The Rundown: Rash of underclassmen show NFL times are changing

Sheldon Richardson, Roger Goodell

Feeding the Beast

Brian Bassett, TheJetsBlog.com

The NFL Draft has become a beast. Since its inception way back in 1936, the Draft has never seen such an increase in scrutiny as it has since it was televised by ESPN (in 1980), moved to a weekend event (in 1988) and held during prime-time viewing hours (in 2010). Up until 2009, the NFL Draft had been a weekend daytime event. While it was steadily seeing small ratings increases, even a 2009 time shift to 4 p.m. ET in 2008 didn’t seem make much of a dent.

The 2010 NFL Draft was a wake-up call to the sports viewing world. While it was considered a gamble at the time, it wasn’t until the NFL moved the first round of the NFL Draft into a Friday night red carpet event that the television coverage became such a gold mine. Months from any meaningful games, the NFL’s prime-time switch pushed ratings 30 percent in the first year while pummeling a Lakers-Thunder NBA playoff game in the process. Nine months ago, on the night that the Jets drafted Dee Milliner and Sheldon Richardson, the NFL Draft posted an impressive 7.7 million viewers, drubbing most everything on the first night of the May ratings sweeps.

chart_1 (4)While it isn’t the single reason, part of that increased attention on the NFL Draft has undoubtedly led to another trend.

Year over year since 2010, the total of underclassmen forgoing their NCAA eligibility has escalated quickly. The rate of increase jumped this year with 2014 presenting an eye-popping 98 declarations (plus four early graduations) that has threatened the century mark for the first time ever.

Over the last five seasons, the NFL Draft has seen record numbers of NCAA underclassmen forgoing their eligibility for the supposed riches of the NFL. The problem, of course, is that fewer underclassmen are ever making it to NFL teams.

The “Godfather of the Draft” NFL.com’s Gil Brandt points out that of the 73 underclassmen who declared for the NFL Draft in 2013 21 players (or 28.8 percent) went undrafted

The growing number of underclassmen turning pro early is a trend that, unfortunately, is likely to continue. I say “unfortunately” because many of these players — the majority of the time — are coming into the league sooner than they probably should. Last year, for example, when 73 underclassmen chose to leave school early, only 52 were drafted. That means nearly 30 percent of the early entrants went undrafted.

Last year, Sheldon Richardson declared early for the NFL Draft and dropped to the thirteenth pick because of (airquotes) “concerns” about his maturity. In the end, it seems to have worked out for the best, but his story isn’t going to be the same story for the 98 players leaving school early in 2014. Of course, it makes sense if players get a Draft Advisory Board letter telling them they are potential first rounders, but obviously 98 underclassmen (let alone competing against players who have played all their eligibility) aren’t going to be drafted in the first round, let alone the first three.

So what is causing this massive change? The inexorable lure of NFL riches? Unscrupulous agents? The new CBA? The red carpet glamour of the NFL Draft?

Unfortunately, MMQB’s Greg Bedard writes about how the number of talented seniors is decreasing and uses Jason Cole’s theory about how the new CBA has ruined the most talented players in football’s chance at a payday as a jumpoff point.

From Bedard’s piece:

For a player like Redskins outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who played four years in college, he might not hit unrestricted free agency until he’s 29 and heading into his seventh season. That likely will be his only opportunity for a big-money contract.

That leads players—and the agents and buddies whispering into their ears—to the following thought: Get into the NFL as soon as possible to get that free agency clock started and get to that big money.

The result is that you’re getting more and more players leaving school early, many of whom aren’t ready.

“The college programs are having a big problem,” said one prominent NFC general manager who spends a lot of time on the road scouting. “That means the NFL has a big problem. I can only speak for me, but I want guys who have skins on the wall. A lot of these guys don’t have them, and you’re having to project even more.”

As Bent wrote, Cole’s article which Bedard uses as a cornerstone is largely agent-infused rhetoric and only a partially accurate depiction.

Regardless, water always finds the lowest channel and so too do agents when it comes to worming their way into the counsel of potential NFLers. Which seems in line with what the godfather of the draft’s take is on why this is happening.

