t hurt, either. The NFL Draft Advisory Board — which provides underclassmen with an estimation of their draft stock before they declare — told Lewis he’d be selected around the third round. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ third-round pick last season, Emmanuel Sanders, reportedly received a $586,000 signing bonus.

If the choice is receiving $586,000 up front or returning to a floundering Pitt program, the decision is easy. But there’s a catch: The NFL is gearing up for a lockout.

In choosing the NFL, Lewis could end up not playing any football this fall. And what about any contract he signs? Will he even have a chance to sign one? In addition, if the league abandons the 2011 season — which is entirely possible — 2011 draft picks will face competition from 2012 draft picks for roster spots.

Lewis, a year removed from the field, could lose his place on the team to someone with a 2011 college football stat line.

When prospects declare, some are ready for the next level whereas others need to develop. DeJuan Blair, another former Pitt athlete, also left school early for the pros. The broad-shouldered, indefatigable Blair was NBA-sized as a Panther. He was ready.

But remember Hasheem Thabeet? A 7-foot-3 twig by comparison, draft gurus nonetheless heralded him as a top five pick. In his rookie season, the Memphis Grizzlies at one point had to send him to the developmental league. He needed to “fill out,” so the saying goes, even if he had talent.

It’s safe to say that 5-foot-8, 195-pound Lewis will have to adjust to the NFL. Ray Rice, who had success in the Big East at Lewis’ size, is up to 212 pounds with the Baltimore Ravens. Meanwhile, former Panther LeSean McCoy spent last offseason with the Philadelphia Eagles adding muscle and mastering their playbook.

Lewis needs playing time and countless hours in the gym, and he won’t get that with an NFL lockout. He is about as inexperienced a draft prospect as they come, thanks to time at prep school that allowed him to leave after just two seasons at Pitt. Another year in college would have helped.

If Pitt football’s off-field issues were Lewis’ main gripe, a third option existed. He could have transferred.

Transfer rules force a student athlete to sit out for a season when he or she moves from one FBS (formerly called Division I) school to another. That wouldn’t have solved anything, but Lewis could have bypassed that lost year by transferring to a junior college and then back to an FBS school, a la Cam Newton. Still, it would take the world’s greatest pitchman to talk a 20-year-old into junior college over the NFL.

The allure of the pros probably sealed the deal. Coaching changes, a possible lockout — these curveballs matter little to athletes who have dreamed of playing professional football since they watched “Rugrats.”

In the end, the decision to move on — right or wrong — was Lewis’ to make. Now that it’s been made, all we can do is cheer him on.

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