KNOXVILLE -- Tyler Bray's junior season of college football included a lot of ups and at least as many downs.
Should the Tennessee quarterback forgo his senior year with the Volunteers in favor of an early entry into April's NFL draft, where he lands could depend on which direction a pro team chooses to lean toward.
Once mentioned among the mix of the upper echelon of draft-eligible quarterbacks for the 2013 class, Bray has had his stock slide. His physical skills put a floor on his projection, however.
"I would say right now another year at Tennessee would benefit him," ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper said Tuesday during a conference call. "If he comes out, you're probably looking at maybe a second-, third-round pick potentially, but if he goes back, he's a guy you would think could be in the first-round discussion [next year]. I'd project him more right now to be a third-rounder.
"I would say definitely go back to Tennessee and improve on the areas I talked about and try to maximize your rating."
There's been no decision from Bray or any other of Tennessee's draft-eligible juniors who may declare. Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson appear very likely to leave, however. Other possibilities are offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James, guard Zach Fulton and nose tackle Daniel McCullers -- all listed as mid-round picks according to various draft projections.
Kiper ranks Patterson 11th among all players and projects him as an early-to-middle first-round pick, though he said the 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior college transfer could be a top-five pick if he returned for a second season with the Vols. Hunter at worst might fall to the second round.
Kiper believes James and McCullers should return.
An obvious unknown in the juniors' decisions is new Tennessee coach Butch Jones, who certainly would like everyone to stay. James made a public plea for the retainment of offensive line coach Sam Pittman, but Jones replaced Pittman with Don Mahoney, who had been Jones' line coach at Cincinnati and Central Michigan.
Hunter and Patterson said following Tennessee's season-ending win against Kentucky that they planned to wait to meet the Vols' new coach, but they don't know who their position coach will be with Jones looking for a receivers coach to complete his first Tennessee staff.
Bray said that day that what his two top receivers decide would weigh heavily in his own choice. The Vols lose senior slot receiver Zach Rogers and senior tight end Mychal Rivera, so Bray potentially could be without his top four targets if he returns. Versatile guard Dallas Thomas was the lone senior on an offensive line that allowed eight sacks in 451 Bray passes this season.
"You have to wait to see what Hunter and Patterson decide to do," Kiper said. "[Bray] does return, potentially, a great offensive line, even with Dallas Thomas moving on. That offensive line's got some studs that have a chance to be really good down the road."
Bray is part of what Kiper called a "wide open" pecking order among quarterbacks in this class. Southern California's Matt Barkley, West Virginia's Geno Smith and Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas all have dropped from lofty preseason projections. Kiper said his "best guess" right now on the first quarterback to go off the board "could be" North Carolina State's Mike Glennon.
Glennon's senior season began with a four-interception game against a Tennessee defense that played worse from there. N.C. State's season ended in the dismissal of coach Tom O'Brien.
"That's a little bit of curveball from where it would had been, say, a couple of months ago," Kiper said. "He's got the size, he has the arm, he has the mobility within the framework of the pocket [and] the maneuverability within the pocket. He didn't have a great supporting cast around him."
Bray had the luxury of playing within a talented offense and registered the second best statistical season for a quarterback in Vols program history. His passing yards (3,612) and touchdowns (34) are behind only Peyton Manning's 1997 senior campaign in the record book. Among career records, the 6-foot-6, 220-pounder from California is fourth in completions, yards and touchdowns behind Manning, Erik Ainge and Casey Clausen.
If Bray stays for his senior season, he'd have a chance to chase the top spot on those lists, albeit in a new system. Jones has favored the spread offense since he was an assistant under Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia. Though his system has featured running quarterbacks like Dan Lefevour at Central Michigan and Zach Collaros and Munchie Legaux at Cincinnati, Jones doesn't require one.
"This year we didn't have a running quarterback," Jones said at his introduction last week. "We made a change midway through the year [to] a drop-back passer. We're going to play to strengths of our players, and our offense is quarterback-oriented.
"Make no mistake about it: Around the country, whether it's high school, college or professionals, it starts with the quarterback. There's only two individuals who touch the ball on every snap: the center and the quarterback. The quarterback is critical to our football team, so we'll base our offense around the quarterback's skill set."
It's Bray's skill set that makes him an attractive pro option. Yet there are red flags. Bray is a gambler whose accuracy drops when he he throws off his back foot under duress, and his lack of a signature win in college might be difficult to ignore for some NFL teams.
For the six games he threw for four or more touchdowns, there were the two-interception games against Alabama and Florida, the three-turnover fourth quarter against Georgia and his peculiar benching against Vanderbilt when he was coming off three games in which he threw for 1,302 yards, 13 touchdowns and one interception.
"Tyler Bray can throw the football," Kiper said. "He doesn't have the howitzer, but he throws the football very effectively. He's got the height to see the field.
"Obviously he makes some bad decisions at times. Sometimes his accuracy is a little off. I'd like to see him go back to Tennessee for another year."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.