KNOXVILLE - Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray likely will have an important decision to make at the end of the season.
Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, the Volunteers' star receivers, face a similar fork in the road.
Should they play their senior seasons at Tennessee or declare for the NFL draft as juniors?
Nearly any projection or player rankings out there has the trio of Vols high enough to make an early exit an appealing option, but ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay already knows what he'd decide if he were in their shoes.
"All three of those players, turn down the money and go back to school and get better at your art," he said during a conference call Friday. "A year from now you could be so much more prepared to play in the NFL. Forget where you're drafted. That would be my advice to those three.
"Be prepared to go and contribute in the NFL. Your first contract is only going to last you as long as your first contract, and where you make real money at the next level is that second contract. The only way you're going to maximize that second contract is to be as NFL-ready as possible coming out of college, and I don't think any of those three guys are where they can be one day at this point right now."
It was a surprising statement from McShay, who praised the pure physical talents of the Tennessee trio. He ranks Hunter as the 11th overall prospect and the top-rated receiver for April's draft and said on the call that Patterson might have more natural talent than Hunter. Yet he said both have obvious areas to improve.
McShay has the same opinion of Bray. The 6-foot-6, 215-pounder has struggled against three SEC defenses this season, completing just 52 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and six interceptions. The tone in McShay's voice discussing Bray mirrored the frustration he showed when discussing the falling stocks of Oklahoma's Landry Jones and Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas.
"I think Tyler Bray can be as great as he wants to be. It's up to Tyler Bray. It really is," McShay said. "There was a lot of talk about his leadership off the field and becoming more committed to it. I'm not there in the locker and I'm not there in practice, so I don't know that, and time will tell. I'll find out through scouts and coaches that we talk to throughout the process, but what I see on the field is a player with elite arm talent, maybe the best arm talent of any quarterback in this class.
"There's no one who sits there in the pocket and can naturally just sling the ball and place the ball in spots all over the field - short, intermediate and deep - the way that Bray can."
Yet McShay said Bray's main physical problem is his lack of mobility, which he said was "below average to poor." The biggest way Bray can improve, McShay said, is becoming a smarter quarterback who can pick up blitzes, know where to throw the ball and make an accurate throw under pressure.
"There are too many places, too many plays I can go right now in the next half-hour and pick out on tape and say, 'Here's an example, here's an example, here's an example,' of throws that he has to make - that Andrew Luck made, that Robert Griffin III made, that Ryan Tannehill made - under pressure," McShay said.
"If I was making his decision for him ... he needs to go back to school, and he needs to master the art of playing quarterback because he's too good. That's why I care. It's frustrating because he's too good to be playing at this level. Hopefully it clicks for him, because if it does, he's got a chance to be a really talented player at that next level, and I hope for his sake that it does."
McShay said he'd like to see more physical play from the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Hunter, who has just five catches the past two games after starting the season with 30 receptions in four games. That would improve his ability to beat press coverage.
"He's just a fluid athlete and a smooth athlete [with] really good body control adjusting to the ball," McShay said. "He hasn't been as consistent as I'd like to see him this year, so if you can tell just the way I'm talking, I'm hesitating because I want to say he's the best receiver in this class. I think from a talent standpoint he's up there in terms of the top two or three.
"Potentially he could be No. 1 if you want, a good starting wide receiver in the NFL. But there's still some room for improvement in his game. It doesn't mean he has to come back, but he's another guy I wouldn't mind seeing come back for next season and get involved in the 2014 draft."
Though he was a relative unknown for two years while in junior college, Patterson has dazzled this season with touchdowns rushing, receiving and returning kicks. The Vols lined him up at tailback against Mississippi State for a 15-yard gain on a simple toss play. As a polished wideout, though, Patterson has a ways to go.
"Cordarrelle Patterson is probably more naturally talented than Hunter, which is saying a lot," McShay said. "You're talking about maybe the most -- just in terms of raw tools, he may be the most talented wide receiver in the country. They're handing him the ball, and why not?
"He's so talented in the open field carrying the ball. He's smooth. When you watch him, for such a big guy, he can make cuts and weave in and out of traffic. I think he's playing 101 level wide receiver in terms of running routes and understanding coverages. He has a lot to learn in that regard. Who knows if he's coming back, too."