I think the reasons for the early entry trend boils down to two factors, the first of which is competition among agents. Player representation is a very competitive business, and a lot of times if you’re an agent who is largely unknown and looking for a breakthrough, you’ll try to single out an underclassman that a more established agent hasn’t gone after yet. You have a better chance of getting that player now than you would a year from now, when you’d have to compete for these players with the higher-profile agents of the world like Tom Condon. Consequently, a lot of underclassmen are represented by less-established agents.

The second reason is more obvious: There’s a lot of money out there, and tremendous pressure on players and their families who are contacted by agents and told that their child is going to be a second-round pick if they come out early.

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So, with the increased focus on the televised NFL Draft, agents skirt NCAA rules and spin Radio City dreams (and fear of the NFL CBA) into the minds of sophomores and juniors. This was bound to happen.

And along the way, some kids on the brink might be more willing to listen to the agents if they feel it could help their family, be it parents, siblings or children.

Some players might even leave in hopes of throwing off seemingly burdensome team rules or NCAA elibility requirements. Look no further than Johnny Football’s famous June 2013 tweet.

Every Action Has an Equal and Opposite Reaction

Like most good beasts, the problem eventually becomes feeding the critter once it reaches a certain size.

Sooner or later, there’s just not enough sustenance and the beast eventually turns on the hand that feeds them. Which is where the the collegiate all star games enter the picture. The lede of Greg Bedard’s article actually began with the canary in the coal mine for this whole thing; the Senior Bowl is facing major concerns about its influence and relevance due to the lack of NFL quality talent.

The cries came from every corner in the NFL world: coaches, personnel executives and agents.

There’s nothing here. … Worst group I’ve ever seen.

They were talking about the players on display at the Senior Bowl, the premier pre-draft showcase on the field. They weren’t just whistling in Dixie. In the previous five drafts, there were an average of 10.2 Senior Bowl players draft in the first round—and no less than eight (2012). There was an average of 2.2 players taken in the top 15.

After spending most of the week in Mobile, the consensus is there were maybe three first-round talents here, with a maximum of six.

Only six potential first rounders in all of Mobile last week? Yikes. With almost twice as many underclassmen declaring as just two years ago, think about what that means for the collegiate all-star games in 2015 and beyond. The Senior Bowl is the premier event, so imagine what that means for the pools of talent at the East-West Shrine and NFLPA Collegiate bowl games.  

Worse yet, what does this mean for future NFL Draft classes? Will there be a loaded concentration of talent at the very top of the draft while the rest of the draft becomes increasingly irrelevant?  

One long-time NFL scout told Bedard that “college football is turning into the NBA [draft process]. [NCAA coaching staffs are] telling the players they can get them in and out. And half of them aren’t ready.”

If there is one good bit of news, it is that the players who are generally the smartest (and who need be the strongest) aren’t bowing to the trend. Of the 98 players who declared only seven were offensive linemen.

Meanwhile at positions where staying through four of five years means less, like at running back and wide receiver, the 2014 class is overloaded. Thirty six declarations of the 98 are centered on receivers and running backs.

The NFL’s Version of Fracking?

For decades, Peak Oil theorists have held that with increased extraction and consumption of oil, a peak would ensue followed by a terminal decline. With the rise of fracking technology, this theory has largely been shelved in the last five years and has lead to the antiquation, or at least serious delay, on the theory of Peak Oil. The principle here is that with greater determination and technological advances in the face of scarcer resources, the petroleum industry has adjusted.

While NFL scouting certainly doesn’t have as much money behind it, could the same principle be true in this brave new underclassmen driven world? NFL teams are preparing for the NFL Draft in new ways because of rules that restrict NFL scouts from delving too deep into underclassmen before they declare for the NFL Draft.

While the level of talent at the Senior Bowl is a concern for Buffalo Bills GM Doug Whaley and his Director of College Scouting Kelvin Fisher, they are adjusting to the talent shift per the Buffalo Bills website:

“It’s tougher on us as scouts because you cannot look at those guys or talk about those guys until they officially declare and the list came out on Sunday so we can only start our process now and it condenses all that information into a shorter time period,” said Whaley. “So it makes us work a lot harder and it’s tough because those are usually the best players so you want to be as thorough as possible.”

