Inside Slant: Underclassmen in the draft

June, 5, 2014
Jun 5
11:00
AM ET
(Another in an Inside Slant series that will appear regularly during the 2014 offseason.)

Most of you know the raw numbers. A record 102 underclassmen declared for the 2014 NFL draft. Of that group, nearly 61 percent were selected on the third day (Rounds 4-7) or not drafted at all.

I think we can agree those numbers aren't healthy -- not for college football, the NFL nor many of the players involved. How to address the problem? One idea: A dose of realism to contextualize the perceived economic incentive that drives many players to declare early.

A bit of background: The NFL's current salary structure, established in 2011, has lowered the financial ceiling for rookies. As a result, those who are certain to be high draft choices are better off entering the league early and starting the clock toward a more lucrative second contract. The problem, of course, is separating the genuine top prospects from those who merely think they are.

Former NFL general manager Phil Savage, whom I spoke to for Wednesday's Hot Read, circulates heavily in these circles as executive director of the Senior Bowl. His idea is simple and smart: Push back the declaration date, a shift that would open a window for NFL teams to evaluate and provide feedback to underclassmen before they make a binding decision.

"The bottom line," Savage said, "is we have to figure out a way to make it more attractive to stay in school for one more year for some of these guys [and] give them a chance to go from being a sixth-round pick to a third-round pick."

The NFL's college advisory committee provides a midwinter draft prediction to prospects who seek one, but it hasn't proved to be a coercive tool. An enhanced process could begin by pushing the Jan. 15 declaration date back two weeks or even a month to Feb. 15, which would open a window to evaluate underclassmen and disseminate better information.

Savage suggests a mini-combine during that time for as many as 150 juniors/redshirt sophomores. Players would go through physical assessments, from the 40-yard dash to the bench press to the vertical leap. As much as anything, the idea would be to give players a deeper and more updated understanding of how NFL teams regard their draft stock.

"Some of these kids are going to come out regardless," Savage said. "They weren't going to be going back to school or they have families to support or something else. But a lot of them think they run a 4.5, and then get to the combine and they run a 4.75 and they're surprised and disappointed with what happens. That kind of information, maybe that helps reduce the numbers. Maybe we can give them a window where they're really assessed, then understand it and then they say, 'I really need to go back to school.'"

To be sure, some underclassmen might ignore the evaluation of a mini-combine. They might believe they could improve their numbers before April. Perhaps they're convinced that they can buck substantial odds, make a roster and forge a long career no matter where or if they're drafted.

Of course, you wonder how many of these players realize the odds they face. I can bring you a partial but revealing answer.

Of the 790 players drafted in the fourth round or later between 2009 and 2013, only 311 (39 percent) remain with their original teams, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Some have jumped to other rosters, but on average, the shelf life of a low-round draft pick is short. Here is the yearly breakdown:

2009: 11 of 155 still with drafted team
2010: 17 of 157
2011: 63 of 158
2012: 86 of 158
2013: 132 of 162

In other words, a player drafted between the fourth and seventh rounds has about a 50-50 shot of still being in his team's plans after two years.

These figures will drop further this summer when teams trim from their current 90-man limit to 53. Members of the 2014 draft class will get the greatest benefit of the doubt, meaning more from 2009-2013 will find themselves out of a job.

The message here? If you want to beat the odds, make sure you're as ready as you can be. The NFL and NCAA must come together to find a better way to make sure players understand that. Adjustments to the declaration date, and a mini-combine for underclassman, is an idea that could help.

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