Feeding the Beast
Brian Bassett, TheJetsBlog.comThe 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.
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.
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.