What Whaley and Fisher have done to lessen the burden on their area scouts is shrink their respective regions to allow their talent evaluators to spend more time at each of their campus stops.

“What we like to do is we condense their areas so they can have a better feel for everybody at their school,” he said. “You could watch a guy as an underclassman and not scout him, but be aware of him. So if he does decide to come out early at least you have a basis to start on and that helps you out a lot.”

To assist in the process of getting up to speed on the underclassmen this time of year the Bills and a handful of other NFL clubs rely on the BLESTO scouting service to provide a jumping off point for the 100-plus prospects that were thrust into the draft pool earlier this month. Simply put the BLESTO meetings are invaluable.

BLESTO might not be a acronym that many Jets fans are familiar with, but it stands for Bears Lions Eagles Steelers Talent Organization, and over many years has become a co-op of 12 NFL teams that share scouts and pay subscriptions into pooled scouting services. All but a handful of NFL teams participate in some shared scouting network and the Jets participate in the other big scouting co-op named “The National” which comprises 15 teams. Learn more about BLESTO and The National in this Draft Daddy article.

More from Whaley:

“This is our first chance to talk to our scouting service BLESTO on any guy they upgraded from the fall,” said Whaley. “So they’ll give us an update on those guys that they upgraded or gave a better draft grade. They’ll go over those guys and then they will also give us a breakdown of all the juniors that came out and give us a draft grade of A, B, C or D. That will allow me and (Director of Player Personnel) Jim Monos to funnel our attention to the higher rated guys.”

Essentially since BLESTO (and we assume the same for The National) are vendors and not the NFL teams themselves, different rules apply. BLESTO and The National are allowed to hold those draft grades while the NFL teams by rule are not allowed to do the same. Once the January 15 declaration window passes, it seems that the shared scouting services are free to share those underclassmen grades again with their subscribing teams.

While it sounds like a mad dash, the NFL teams can then use those grades as a starting point to begin watching film, start necessary inquiries, write reports and ultimately assign draft grades. Due to the short window of time, players with “D” and “C” grades are likely deprioritized by teams to focus their grading on the smaller subset of players over the next three months. It might be messy, but from Whaley’s statements it sounds like NFL teams are learning to adjust thanks to the help of their scouting subscription services.

One thing is certain though is that with younger players entering the league and the pressure on talented underclassmen to fill the vacuum that was created by their predecessors, teams are going to have to draft and subsequently develop more of their own talent moving forward which might pressure NFL teams to go push the competition committee to make changes to the numbers or types of roster spots in coming years.

Even so, for the allure of entering the NFL Draft early, Brandt will always give underclassmen the same advice:

Sometimes, though, what appears to be the best deal today isn’t necessarily the best deal. I know of very few players whose draft status went down because they stayed an extra year. That’s what I always try to tell these kids. If you’re an underclassman who is going to be drafted in the second round this year, you have a much better chance of advancing than going down the following year.




42 comments
SackDance99
SackDance99

While Gil Brandt is likely correct that staying through the senior season won't hurt the prospects of most underclassmen, it has hurt some of them, especially those players who experience injury or the decline of the team around him.  Coples, Brian Brohm and Matt Barkley come to mind as players who undoubtedly had their draft prospects hurt by the extra year.

blackwood1
blackwood1

We really need to kill it this draft, clean up safety issues in free agency & side a vet WR like James Jones to lead our WR core, add a draft class like this & we can really take off!


RD1)Eric Ebron

RD2)Dee Ford

RD3)Jarvis Landry / Davante Adams which ever is on the board both great!

RD3)Cyril Richardson

RD4)JuWaun James

a57se
a57se

I am surprised no one has sued the NFL over the Draft. 

Harvard Law Graduates aren't drafted into law firms. 

MIT Engineering graduates don't get told where they have to go to work....

Why should Football players be treated like cattle?

frustjetfn
frustjetfn

A college player with NFL prospects would be insane to risk injury and a big NFL paycheck to stay in college. One misstep or any hit can make a promising future disappear in an instant, so harsh reality is the real driving force and everything else is just smoke and excuses.


