Today in the Athletic, there is a piece entitled “Stay or go? Numbers show players should listen to the NFL College Advisory Committee.” It goes through the increasing number of underclassmen declaring for the NFL Draft and not listening to the advice of the College Advisory Committee.
It relies on some college football coach quotes (you’ll be surprised to learn that they think too many players go pro too soon), and the bad input of agents is provided as a bogeyman.
But I’m going to provide a contrary view. What is happening with underclassmen is exactly what you should have expected with changes in the rookie wage scale and changes in the draft advisory board process. And contrary to all the opinions on what is going on, what is really driving it is that players are responding as you would expect to those changes.
I wrote about that process back in January of 2014, just prior to the NFL changing the categories of how they would advise prospects. Prior to the summer of 2014, the NFL advisory board provided a range of evaluations that went from first and second round projections, to a player not having the potential to be drafted. In between, there were other categories, such as that the player had the possibility to be drafted, but not in the first three rounds.
Thus, a player who was seen as draft-able, but let’s say, a fifth round pick, could decide if that was sufficient to leave considering all their personal factors (age, family situation, school).
But in 2014, that was changed to simply telling a player they could be drafted in the first two rounds, or they should return to school. Thus, guys seen as third round picks were lumped in with guys with no chance of making a team when it came to advice. This move was offered as a way to appease college coaches, and the goal was to reduce the underclassmen declaring. It’s had the opposite effect.
When the league created the NFL Draft Advisory Board, the purpose was to provide better information than what potential underclassmen were getting from agents, family members, or other outside sources.
In the world of unintended consequences, giving only 1st and 2nd round grades, or telling players to return to school, will have the effect that the initial rationale for creating the Board hoped to avoid: players getting advice from elsewhere.
And that’s what we see. In the Athletic story, for example, it quotes Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson, who was advised to return to school:
“I threw the papers away,” Jefferson told The Athletic before Day 2 of this year’s draft began. “It’s not really good feedback. If a guy wants to come out early, they have to make a decision on their own. Really, if you’re not like a top-10 guy coming out early, it’s just up in the air from there. You just don’t know. Anything can happen.”
Jefferson, it was noted, was drafted in the third round by the Bengals. So chalk up his criticism as sour grapes if you want, but I think it captures the issue. He was lumped with guys with no chances, properly concluded that was wrong, and made a value judgment of what was best for him. The draft advice wasn’t wrong (he didn’t go in the first two rounds). The piece also notes that only 10 of 30 who went undrafted in 2017 even sought the Committee’s advice. Well, of course that’s the case. Most weren’t under the delusion they were going to be told they were top two round picks. Lots of the underclassmen who declare and go undrafted were leaving the program anyway and the submission for the draft is a hail mary.
The problem is the value judgment on where the line is, from third round pick to no chance in the league.
Take this excerpt from Dana Holgorsen.
Holgorsen has gone through this process in recent years, though, and lost three players who were advised to stay in school: cornerback Daryl Worley (2016 third-round pick), running back Wendell Smallwood (2016 fifth round) and receiver Shelton Gibson (2017 fifth round). All three are on NFL rosters today. Smallwood and Gibson are even getting Super Bowl rings as members of the Philadelphia Eagles. Holgorsen tried to sell them on the upside of staying, but they found success taking the riskier route.
“Here’s our selling point: If all three of those guys come back, now they have a chance to get first-round money,” Holgorsen said. “And that’s the conversation you have with them: ‘You guys have an opportunity to be first-round guys.’ The first-round money is life-changing. Third-round money isn’t.”
So who’s doing the selling and giving bad advice here? Holgorsen has incentive to want players to stay, and it seems pretty patronizing for a coach making millions to tell players spending full-time job hours for the value of a scholarship, and maybe struggling to eat off-campus, what is and isn’t life-changing. They can still get a $500,000 to $1 million signing bonus and get between $750,000 and $1 million per year on a rookie deal as a third to fifth round pick.
Yeah, it’s not the huge contract, but those are long gone anyway because of the rookie wage scale that used to see the top five picks come in making among the top at their position, but now sees those salaries capped. That’s why players want to get in the system and start the clock on free agency.
But how many realize that dream that Holgorsen is even selling? It’s not put together in the same section in the Athletic piece, but if you combine the data from two different sections of the piece, you find out that 585 players returned to school after getting advice from the College Advisory Committee from 2013 to 2017, while 23 players became first round picks a year later after getting advice to return to school. That’s 3.9% that significantly increased their draft stock (and they were all likely guys that were near that range anyway).
3.9% chance of getting a moderately bigger payday while returning to your college team, or getting in the system and starting to get paid? Seems like, contrary to what is suggested, there are a lot of completely rational choices being made. Holgorsen is selling something every bit as much as an agent trying to convince a kid he can go in the third round. I know which way I would go if I was a guy who could be drafted in the fourth round. Getting to a second contract is now the big value, and if you are a mid-round pick, you also don’t have the issue of that fifth-year option that teams wield.
Tom Herman, likewise, tried to sell that schools could now take out insurance as much safer than “gambling” on being a pro. “If you go, you’re gambling,” he told The Athletic. “If you come back, you’ve got the insurance, so you’re not gambling there.”
Meanwhile, the reality is that the majority of underclassmen drafted on Day 3 (5th to 7th round) are on rosters and getting paid. The loss-of-value insurance policies are no guarantee, either, because trust me, those insurance companies are going to nitpick how early you were really going to be drafted.
The underclassmen phenomenon continues to grow. Coaches will continue to kvetch about it. But the reason is clear. The incentives dictate that it makes more sense to start your career earlier now, and while coaches scoff at it, getting $750,000 to play is a lot different than what they get in college. Meanwhile, the advice is not matching up to that reality. Going pro as a mid-round pick makes sense for a lot of players, but the NFL only advises them to return.