First, the good news for the league's 32 general managers: More talented players in the draft means more opportunities to improve your team.
Second, the bad news: For plenty of the underclassmen, it's a case of, "Ready or not, here we come!" Not that a senior prospect is a polished player and person, but that one year can be a big difference in terms of physical and mental maturity.
"I think there's a lot of mixed emotions around the NFL because I don't think the scouts and the coaches are in any way trying to push kids out of college," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "I think it's easier to evaluate a player that's been there for four or five years; he's more physically mature and hopefully he's more socially aware and secure. You get a more mature football player, so it takes some of the variables out of play. So, I think a lot of teams think there is more risk out there associated with the evaluation process. However, especially in the first round, there are better football players out there the last few years. It's really helped the first round. The first round has become more and more dominated by underclassmen."
The risk for teams is obvious. From spring practice to the end of the season, scouts spend all season studying the senior class. When the underclassmen left school, the teams had to go to school to learn about the players sending in their collegiate resumes. That means it's a crash course in a profession in which scouts leave no stone unturned.
"Up until now, you haven't had any access to them and you didn't really do them in the fall like you normally do the oncoming seniors," Packers general manager Ted Thompson said at the Scouting Combine.
That's perhaps the underrated value of the Scouting Combine. Each team is granted 60 formal interviews with prospects there. Because teams had access to the senior prospects at the all-star games, most teams use the bulk of their 60 interviews for getting-to-know-you sessions with the juniors.
The problem is, the promise of fame and fortune will be replaced by a stark reality for too many of the underclassmen.
Unfortunately, the lure of the NFL is too strong for too many players who simply aren't ready for prime time. For every Jadeveon Clowney, the potential No. 1 overall pick from South Carolina, there will be a Carlos Gray, a defensive tackle from North Carolina State who almost certainly won't get drafted.
"Look at this place. Who wouldn't want to be here?" Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said at the Scouting Combine. "This has become quite an opportunity. It's a big deal and the NFL is very proud of it. Yes, more and more guys are going to declare for the draft. I think the thing to look at is, in the end, how many of these kids that are juniors do get drafted? Are some of these kids coming into the league or declaring for the draft, should they stay on a college campus? Because if they ask me, I would tell them all to stay. It's definitely the greatest time of their life when they're on a college campus, so enjoy that as long as you can. None of us jumped up to go to work right away, did we? We were glad we didn't have to go to work, so I don't know why they would do anything different. But the problem is that, right now, they don't see this as work. Believe me, we're going to change their minds."
According to Dave-Te' Thomas, the NFL's longtime head scout and author of the NFL Draft Report, about half of this year's first round will be populated by underclassmen. Some of it is projecting, but there's little doubt that there are plenty of juniors who are considered physically ready to enter the NFL.
But are they emotionally ready?
"I think as a general rule, guys that complete their eligibility in college are more prepared, more mature and ready to play in the NFL than underclassmen," said Thompson, who got major impacts from junior-entries Eddie Lacy and David Bakhtiari in last year's draft. "By definition, most of the guys that come out as underclassmen are extraordinarily talented. It's a horse a piece. An ideal situation for me, and I'm just speaking for myself as the general manager of the Packers, we would prefer that all the players would get their education, finish out their eligibility and I think they'll be more prepared to play in the NFL. But that's not to say that there aren't juniors who can come in and play competitively in the NFL. Some of them have great, long careers and everything is fine."
To a certain extent, ability trumps maturity. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said it will be up to the teams to speed along that maturation process.
"You don't know what the junior class will be, so you anticipate and try to predict what that will be until you know for sure," Colbert said. "The juniors added into it make it a very talented group. But the one thing that we talk about with these juniors — or any of the underclassmen, the redshirt sophomores — we are very cautiously optimistic about their emotional and physical readiness for this. This is a huge jump. Even though (the overall draft class is) a more talented group, or the most talented group that I have seen, I am also worried that it's probably the most immature group. We have to be prepared for more player development type of programs or maybe enhancing your player development to get the most out of these younger players."
A CONTINUING TREND
That there's a record number of underclassmen in this draft is hardly big news. In fact, this is the fourth consecutive year in which a record number of underclassmen tried to peddle their abilities to the NFL.
The trend is rooted in the collective bargaining agreement that was finalized after the 2011 lockout. Gone are the megabucks deals like the one signed by Sam Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft. His six-year, $76 million deal included $50 million guaranteed. Now, each team is given a rookie pool to sign all of their rookies, and the draft picks' salaries essentially are set in stone. Last year's top pick, Eric Fisher, got $22.2 million over four years with about $14.5 million guaranteed. Hardly chump change, to be sure, but it's a significant difference. Now, a rookie can't get a new contract until after his third season. Thus, the bigger money isn't available until a player's second contract. And the fastest way to that second contract is to get to the NFL ASAP.
"I think they're all discussing it with their coaches, and their families, and their agents," Andrew Brandt, an NFL business analyst for ESPN following a tenure as the Packers' capologist, told USA Today, "and I'm sure one of the things they're discussing is, well, this new CBA pretty much is restricting rookie contracts no matter whether I take it this year or next year. Might as well start the clock."
So, more and more players are starting the clock a year early.
In 2011, 56 underclassmen entered the draft. Of those, 43 were drafted (76.8 percent), with 15 of those going in the first round and 11 more in the second.
In 2012, 65 underclassmen entered the draft. Of those, 47 were drafted (67.7 percent), with 15 of those going in the first round and eight more in the second.