Also, as shocking as it may be, some people are fans of football and baseball and couldn't care less about basketball, soccer or hockey. Shocking, isn't it?

harold
harold

Excellent article Bassett. When i saw it I was like this is a lot of good reading. Enjoyed the thoroughness of the article. A lot of good points, from early entrants to the conglomerates in the scouting community. Good stuff

juunit
juunit

Also, it'll be interesting to see how things change again whenever the whole paying college athlete thing resolves itself. It seems to be gaining steam, so I think there will be some kind of conclusion to it in the next few years. Apparently a bunch of kids at Northwestern are trying to form a college players union.

juunit
juunit

I think the rise of the internet plays a huge role in it. Everyone sees themselves as a draft expert now. They watch players on Youtube and read scouting reports. Then they follow it closely because they want to be proven right. "I said this player was gonna do this, this and this. And look! I WAS RIGHT!" Sometimes it honestly feels like the offseason stuff interests fans more than the actual season. And that is especially true for baseball too.


7.7 million viewers is huge, especially for an event that's really boring as s*** to watch. Hell, there's even a Kevin Costner movie coming out about the draft. And it's only gonna get bigger. Soon enough there will be parades and go-go dancers and naked women jell-o wrestling.

a57se
a57se

I think a bigger concern for these younger guys and something NFL teams would be wise to monitor is if these underclassmen are physically ready for the NFL. A good case in point was Stephen Hill. He had just turned 21 when the Jets drafted him yet 5 months later he was starting in the NFL. He has already had knee surgery and was IR'd this year with knee swelling. His rehab plan? Strengthen the muscles around the knee so the joint had the support it needs.


D
D

Maturity will always be the issue and a great combine will always boost peoples stock.   Draft wisely and do your research.  A lot of these kids will not make it at the next level. 

a57se
a57se

Nice post BB! With the short career span of the NFL and the stupidity of NCAA rules, i can understand why a lot of athletes would want to move on.

Brendan
Brendan

Nice read, BB. Well done. 

Disgruntled Jets Fan
Disgruntled Jets Fan

@a57se no one would complain about being drafted into their jobs if that was the starting salary.

 med school residency is similar to a draft actually.



Pat d
Pat d

Football players don't have to play for the NFL

Zartan
Zartan

Your too ahead of the curve sir, you'll have to wait for that answer.

Pat d
Pat d

The problem is that last year 29% of these underclass men with NFL prospects did not make it last year. This year it will be near 50%. A lot of young men are getting bad advice.

madbacker
madbacker

@juunit an outgoing QB with who cant go back to school is worried about paying his medical bills. Who is also not likely to be drafted or play in the NFL. As a former college player and UFL player, things like this make us look bad. Yes I played a D2 school so it wasn't as intense as a D1 school, but I went out and got myself a degree in Finance and Economics thanks to my scholarship . Degrees which i have been able to use to get a career in finance since being done with football. However, I knew going in that no one is going to cover my medical expenses after college. Looking for "rights" to additional funds has its merits; however, athletes like these don't see the big picture and most likely did not take full advantage of the chance at an education. Take a school like Bama and Miami. If they had to start treating players as employees, which will be required by law for them to be unionize. The players will loose their scholarships, have to pay taxes, their medical coverage by the school could be subject to the same plans that the rest of the staff, the school could also charge them for additional use of medical facilities will be covered by the school, until they get employed by the NFL.  So in-addition to paying for equipment, training and coaching staff, paying for real needs at the school, now schools will have to pay players. Most of which wouldn't get into the school to begin with if not for sports. Well look at what happened at St. John's and Hofstra, when the costs of the program go to high, the program goes away. I did read somewhere that Colter has discussed going to med school as a fall back but as a psychology major passing his MCATs won't be that easy. On the flip side he does sound like he has a promising career in politics.

davem
davem

I think rather than always playing catch up, colleges should get a step ahead for once... and pay players in marijuana.

a57se
a57se

@juunit 

I'll sign up for the naked women Jell-O wrestling!

UncleJoesJetFarm
UncleJoesJetFarm

@juunit  

"Soon enough there will be parades and go-go dancers and naked women jell-o wrestling. "  I'm in!

