Alabama Coach Nick Saban as seen by many as a micromanager because of his attention to detail in the process that has made the Crimson Tide football team the nation’s most successful in his nine-year tenure. In truth, Saban has demonstrated time and again that he is a big picture person.
This spring he has discussed in more detail his thoughts on players leaving college early to enter the NFL draft. In the past he has explained his conversations with Alabama players regarding leaving early. This year he noted that he thought that Derrick Henry, the Heisman Trophy winning tailback who was instrumental in the Crimson Tide’s 2015 national championship, should go out early, that there was nothing more he could do in college to enhance his status with the NFL.
The NFL landscape is littered with former Alabama players, including several who entered the draft following their junior seasons. Last year wide receiver Amari Cooper left early for the NFL and was a first round draft choice and made the Pro Bowl. Safety Landon Collins and tailback T.J. Yeldon also went out early and both were drafted in the second round last year.
The list of early departures who were first round draft picks out of Alabama goes on and on – tailbacks Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, wide receiver Julio Jones; defensive backs Dee Milliner, Dre Kirkpatrick, HaHa Clinton-Dix, and Kareem Jackson; offensive lineman Andre Smith; defensive lineman Marcell Dareus; linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Rolando McClain.
Saban said, “We haven't had many that came out that shouldn't, but you can look all over the country and figure that one out.”
On the other hand, Saban said, there are many who improved their draft status by staying until their college eligibility expired, including offensive linemen D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack and linebacker C.J. Mosley.
Saban knows something about the NFL draft and about developing players to play professional football. In his time at Alabama there have been 51 players drafted, including 17 in the first round.
Saban’s long and distinguished coaching career included many years in the NFL, and the contacts he has in pro football are valuable in assessing the prospects for Alabama players who are interested in the NFL draft.
The 2015 Alabama team was undoubtedly helped by linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive end Jarran Reed electing to return for their senior seasons. Both are now projected as first round picks for this year’s draft.
In addition to Henry, Tide defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson – projected as a first rounder – elected to forego his senior season for the NFL.
A handful who probably considered turning pro elected to return for their senior seasons, including linebackers Reuben Foster and Ryan Anderson, tight end O.J. Howard, and safety Eddie Jackson.
The NFL brings numerous players to its February Combine to work out for pro scouts, go through interviews, etc. The decisions on which players will be invited is made in early December. An excellent performance by Bama quarterback Jake Coker in the College Football Playoff victories over Michigan State and Clemson came too late to elevate Coker to Combine status.
But Saban thinks it was more than that, and he is speaking out on it and discussing the problem with both college coaches and NFL people.
"I think this is not a relationship between college football and Jake Coker,” Saban said. “This is something that affects college football and it also affects the NFL. I have talked to several guys in the NFL as well as college guys about their concerns in terms of how guys get rated that come out for the draft early, how can we have a better process of that.
“The response is that I think everybody is looking for a better way from a college standpoint as well as from an NFL standpoint. Ninety-seven [juniors] come out for the draft this year. All those guys obviously can't get drafted in the first or second round, so it takes up spots at the Combine. People want to draft guys that are going to be starters.
“How many of those guys that went out for the draft, if they stayed in college for a year and developed, and entered the NFL more ready to contribute in a year, would have a better chance to have careers as a football player rather than being shortsighted, being a fourth, fifth or sixth round draft pick that has a minimal chance of making a team and an even smaller chance of having a career that has any longevity at all?
“The average NFL life expectancy is three-and-a-half years. And you're stuck with the bad contract. You're going to play for close to minimum wage and get a marginal signing bonus at best. A guy could tell me, 'I'm going to get drafted in the fourth round and show them I'm going to make the Pro Bowl every year.' I say, 'Go ahead, you're going to play on a three- or four-year contract and make no money.'
“So Jarran Reed comes back to school and has a chance to be a first round pick and is going to be a first round pick because he developed and became a better player. I think that's what the NFL wants guys to do, because they struggle to develop players in their current system because they have no minor league. They have no place to send a player.
“So if you have no role on a team and you can't be a starter, play on special teams or be an adequate backup, you're not going to make the team. So where do you go from there? You have nothing. A lot of guys fall into that.
“And guys say 'I'm going to do it for my family' and all that. You'll do better for your family if you stay in school and graduate from college and make more money next year. Look at the record of the number of guys that we've had that had third and second round grades and moved up and became first round picks since we've been here, and look at the position and status of their career.
“So that's an issue for everyone. The NFL doesn't want it and it effects the quality of college football, but more importantly, it affects the young man and his future in terms of developing a career off the field and giving him the best chance to have a career on the field."