In 2013, 73 underclassmen entered the draft. Of those, 52 were selected (71.2 percent), with 17 of those going in the first round and 11 in the second.
"With 98 (plus four underclassmen who earned their degrees) on board for the 2014 draft, most teams agree that this record-high amount does not bode well for the talent base in college for future drafts," said Thomas, the NFL's evaluator.
The impact has been evident on Saturdays as well as at the all-star games, which are reserved for seniors and degree-holding underclassmen.
"The overall health of football is at stake here when you consider the college game is really the life blood of the NFL in terms of it being the developmental or minor-league system that's in his place," said Phil Savage, the executive director of the Senior Bowl and a former NFL scout and general manager. "In a lot of respects, I think the vast majority of NFL people will tell you that unless the player is a bona fide top-15 or consensus first-round pick, then they would like to see the player go back, get another year of school in, potentially get his degree and then enter the league.
"The argument on the other side of it is, it doesn't matter where you get drafted. Go ahead and get integrated into the CBA system so that you're a year closer to potential free agency and a second contract. The reality of it is, the percentages are very low for these players to reach a second contract, almost regardless of where they're drafted. From the college end of things, when you have 100 players leave, it definitely hurts. On the pro side of things, 100 additional players, that's essentially three more rounds of players potentially on top of the other 300 or 400 seniors that are out there. So, there's going to be a lot of players that are left off the boat. As it stands right now, if they have a year or year-and-a-half or two-year career when they fall out of favor, there's really no place to go and many of them do not have their degree, so it ends up being a bad ending to the story."
There might be plenty of unhappy endings when the seventh round concludes on May 10. Thomas, in particular, sees plenty of disappointment among this year's underclassmen. He said as many as half might be scrambling for spots in undrafted free agency.
"We've got Pandora's Box open," Thomas said. "They've got to do something to stop this. My God, look at the (all-star) games. When you've got four guys from Tennessee State playing in the Senior Bowl – not the University of Tennessee – something's wrong. I think what might fix it is this year's crop and seeing half of them sitting on the unemployment line. It's the only way. Me, I look at this draft and there's about 30 guys that I like out of the underclass crowd to make my team. That's it. There will be 40 or 45 drafted, but there's about 30 guys that I can see coming in and contributing. Out of that, I see 17 starters."
What's the solution? Savage has a couple of ideas worth considering to stem the tide and help maintain the popularity of the college and professional games.
"Between the NFL and the NFLPA and the AFCA (American Football Coaches Association), there's some things that they've really got to consider and look at. Obviously, the colleges are going to likely have to go to some sort of stipend. That might mean a number of players saying, ‘Hey, if I can get $2,500 this year playing college ball and improve my stock, I think I'll stay.' I think you could potentially see some form of junior combine, where the juniors who declared for the draft would be evaluated and then have a window of time after that preliminary combine to see if they want to go back to school. ‘
"Another answer might be expanding the draft. Instead of being at seven rounds, if you're going ot have two or three additional rounds of juniors in terms of sheer numbers, maybe you go back to a nine- or 10-round draft so more players might actually be selected. I think that those major three entities definitely have to work together and figure this out. Football is different from basketball. If we're not careful as a sport, you're going to end up having the one-and-done and college football would never be the same and pro football, for that matter, might never be the same."
Along with 40-yard times and crime records, teams leave no stone unturned when it comes to finding players who are physically and mentally capable of handling the challenge of competing against the best of the best on the football field and living life with a seven-figure bank account off of the field.
"That's a great science of this draft business is trying to figure out what is the makeup of the athlete and what kind of a competitor you get when you draft him," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said at the Scouting Combine. "There is a long process that goes into that with a tremendous exchange of information to try to figure the guys out. We can measure this stuff (speed and strength) — this stuff is not the hard part. The hard part is taking the measurements and then connecting that with the mentality of the player and figuring out what that's really going to turn out. It's a tremendous science there. It's a challenge. It's that competitiveness that we are trying to find in the guys, that chip on the shoulder, that mentality that they have that will take them beyond where normal people go."
To be sure, it's an inexact science. No mental test, no psychologist-created question, can determine with certainty how a player will react when he's out of his comfort zone, when he's no longer the big man on campus, when he's got riches beyond his wildest dreams and when long-lost "friends" pull and tug in directions that might not always be in that player's best interests.
"We've been right on players (and) we've been wrong on players, just like every other team and every other coach and every other personnel person has," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "We do the best that we can and that's a long process that's involved. Visiting the school, interviewing the player, talking to the people who have had the most involvement with him — like his college coaches, even high school coaches, even beyond that. Other people that have had associations with him — former teammates, so forth, so on. It's a mosaic composed of a lot of different pieces and you try to fit them all together and put some type of valuation on the player. And you do that for all the players. Each one's different. Each one's unique. But at the same time, you have to have some type of system that accounts for what you feel are the player's value to your football team. That's what it's all about."
And what about the player who's been in trouble? Bruce Irvin's off-the-field issues didn't prevent Carroll and Co. from taking him in the first round in 2012. Kyle Long and Alex Ogletree didn't have flawless off-the-field résumés before being selected by the Bears and Rams, respectively, in the first round in 2013.
"You've got to determine if you think it's a character flaw or if you think it's a function or a product of the environment that he came out of," Texans general manager Rick Smith said. "If you think he's legitimately a guy that will respond to encouragement or will respond to a new environment, if he's in a different type of environment where that's not acceptable — any number of things that you've got to look to in an attempt to try and project how the guy will be when he comes into our building."
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