D
D

@Brendanthats pretty awesome, especially the guy in the Mevis jersey...............classic, hahahaha

Marty Luc
Marty Luc

@a57se i don't think that stephen hill's knee issues had anything to do with his readiness for the nfl. when he was drafted he was 6-4 210lbs. that's bigger than over 1/2 the veteran wr's in the league. 


those same knee issues could have and possibly would have happened even if he had stayed all 4 years in college. 


the only difference is that he would have had to wait a year longer to get a contract than he did by coming out early. 

bob
bob

@a57se


 Once we I'm convinced that the O-line is strong like our d-line is, then I'll move on ..I say draft in the trenches boys the 0-line is still incomplete.  

Brendan
Brendan

@Disgruntled Jets Fan Football players are independent contractors that enter into a union in order to play in a privately-owned league. 


If Merril Lynch held a draft every year to hire 10 finance graduates, every freaking finance graduate in the world is throwing their name into the pot. 

juunit
juunit

@madbacker 

Kain Colter you mean? He's got a future in the NFL, so I don't think he's gotta worry about it until he's in his 30's. He's like Brad Smith except better. Actually has played WR in college and done pretty well there. I actually want to see us draft him, I've always liked him. Ideal guy to run the wildcat, can actually throw. I think he could be an Antwaan Randle El type.

I think one of the biggest issues to paying college athletes is a sport by sport thing. In most cases, the only teams who really bring money in are the football and basketball teams. So why should the volleyball team get anything? But then, when they don't, it's unfair. Then there's the other issue of what you'd pay them. Does a good player make more money? Does the 3rd string kicker make the same as the star QB? I'm kind of happy I'm not involved in this process, because I really don't know the best answer.


I'm not saying that athletes don't deserve some share of the profits they create. At the same time though, I know for a fact that the football team gets star treatment at Miami. They've got special lounges with pool tables and terraces overlooking the practice field they and only they can use whenever they want. So it's not as if they get nothing, along with the full scholarship for being on the team.

bob
bob

@SackDance99@bob@a57se


Sounds good to me I hoping for the best when it comes to Winters and Colon. Note colon is injury prone and Winters still has to progress for the better.. if any thing happens to any one of our lineman then what will the season end up looking like...slicing things way to thin. We need more play makers on the line..Oh wait the o-line played great last year that's right ..

SackDance99
SackDance99

@bob@a57seRemember, there's a learning curve on the OL, too.  I like Yankey and I liked DeCastro before him, but DeCastro had an injury-plagued first season and looked like a bust before he showed this past season that he's the real deal.


Maybe Winters hits the weight room and adds the bulk he needs to be more effective or maybe Campbell comes into camp as a beast.  Or maybe's there a UDFA or castoff that turns into a gem.  Plus, it seems to me that some of the best offensive linemen started out as late round picks.  So, I don't disagree about getting more OLs into camp, it's just that I don't think it's something to think about for the first 5 rounds.

juunit
juunit

@Brendan@Disgruntled Jets Fan 

They almost basically do already. It's just that there's one round and no UDFA's. They've even got their own scouting combine. My brother worked for Wells Fargo, not Merril Lynch, but they all operate the same. They hire recent graduates into a two year program to see if they've got it, then make them an offer or not for a permanent job at the end of it. And they work them a solid 6 days for 15 hours a day those two years.

juunit
juunit

@madbacker@juunit 

I'm not sure there's really a solution though. We're talking about a bunch of 20 year olds, so lots of them just aren't gonna understand the consequences no matter how many times someone tries to hammer it home. Especially because planning for a future that possibly doesn't include football would mean admitting they might not achieve their dream. 


I've got two friends in the draft this year. One of them is gonna be real borderline on whether he gets drafted or not. Though I think he'll at least get a chance with a team. Both of them did get their degrees though. 


