Underclassmen and the Draft

The NFL has released the official list of underclassmen that have declared their eligibility for the 2015 NFL draft. We will get into the numbers later in this article, but first the subject of the decision to leave or stay in school will be discussed.

The Decision

A player’s economic situation and self-interest should lead a player to the decision that is right for him. The traditional approach would be to fire up your spreadsheet and compare the present values of the expected compensation from being drafted in 2015 versus 2016 and go from there. The problem, though, is that there are too many variables for a meaningful analysis.

The NFL Combine is still a month away and a player must make a decision without knowing where he will be drafted in the current draft (four months away) or the next draft (sixteen months away). There are other variables (such as the change in the salary cap, etc.) but draft position is the main one.

This situation is a little like the one faced by an old-timer like me when it comes to deciding when to begin taking Social Security payments. If you knew when you were going to die, the decision would be easy. Similarly, if a player knew his draft position in both years his decision would be much easier.

This puts a premium on gathering as much information as possible. The NFL tries to help the players make realistic decisions through the use of its NFL Draft Advisory Board. The Board consists of a variety of general managers, personnel directors and representatives of the scouting combines. Upon request, the Board will tell a player if he should expect to be selected in the first two rounds. A player’s agent also is presumably helpful in this regard. But even under the best of circumstances a player is going to be making a decision based on incomplete information.

A player can somewhat mitigate the risk of returning to school by using insurance to protect against injury. Two types of insurance are employed. The first is disability insurance that protects against injuries that end a player’s career. The second is loss of value insurance that protects against injuries that do not end a player’s career but drops them down in the draft. Southern Cal players Marqise Lee and Morgan Breslin both purchased loss of value insurance. To the best of my knowledge the claims by these players are still in progress, but such a loss is much more subjective than a loss from complete disability (e.g., no more football). Lee for example, was drafted in the second round but many had projected him as a first rounder. Was this drop due to injury or was he overrated prior to the draft? Situations like this make loss of value claims difficult to prove and, unless Lee or Breslin have done so and it has not been reported in the media, no player has yet collected on this insurance.

The decision of whether to enter the draft is pretty consequential for a player. While some talk, and rightly so, about a player’s second contract and the value of getting to it a year earlier there are large dollars at play even in the initial contract. Based on last year’s first round contracts (and using a 5% discount rate, which is the rate typically used by the NFL in deferred payment arrangements) the net present value for the #1 choice is about $20 million compared to about $6 million for the #32 pick.

So what is a player to do? For some players, family situations, academics and the like make the decision to leave school an easy one. At the other end of the spectrum, some players cannot be dissuaded from returning to school. A common thread I see in looking at statements made by such players is that there is “unfinished business” at the college level. Presumably, this refers to trying to lead their team to a national championship. Is this a case of misplaced loyalty? It depends on the player and the value he places on that championship. In any event, at both end of the spectrum there is no need for a precise economic analysis.

It is just one man’s unsupported opinion, but my view is that if a player is reasonably certain of being selected in the first round they should make the jump. Too many things can happen that result in a player dropping in the draft. Matt Leinart is the classic case where he could have presumably been the first selection in 2005 but returned to school and dropped to #10 in the 2006 draft, costing him millions of dollars. I am sure there are plenty of cases where delaying entry has worked to a player’s benefit but it is difficult to identify those because there is always the unknown of where he would have been drafted if he had declared early.

The Numbers

Please note the numbers used in this section are only for player’s requesting special eligibility (i.e., they have not graduated). This excludes players like Marcus Mariota from the analysis. There are a few constants regarding underclassmen and the draft and there is no reason to expect that 2015 will be any different. First, there are certain to be a lot of disappointed players. In 2014, 37 of the 98 players who declared did not get drafted. Another constant is that a high percentage of the players that do get drafted are selected early. Almost one-third of the players who declare are drafted in the first three rounds. This indicates that most of the players at the top of the class are getting pretty good advice.

It is interesting to look at the early declarers by playing position. Here is a summary for the past three years:

What jumps off the page for me is the low percentage of offensive linemen and linebackers that declare early. Offensive linemen are somewhat understandable because they are big guys who take longer to physically mature. But why line backers? There is no readily apparent explanation for that one.

More detailed data for 2013 and 2014 is as follows:

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