Debate: Can trend of underclassmen in NFL draft be reversed?


College football players have been leaving school early in record numbers. This year, 98 underclassmen entered the NFL draft, and more than a third went undrafted. SEC Commissioner Mike Slive this week blamed the trend on the NCAA's rules regarding relationships between athletes and agents, saying they don't allow for players to make the best judgments about when to leave school early. Currently, an athlete cannot reach a verbal or written agreement with an agent and remain eligible.

"We see an increased number of kids leaving early," Slive said. "We've got to find a way to make sure our student-athletes get the best advice they can get that's not advice based on somebody's self-interest, and in a timely way. Early on so they're not pressured to make a decision at the last minute."

Both the NCAA and the NFL would like to reverse the trend and see underclassmen use up all of their eligibility before entering the draft. What, if anything, can be done to accomplish this?

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  • Gil Brandt
  • Education can prevent regrettable early-entry decisions

Last year, there were a lot of people trying to get Khalil Mack to leave Buffalo early. He made a smart move by staying for his senior season, and also made about $12 million by becoming a top-five pick earlier this month. I talked to Mike Slive last fall about this issue. He knew that for many years I had been asked by some of the top coaches in the country to talk to their players about staying in school. There's nothing that can be done to completely reverse the trend, but I think we can slow things down.

To me, it all comes down to educating the players and their parents from the very first time they arrive on campus as freshmen. Mack Brown was the first to start this type of education. I spoke to his players at North Carolina and I don't believe we lost a single one early that didn't go on to become a high pick. You have to have people at the school up to speed on the nuances of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement. You need someone who can really tell a player what his true worth is, and then coaches that will question the sources of bad advice.

The NFL Draft Advisory Board does a pretty good and accurate job with their projections, but many times the players prefer to listen to unreliable sources with agendas. I remember talking to Ole Miss QB Jevan Snead when he was contemplating coming out early in 2010. I told him to stay in school, that he wasn't ready, but I don't believe his father thought I was giving him sound advice. There were some at the time, mostly media types, projecting him as a high first-round pick. He left school, went undrafted and never played a down in the NFL. I think things could have turned out very differently for him had he stayed one more year.

I'm not sure anything legally can be done to make absolutely sure underclassmen aren't making mistakes. That said, real life is all about learning from your mistakes. I think one thing that could be done is to push back the underclassman declaration date, to late February. But that won't fly with college coaches because National Signing Day comes in early February, and no coach wants to finish off a recruiting class without first knowing which players are staying and which are going. As it is now, the declaration date is too early; more time to ponder matters seems likely to lead to fewer "bad decisions" by players turning pro. In this instance, though, the NCAA is going to want to protect coaches more than players.

Policing agents with rules and even state laws has proven to be woefully ineffective. Those that handle their business in the right way will always battle the perception created by others that don't. Curbing the number of early declaring underclassmen would probably require reform of a drastic nature; fundamental change that filters out the bad advice that compels players to come out for the draft before the time is right. The solution won't be an easy one, but it can't come from the NFL or the NCAA alone. It will have to be joint action.

Here's a radical notion: What about a separate, one-round draft designated for underclassmen only, with the caveat that players not selected would be free to return to college for another year?

I think part of the blame can be traced back to the new NFL CBA and rookie-wage scale. With that in place, there is an increasing emphasis (largely on the part of some agents) on players getting to their second contracts and thus coming out early, even if they would stand to benefit from another year. I think a number of folks would benefit from readjusting the NCAA's agent rules, but that's not going to be a huge factor in stemming the tide of underclassmen declaring. The fact of the matter is we've seen a lot more talented players go from high school to college football and play early, so they're itching to jump to the next level. I'm not really certain there's any one thing the NCAA or NFL can do in this case.

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