In the 2014 NFL Draft, there were 102 players with college football eligibility left who chose to leave school early for the draft. Up until the 2013 draft, the number of early entries was a more manageable 50 or so annually.
In 2013, the number of early entries jumped to over 75, and of course, we had the unusually high number this year. When the draft ended on May 10th, over 35 of those players went undrafted. Most of the undrafted players ended up signing free agent contracts within a few hours of the draft ending, but still, their goal of being drafted or being drafted high did not happen.
Some players who didn’t get drafted, like tackle Antonio Richardson of Tennessee and defensive tackle Anthony Johnson of LSU thought that when they entered the draft, they would be premium draft picks. Why did this happen?
The Evaluation Process
Every underclassmen who enters the draft is thoroughly evaluated just like the seniors in the draft. The evaluation process not only pertains to their play on the field but also includes character and medical evaluation. If, after all the information is in, the risk outweighs the reward, teams ultimately decide to pass on drafting these players.
There are some players who, at the time of the medical exam, don't even know they have/had an issue. The medical exams that players take are so sophisticated that they uncover everything from orthopedic problems to internal medicine issues. This turns out to be a good thing as most problems are treatable and, with the right treatment, can be managed.
Some players who give up their final years of eligibility, do so thinking they are better players than they really are. Instead of listening to their coaches or the NFL underclassmen advisory committee, they listen to the media, agents, their families, and friends. This can give them an exaggerated opinion of themselves.
Let’s take Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for example. When he entered the draft shortly after Louisville’s Bowl Game, the media had him as the odds-on favorite to be the top pick in the draft. Most of the draft analyst community also had Teddy as the draft's top player.
The problem with this is, neither the media nor the draft analysts work for NFL clubs. They are not professional evaluators, nor do they have access to the coach’s tape needed to do a proper evaluation. While they think they know, they don’t. They are only guessing. In Bridgewater’s case, they were way off.
Which begs the question, if Bridgewater knew he was not going to be the top pick, or even a top five pick, would he have come out? We will never know the real answer to that question.
There are a number of other underclassmen, who when they decided to enter the draft, thought they were lock first round players. Some of these players include USC receiver Marqise Lee, Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, Notre Dame defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt, and Florida State defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan. All had to be disappointed when they got drafted in the second round.
When the NFL and the NFLPA negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement before the 2011 season, the big money contracts given to first round players became a thing of the past. No longer were high first round picks getting 50 to 60 million dollar deals.
Top five picks now get deals that are much closer to 19 to 22 million over four years, with an option clause for the fifth year. The big money is now in a player's second contract if he, in fact, makes it to that second contract and is good enough to be rewarded with a big money deal.
When the agents are recruiting the college underclassmen, they are using the new CBA as a recruiting tool. They are telling the underclassmen that they are much better off entering the NFL now. By starting the clock, so to speak, on their NFL career, they are that much closer to getting a second contract that will pay much more money.
There is a problem with that recruiting philosophy. First, the player has to make the team, not once, but four times. He cannot get to that second contract until he has played in the league four years.
Also, if the player isn’t physically and mentally mature enough to handle the rigors of NFL football, he has virtually no chance of getting to that second contract.
Lastly, because the new CBA is only three years old, we don’t have any statistics on what the "second contract" will look like. How many of these players will actually hit the jackpot with their second contract. Since none of these players have reached that point, there is no actual truth in using that narrative as a recruiting tool.
The difference of how the league and clubs feel on the subject
As a former scouting director, I can tell you the more underclassmen in the draft, the better. It obviously makes the talent pool larger, which means it should be easier to draft quality players. Coaches feel the same way. They have to win every year to keep their jobs. With that being said, they need new top players every year so their program has a chance to get better.
If we went to a draft without underclassmen, the first one would be a horrible draft, because many of the top players had entered the draft the previous year. There needs to be a new influx of underclassmen to keep the overall talent level of each draft high.
The NFL on the other hand, has to deal with the colleges and the College Coaches' Association. The colleges want to keep their top players as long as they can. Losing a high number of quality players with eligibility to the NFL every year causes a rift between the league and the colleges.
The colleges respond by making it more difficult for scouts to get to get access to players and tape for evaluation purposes. What the colleges don’t realize is that the problem does not start with the NFL. The problem starts with the media and agents speculating as to how good these players actually are. Many times they are wrong with those evaluations.
Just as an example, how many times have you watched a college game on TV and heard the analyst say that a certain player is a sure first round pick? They should never say such stupid things because they just don’t know. A large majority of the time, they aren’t close to being right with their prediction.
A possible solution
I feel the easiest way to correct the problem is through education. Both the NFL and the college coaches have to do a better job in educating college players on the evaluation process. Very few college coaches and players really know how the evaluation process even works or what is entailed. Having someone visit the campuses of the top level conferences and teach both the coaches and players as to what goes into the process would be a start.
Another thing that needs to be improved is the NFL’s College Underclassmen Advisory Committee. I worked on that committee for several years, and I always felt it to be counterproductive. A player can submit his name to the advisory committee late in the season for an evaluation. Because there is an influx of names, all at one time, it can take weeks to get the evaluation back to the player. Each of the NFL clubs is involved in this process and are assigned names by the committee as the names come in.
Being that this usually happens in December, which is already a busy month for scouting departments, the scouting director is not the one who always does the evaluation. Many times the name is given to one of their scouts, and that person hurries through the process. When I was involved in the process, I know clubs weren’t totally honest with their underclassmen evaluation, because having a certain player in the draft didn’t interest them.
Another thing that hurts the process is the limited information on the underclassmen clubs are asked to evaluate. When a scout makes a school visit, he can’t ask questions about underclassmen unless the school volunteers that information. Because of that, scouts don’t have pertinent medical, character, and work habit information that is all vital in making a proper evaluation.
Instead of having clubs' scouts doing this evaluation in a hurried manner in December, there should be a group of league scouts with no club affiliation doing all the underclassmen evaluations during the whole college season. These “scouts” can make calls to the schools to get the pertinent information. This way, they are able to make a more informed non-partial opinion on each player.
If the process were done this way, the players would get a better idea of their true value from the league. This would enable the player to make a smart decision based on facts versus listening to an agent, a draft analyst, or a hurried opinion coming from the league. It could be a win for all involved.
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