The NFL accepted a record 98 entries into the 2014 draft from underclassmen (juniors or redshirt sophomores) in January. That’s up from 73 underclassmen in the draft a year ago, and is the fifth straight year that there has been an increase. In 2009, only 46 underclassmen entered the draft, but that number rose to 53 the next year, to 56 in 2011 and to 65 in 2012.
The rise in underclassmen entries has alarmed both the NFL and the world of college football, which essentially serves as the training ground and minor leagues for professional football. The reason for the growing number of juniors and redshirt sophomores bolting for the NFL is of course money-driven, but it’s having a negative impact on both the NFL and college football.
At the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., PewterReport.com listened to Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban addressed the problem of underclassmen leaving college in droves for the NFL.
“I think that the natural order of things is for a guy to graduate from high school to develop as a player in college and to graduate from college,” Saban said. “In most cases that takes three and a half or four years. I stated to you the exception in that if somebody is a first-round draft pick that’s a financial decision they have to make to file for the draft. I think more and more we’re getting the basketball mentality in football – that I can go straight from high school to the NBA. More parents and more players are going into college with the idea that I’m going to be there for three years and I’m going to get out as fast as I can and go to the NFL.”
Part of the problem is timing. If a star player redshirts during his freshman season in college and stays in school through his senior year and is drafted in the first round at age 24, he will be signed to a five-year deal, which means he won’t be eligible for NFL free agency until age 29.
That player might have to play five years on his rookie deal under the rookie salary cap, which could stymie his earning potential. And if that player successfully lands a big contract in free agency it will likely be that player’s only opportunity to do so as many NFL players’ skills decline past the age of 30.
However, if a player leaves college as a redshirt sophomore or junior at the age of 21 or 22 and is selected in the first round, NFL free agency could come at age 26 or 27, and that player could receive the opportunity to get two big money contracts if he stays healthy and plays at a very high level. That’s why so many agents are convincing college players to abandon their senior seasons and get into the NFL so the free agency clock can get started.
The problem is that many of the underclassmen entering the draft aren’t fully prepared to play in the NFL and make a meaningful impact. If a third-round pick can’t crack the starting lineup in a few years he may get lost in the shuffle and get bounced off the roster in favor of a new rookie deemed to have more upside. That’s why the average length of stay in the NFL is only three and half years.
Saban believes that football players can increase their chances of achieving NFL longevity by staying in college football until their eligibility expires after their senior season. That scenario would help not only college football, but the NFL, too.
“Last year there were  players that signed up for the draft,” Saban said. “Only 37 of those guys were drafted in the first three rounds. I think there was something like 19 that never got drafted at all. The rest got drafted in the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh round. That’s not a very secure future for you in terms of what your career might bring for you, the number of years you might play and how much money you might make.
“How can the NFL develop these players as well as we could develop them in college where they could have their most productive years in a college program? I don’t think the NFL really wants this. I don’t think the colleges really want this. I don’t think it’s in the best interests of the players. I don’t know what the solution of the problem really is.”
The more juniors that declare for the NFL, the weaker that leaves the senior class the following season, a point recently made by MMQB’s Greg Bedard on SI.com. That impacts the players in several ways. First, it reduces the talent in senior all-star games, such as the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl, which helps NFL scouts evaluate talent. The consensus of the scouting community in Mobile, Ala. was that this was one of the least-talented Senior Bowls in recent memory in terms of first-round talent.
Second, it forces NFL scouts to do a crash course of film evaluation on underclassmen. Scouts love it when underclassmen don’t come out, because it increases their workload trying to cram their evaluations in a short period of time. Doing the necessary in-game study, film study and on-campus research is tough enough during the fall and winter when the senior, draft-eligible players are known. But to have to start studying another 98 players in January and cram in that work before the NFL Scouting Combine in February and pro days in March and April makes their jobs more difficult because the investigation into senior draft prospects is far from being complete.
And third, it may prompt head coaches to shy away from underclassmen from a maturity and developmental standpoint unless they are a star-caliber player in the first round because the leash is now shorter than ever on NFL head coaches. Tampa Bay only gave Greg Schiano two seasons before firing him. Cleveland fired Rob Chudzinski after one season a year after Jacksonville fired Mike Mularkey after one season.
Over the past three years, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have drafted just three underclassmen out of the team’s 21 selections. Last year, the Bucs drafted a pair of junior defensive linemen in nose tackle Akeem Spence and defensive end William Gholston in the fourth round. In 2012, Tampa Bay selected junior strong safety Mark Barron in the first round with the seventh overall pick.
But there is no telling how new head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht truly feel about drafting underclassmen and if the Bucs will be more prone to do it or will shy away from it. With the seventh overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, there is a chance that the Bucs will spend their first-round pick on an underclassmen, especially if they want to select a quarterback as the top three signal callers – Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Central Florida’s Blake Bortles – are all juniors. But several Bucs sources have indicated that the new regime believe that Mike Glennon has the tools that offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford and quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo can work with.
Over the next two days, PewterReport.com will profile 10 underclassmen that could help the Buccaneers in the 2014 NFL Draft, which takes place from May 8-10. On Wednesday, PewterReport.com will profile five first-round underclassmen draft prospects, followed by five more underclassmen that should be available in rounds 2-7 on Thursday. Stay tuned.
Scott Reynolds is in his 23rd year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds enjoys giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: [email protected]
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