Since the end of the college football season, some of the best underclassmen have been declaring for the NFL Draft on almost a daily basis. With each decision comes a ‘grade’ from something called the NFL College Advisory Committee. Tre Mason, a Heisman finalist and star running back for Auburn, received a third round grade. So did Florida State running back Devonta Freeman. Depending on who you believe, Blake Bortles of Central Florida got a first round grade or a second round grade. Johnny Manziel, the Texas A&M QB, reportedly received a first round grade. Numerous other players asked for and received information from the committee that they would not likely get drafted in the first three rounds, or at all.
Who is this committee and how do they decide who gets the gold stars?
The NFL’s College Advisory Committee is the group responsible for completing the evaluations on every eligible underclassmen who makes a timely request in advance of today’s deadline. The College Advisory Committee is coordinated by the NFL Player Personnel Department, and all 32 teams – along with two scouting services (BLESTO and National) – participate in player evaluations. It is a committee that has had to deal with an ever-growing number of requests over the last few years.
“I think the number is in the neighborhood of 200 applicants,” Joel Bussert, the NFL’s vice president of player personnel and football operations, told The Big Lead. “It was about the same last year, getting close to 200, which keeps our clubs pretty busy, obviously.”
Bussert also estimates the number of early entrants for 2014 – not all of whom sought input from the Committee – at around 90. The official number will be revealed in a few days, after the time to revoke the decision has expired. The 2014 total will almost certainly set a new record for underclassmen entering the draft, in what seems to be a yearly event now.
The NFL is becoming an early entrant world, with record numbers of underclassmen looking to begin their professional careers, and more than double that amount seeking input from the NFL before making that decision. Last year 25 of the first 51 players selected were underclassmen. The cycle will likely continue this year.
Two years ago, I discussed how the Rookie Wage Scale would incentivize early entrants, by removing the dangling carrot of a huge initial contract and making the second contract (and thus getting there sooner) the prime motivator. Here’s a visualization of that effect, showing the number of early entrants who declared (in red), and the number of early entrants drafted (in green) going back to 1989.
[data prior to 2012 courtesy ourlads]
The final number of 2014 early entrants will almost certainly be more than double the amount from a decade ago. It will be a more than 50% increase from 2010, the last year before the threat of the lockout and a rookie wage scale was realized. It falls to the College Advisory Committee to handle this growing demand.
The Committee used to consist of the two scouting services and scouts from eight NFL clubs. “We used to have fewer teams involved, when we had fewer players asking for evaluations, and as the number went up, we enlisted all 32 teams in the process each year,” said Bussert. For each player, four NFL clubs are assigned, as well as the two scouting services. The assignments to NFL clubs are not necessarily randomized, as Bussert did confirm that a factor like the player being in the same geographic area might play a role in assignments.
While the workload for those involved from NFL teams has been spread out to handle the growing numbers, by enlisting every club in the process, the scouting services continue to provide an evaluation of every player.
Tom Modrak, now the Executive Director at BLESTO, has experienced multiple sides of the College Advisory Committee. Modrak was in Buffalo from 2001 to 2011, serving most recently as the Director of College Scouting. While with the Bills, he did not personally handle very many evaluations, passing them on to other scouts serving underneath him. With BLESTO over the last two draft cycles, Modrak estimates that he personally scouted at least 60 players last year as part of the process, and will do at least that many for this year’s class. “I get to as much as I can, I can’t do everyone–190 or whatever the number is, I do what I can.”
Given the high volume of early entrants, Modrak admitted that he tries to get ahead and begin evaluations for select underclassmen before a formal request is made to the Committee. Many of those that he targets will end up seeking input from the committee starting in mid-December, but not all. “I probably have a half a dozen [reports on kids that are] not coming out. It’s a guess, but that’s all right.” Modrak mentioned “the Erving kid from Florida State” [offensive lineman Cameron Erving] as one that “he would have guessed was coming out.”