The life of the 53rd man definitely isn't easy. At the same time though, $400,000 a year is awesome money if they can stick it out on the team for the whole season. I understand that it's less awesome if you only get it for let's say 7 years then have no way to work again. But if you manage that money right, it can still work. A couple million is more than most people make in a lifetime. The problem is obviously the people who don't make it, then have no skills outside of football. I guess the NCAA instead of paying players can have some type of program to help former athletes who need the money. But, since that list gets bigger every year, I'm not sure that's really feasible. The NCAA makes good money, but not like the NFL. A program like that would even bruise the NFL's pockets.

Pat d
Pat d

F the wildcat.

madbacker
madbacker

@juunit @madbacker   I can't say in any of my years playing that I have ever heard a pro player who plans ahead for their future complain about money and the need to get paid. I also have never heard a college play talk about life after football, it's usually just how life will be like when we are in the NFL. However,  I have heard more sound arguments from girls sports and wrestling teams, baseball teams. That they don't get their fair share of the money. To quote Merriman, rookies coming out of college are told by agents that we need 5-7 cars, 3 houses. The whole way college football players are handled is just wrong. This posting is about more "underclassman" declaring for the draft. The NFL rules state you need to be 3 yrs removed from high school to be able to enter the draft, thus if you do everything right you are entering the draft between the ages of 20-22, which is about the same age that most are graduating. Look at a senior like Jordan Matthews who is graduating at 22. Yet an "underclassman" like richardson leaves his junior year at 22-23? Harris graduated at 23-24. While I understand the need for a redshirt year due to injury and or being stashed because a better player is still in school at your position. However, the fact that once again "underclassman" declaring are on the rise AND you have to be 20-21 to go into the draft. There is the concern as to why are there so many guys who are over 20 (most closer to 22-23) still Juniors. College teams aren't doing these kids any favors keeping them around, esp. when to remain in school they have to be enrolled in the school which mean at least 1-2 courses, which most likely (like my my own teammates) were not in hard subjects. I mean Matt Leinart took dancing class. 

Players at most D1 school do get star treatment, I pointed out Miami and Bama because in Miami's case they are an underrated college due to the athlete's overshadowing that their business school is one of the best in the nation. That fact is do LARGELY to the money that the football team brings in, allows the school to spend more on teachers and facilities. But if you have to start paying players then the school will take a hit. I mentioned Bama because they too benefit as a school from the money that the football team brings in. Hell it would be VERY interesting if a school like ND who is the only team in NCAA who has their OWN TV deal, had to pay out players. I don't know a single school that benefits as much as ND does from their Alumi and TV deal and football team than they do. I mentioned I played at D2 and we didn't get star treatment but many guys on my team did expect that everything would be handed to them and didn't plan ahead for their life, they thought because they went to school for football that football would always be there. Since college 5 teammates have been in and out of the CFL and 6 are over in Europe playing in Spain and Germany. I went on to be in the UFL for the fun of it but quickly I realized not many were in the league for the fun of the sport. They were in it for the money and when they found out that our contracts didn't allow for us to jump back to the NFL without an NFL team buying out the contract. That our demand was way down people got P*$$ed, it also didn't help that owners weren't paying all the salaries. But again most of the guys in the UFL were pros who got cut or college players who didn't make it in the draft or also got cut. Not 1 agent or coach will sit down with a college player or pro and tell them to plan for their future, they are just a means for ownership to make money and that's wrong.  As far as Kain, at 6'0 195, the highest I have ever seen him being drafted is in the 5th round. Not saying that it is impossible that he carves out a career. Considering the way that the CBA is written, based on my own experience, knowing guys in the NFL currently and quoting ex players like Ray Edwards who is now a Boxer. He stated the NFL is a machine now, granted he was bad mouthing Mike Smith for his poor showing in Atlanta after landing a monster deal. His point is true, once you become replaceable then you have no value. With the CBA favoring teams being built on young players because they are cheaper. Rookies really have to step up and prove sooner rather than later that they are worth keeping around. A WR in the 5th round has the odds stacked against him. Look at guys like Joe McKnight, Wallace Wright, yes they can continue to get un-guaranteed vet. minimum deals. But would you want that to be your life constantly moving from city to city, sometimes several times during a season? Look at V.G., Ryan Leaf,  Travis Johnson, first round guys who had the odds in their favor and didn't pan out. It's not that easy and it gets even harder when you are drafted in the later rounds.