INDIANAPOLIS — Three hundred thirty-five draft prospects will descend on this Midwest city over the next several days for the NFL’s annual predraft scouting combine.
That number will include 85 of the record 98 underclassmen who have decided to pass on their remaining college eligibility and get an early start on chasing their NFL dream.
For sure-fired first-rounders like South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and a dozen other juniors who are expected to be taken in the first round, the decision to come out early makes perfect sense.
For others, though, it will be a colossal mistake.
“For the Clowneys and Manziels, it’s a great opportunity,” said Phil Savage, a former NFL personnel executive with the Ravens, Browns and Eagles who is the executive director of the Senior Bowl all-star game. “But when you have 100 juniors come out, there’s going to be a lot of heartbreak at the end of this pot of gold that players are expecting to receive.”
Not including this year’s record exodus, 1,071 underclassmen have come out early since the NFL surrendered to legal challenges and swung open its doors to juniors in 1990. While 274 of those 1,071 (25.6 percent) have ended up being first-round picks, another 342 (31.9 percent) never were even drafted.
The number of early-entries has jumped every year since 2009. The 98 coming out this year is 25 more than last year, and more than double the number that came out in 2009 (46).
This was not what anyone expected three years ago when the league and the NFL players shook hands on a new collective bargaining agreement that included significant modifications to the rookie wage scale, including far less guaranteed money at the top of the draft. The assumption was that it would discourage all but the top underclassmen from coming out early.
But that assumption turned out to be incorrect. In the three years since the CBA was signed, 236 underclassmen have come out early. In the three years before that, the total was just 155.
More troubling than the increase in the number of underclassmen coming out is the dramatic increase in the percentage of juniors who are being left by the wayside. In the last two drafts, 42 of the 138 juniors who came out (30.4 percent) went undrafted. In the previous three drafts, just 25 of 155 (16.1 percent) didn’t get selected.
Why are so many juniors coming out early? According to Savage and others, it’s still about the money. Not the money they’ll necessarily make off their first contract, but the money they’ll theoretically make on their second deal.
“This is one of the unintended consequences of the new CBA,” Savage said. “The four-year (rookie) contract, with limited financial gains for these rookies, there’s no question potential prospects are being told they have to get themselves in the system so that, in four years, they can strike it rich with their second contract.”
Of course, the only problem with that thinking is that many of the early-entry players never will see a second contract because the average length of an NFL career is just a little over three years.
The league has an advisory committee made up of personnel people who underclassmen can contact to get an opinion on where they might go in the draft if they come out.
“Some of them use it, some of them don’t,” said Browns player personnel consultant Bill Kuharich, who spent several years on the advisory committee. “The ones who are legitimate first-rounders don’t really bother to find out because they pretty much already know.
“A high number of the rest will use it. But when they get their draft status back, normally, they get ticked off because they usually have a higher value of themselves than the people doing the evaluating.”
For the most part, it’s the agents who are the villains here. They’re the ones pitching this whole second-contract nonsense to juniors.
Of course, agents aren’t supposed to have any contact with college players who still have remaining eligibility. But people aren’t supposed to mug little old ladies either, and yet, it happens.
“After the changes in the CBA, I think agents said, ‘OK, how can we look at this thing a little bit differently?’”“ NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “The story that they’ve been telling college kids the last couple of years is, ‘There’s no huge money at the top end anymore. The key is just get into the system so you can get to your second contract. The second one is where you’re going to really make the money.’
“So, the kids are running around saying, ‘I’ve got to get to my second contract.’ That’s fine. But that’s four years away. There’s a lot of football that has to be played, and a lot of things that can happen before you get there.”
When the NFL opened its doors to underclassmen in ‘90, the college coaches were furious. They retaliated by banning scouts from their campuses, even though the only people who ended up getting punished by that decision were their own players who didn’t get thoroughly scouted.
The college coaches certainly aren’t pleased by the increase in juniors leaving their programs. But they’re not quite ready to put up the “No Trespassing” signs again.
“My position is very clear to our players,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told reporters last month at the Senior Bowl. “If you’re a first-round draft pick, we are very supportive of you coming out for the draft because of the business decision with the amount of money.
“But if you’re not one of those (first-round) guys, we feel you should come back to school, graduate from school and use your senior year to develop as a player and try to enhance your draft status for next year.”
Saban has been pretty convincing. In the last five drafts, Alabama had just 11 underclassmen come out. Nine were first-round picks. A 10th, running back Eddie Lacy (2013), was a second-rounder who was the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year last season.
“It’s bad for college football and it’s bad for the NFL,” Savage said of the dramatic increase in underclassmen turning pro. “When you look at a program like LSU, over the last six years, they’ve lost 25 juniors. That’s a full recruiting class over a six-year period. There’s no way they can make up for those players moving on.
“From the NFL standpoint, they’re getting a 20- or 21-year-old player who, in many cases, is not equipped from a technical standpoint or a knowledge standpoint (to play). Yet, there’s so much pressure, especially if they’re high picks, to get them on the field. And if they don’t produce right away, the frustration grows from the organization.”
The NFL would love to go back to the pre-1990 days and just say no to underclassmen. But they know they wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on if they took that position. So they’ll take a Manziel or a Blake Bortles even if they’re not quite ripe.
What can be done to address the problem? Savage has a few suggestions.
One would be expanding the draft to 10 rounds, which would give the lower tier of underclassmen a better chance to get selected by someone.
I’m not big on that one because I’m not sure being a 10th-round pick in a 10-round draft gives you any better odds of making an NFL roster than if you’re an undrafted free agent in a seven-round draft.
Another Savage suggestion would be loosening the practice-squad rules — either increase the maximum size of practice squads or increase the cap on the number of games in which a practice squad player can play.
Savage also suggested expanding the number of players invited to the combine or even having a separate combine for underclassmen. But 85 of the 98 underclassmen in this year’s draft class already are going to be in Indy this week. The number of juniors invited to the combine each year usually is inflated because teams know less about those players and want to get an up-close-and-personal look at them.
Savage thinks the NFL needs to consider creating another developmental league, like the World League of American Football. The WLAF, which later became NFL Europe, was a spring developmental league founded in 1990. The league killed it in ‘07 because it was losing too much money.
“I think that needs to be explored,” Savage said. “There’s definitely a need for it. Does it need to be in Europe or China? I don’t think so.”
Savage also thinks there is something the colleges could do to slow the exodus of underclassmen: start paying the players.
“I think that would help keep some of the fringe juniors from going out early in terms of them (saying), ‘Well, at least I’ve got a couple of thousand dollars in my pocket next year,’ or whatever the figure would be,” he said.
“If you don’t have any money, the idea of just the shot of being able to go make some money is an attraction in itself to these players.”
Even if the pot of gold turns out to be a plane ticket back home.