[RELATED: 2014 NFL Mock Draft, Pre-Bowl Edition]
So what goes into each individual evaluation? That is likely up to the individual handing it. For Modrak, he looks at tape of at least 2-3 games, maybe more if needed for the evaluation. “I try to get later games, you try to see them against better opponents, whatever you have.” Modrak was also asked if he tried to take into account demand at a position in that particular year, for example, at quarterback, in assigning his grade.
“The truth is, sure, quarterbacks are going to climb the charts a little bit because of the way the league is structured. It shouldn’t affect the evaluations, well, I ‘ll put it this way, it doesn’t affect mine,” Modrak said. “I’m just going to go with the numbers, with the evaluation.”
Russ Bolinger, a former scout with the Lions, Redskins, and Rams, does remember handling evaluations for some players as part of the committee work. He addressed some of the issues scouts face when trying to take an early look at the juniors.
“If you were going to err, you know, I would always err on the side of a lower grade. If I thought he was a mid-first rounder, I might put a late first rounder or a top of the second. The reason I would do that– I don’t think anyone can honestly say this guy is a top 10, this guy is a for sure first rounder when they are underclassmen. The reason being that you do not have as much exposure to really be confident of that. You’re playing catch up on the character thing, you’re playing catch up on injuries and the whole nine yards.”
Bolinger would do a couple a year when working for the teams. He does remember working on Torrey Smith of Maryland and Randall Cobb of Kentucky during his first year with the Rams (2011). Bolinger was leaning toward the bottom of the first round, but “went safe” and went with a second round grade on both. (They both were eventually drafted in the second round that year). Bolinger also, in a moment of levity, explained why he wasn’t overconfident in his wide receiver evaluation for the Committee. “I was with the Lions when we made all those mistakes on receivers, I was with the Redskins when we made mistakes on receivers, so I’ve made a lot of mistakes at that position.”
That’s true of all scouting – or any other endeavor where humans are involved. “We tell the players this is not a guarantee, there is no assurance,” Bussert added, “we tell them other things go into where they will finally be selected in the draft, including their height, weight, 40 yard time, how they may perform at the Combine, how they do at the interviews, so forth and so on.”
One player that knows this from last year is Keenan Allen, who could be named as the Offensive Rookie of the Year. Allen was eventually selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and went on to have over 1,000 yards receiving as a rookie. According to his agent, J.T. Johnson, Allen was given a first round grade by the Committee. The reason he fell was not because of the planted rumors of failed drug tests, but a medical re-test of the knee that was requested right after that story broke. In the end, a case like Allen’s could be seen as vindication of the tape evaluation which placed a first round grade, before other information came to light. Allen, when on the field as a rookie, lived up to that grade.
Bussert also confirmed that the following five options represent what the athlete will be told once the evaluation is complete:
- that they have the potential to be drafted as high as the first round
- that they have the potential to be drafted as high as the second round
- that they have the potential to be drafted as high as the third round
- that they do not have the potential to be drafted in the first three rounds, but could be drafted
- that they do not have the potential to be drafted
This is based on input from the six separate evaluators, maybe more if needed because of conflict in opinion. If you hear that someone has a “fourth round” grade, then it did not come directly from the Committee. (They might have received the “not in the first three rounds” assessment, and are being hopeful.)
Misinformation on where a player might be drafted, or optimism in one’s own potential, is what led to the formation of the Committee.
“The point of it is to give them a realistic evaluation of their draft potential. Originally, twenty years ago, the American Football Coaches Association came to us with this request because they felt their players were sometimes making poor decisions entering the draft, not really getting very good input. The input they may have been getting was people who did not have much experience in evaluating players,” added Bussert.
Bussert has worked with the NFL for longer than early entrants were even allowed into the draft, and has been involved since the Committee began. He has seen it evolve and adapt over time, most recently bringing all teams into the process each year. He was asked whether the NFL foresaw any more changes to the program to deal with the rising number of requests. “Right now we are able to address this situation, and we’ve probably topped out at 200 players.”
[photos via USA Today Sports Images, Modrak photo via Getty Images]