When a record 65 underclassmen have declared for the NFL draft this spring (the previous high is 56), we can ask why.People respond to incentives, monetary or otherwise. Young football players are no exception, and in this case the altered incentives when it comes to deciding whether to stay or go with one year of eligibility remaining is from the NFL’s newly adopted rookie wage scale.
Even though the last draft class ended up operating under it, those players had uncertainty, as they were drafted while the labor dispute was ongoing. This is the first class with an opportunity to react to the changed incentives that the rookie wage scale provides.
The new wage scale drastically reduced the compensation for high end draft picks. For example, Aldon Smith, the 7th overall pick for San Francisco, got 14 million over 4 years, while a year earlier, Joe Haden got between 40 and 50 million for 5 years for being picked in the same slot. The top picks in particular have seen their value reduced (which of course, increases the value to the team holding the picks). Cam Newton got 28% of what Bradford got, while Gabbert, at the tenth pick, got 42% of what Tyson Alualu got.
As a result, there is less upside in staying to improve draft position the next season, compared to the past. If you were an underclassmen with a 2nd round grade, you could legitimately offset the risk of staying an extra year by improving the draft stock by 20-30 picks, and make the money back 5 times over. Now, the monetary upside of patience is muted, and the primary driving factor is years–specifically, years to free agency when those big bucks that we saw getting paid out to punters, kickers, and relatively unproven free agents because the league had so much money will be available.
Football career’s can be short, and we see players who entered at 23, like Matt Forte, now struggling to get a long term deal despite production because of age. If a player can get to free agency sooner, and doesn’t miss out on a windfall on the front end by exhibiting patience, he’s going to be more likely to enter the draft. Contrary to popular thought, those 50 million dollar contracts didn’t incentivize most juniors to go early (unless they knew they were clearly part of that group when the deadline arrived), it incentivized them to stay because it was a singing siren off in the distant haze.
Some individual players will make poor decisions. Some will make personal ones that have very little to do with where they will be drafted, and are driven by other things like family or coaching staff changes. I expect, though, that we will see the increases in underclassmen among those 2nd to 3rd round type players who project as starters but could have improved to first round picks with another year.
This is not a bad thing for the NFL, as it increases competition and should do nothing to hurt the product. It will lead to players challenging the veterans who have already gotten those big contracts earlier. The biggest impact will be on college football, because I do not think this increase is an anomaly. Without the big prize in year one, expect those playing for school pride to decide its time to get to free agency sooner.
[photo via Getty]