The tradeoff? The very best frequently elect to leave Alabama after their third seasons in order to play professional football.
Nick Saban doesn’t object to those who are going to be good enough to make it in pro ball after leaving early. After all, he is on the recruiting trail, and Alabama leading the nation in having players drafted and having number one draft picks taken, and even in having a large number of underclassmen taken in the draft is the best story he can tell the stars who have completed their high school careers.
It is a beneficial circle. Good players come in and are developed for the NFL. More good players want to follow them to Alabama to be prepared for the next level.
Those on the outside looking in have a problem in determining which underclassmen might declare for the draft. That doesn’t mean Bama fans don’t know that wide receiver Amari Cooper and safety Landon Collins, both with a year’s eligibility remaining, aren’t going to declare for the draft. Consider those two gone.
But it’s sometimes hard to judge. At the end of the 2009 national championship season, it was a given that linebacker Rolando McClain would end his college career a year early. But what was cornerback Kareem Jackson thinking when he announced he would leave early for the NFL draft? Obviously, we see in hindsight, he was thinking pretty well. He was the 20th player taken in the first round.
In the last five years, Saban has seen 37 Bama players drafted, 15 of them in the first round.
The real question revolves around underclassmen, usually juniors but sometimes players who were redshirted but who have been out of high school for three years (which is the NFL eligibility criterion).
Why don’t all college players who have completed their junior seasons declare for the NFL draft?
For many years there was one huge deterrent, and it’s still in place. Once a player declares for the draft, his college career is over. Not drafted? Tough luck. Last year there were 107 underclassmen who declared for the draft and 45 of them were not selected.
(There have been proposals that a player who is not drafted have the option to return to his school, but at least one problem is that schools have been recruiting new players with the thought that the underclassmen opting for the draft would be gone. There is an overall scholarship limit of 85. Schools could hardly be expected to hold spots in the event the players are not drafted.)
This year that draft declaration comes Jan. 15 for underclassmen to enter the NFL draft that will be in Chicago (the first time in 50 years it has not been in New York) April 30-May 2 at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University
Now there is another roadblock in the form of NFL advisory committee policy changes.
In the past, there was no limit to the number of underclassmen who could request information on where they might be drafted and 214 applied. This year there is a limit of five per school (although the committee can agree to grade more from one school in certain situations).
Eight schools, including Alabama, exceeded five requests last year. The others were LSU, Florida State, Miami, South Carolina, Oregon, Stanford and Cal. LSU led the way with 11 requests, while Alabama, Florida State and Miami had 10 apiece.
Saban sees the problem. “It used to be 30 guys then it was 50 and then all of a sudden it was 100. And I think everybody realizes this is not good for anybody. Those guys who were’t drafted last year or didn’t make a team would all be in the draft this year and they would have developed in college another year and they would probably be those third to fifth round guys that are the core of the draft past the very top players.
There is another change. In the past, the NFL advisory committee could give one of five grades: as high as the first round; as high as the second round; as high as the third round; no potential to go in the first three rounds; and no potential to be drafted. The committee has cut that down to three categories -- first round, second round, and, basically, “Stay in school!”
Understandably, Saban -- who spent eight years in the NFL as an assistant coach, coordinator, and head coach -- has been on top of this situation and he discussed it.
He said, “I always allow all the guys who are draft eligible to come to me and say ‘I’d like to know what my draft status is.’ In obvious situations – talking about guys who have a pretty good chance to be first round draft picks – we give the information that allows them to get junior evaluations.
“For (both) the other guys and those top guys, I get some teams to give me an opinion about where they would draft. So if guys aren’t in that top category, I tell them.
“So we only let the guys who have a chance to be top guys to get a first round grade, a second round grade, or a go back to school grade. If they get a go back to school grade, that doesn’t mean they can’t enter the draft. They just aren’t going to rank them.”
Not that they always did that good a job. Saban talked about “the inefficiency of the previous system in terms of the mistakes they made and the information people were getting and then what actually happened.
“At some point in time if we don’t get off of this cycle of a whole bunch of guys going out for the draft that shouldn’t go out for the draft, and this thing of people selling them on that they can get to their second contract soon, they don’t tell them there is less than a 33 per cent chance if you are a sixth round draft choice you are going to get a second contract ever. And if you get drafted in those rounds you are very ‘cutable’ based on the investment that a team has to make in you.
“So why not go back to school and get a degree and try to become a higher pick where you have a better chance and a better investment and a better business decision and a better future?
“It’s not really about where you get drafted. It’s about what kind of career you’re going to have and how long you’re going to be able to play.”
NEXT: Which Alabama players with eligibility remaining are likely to declare for the draft?