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Football's underclassmen problem

QB prospect Tyree Jackson forfeited his senior year at Buffalo, then went undrafted. Photo: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
QB prospect Tyree Jackson forfeited his senior year at Buffalo, then went undrafted. Photo: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

A whopping 49 of the record 144 underclassmen who decided to end their college careers early and enter this year's NFL draft went undrafted, per The Athletic's Max Olson, leaving them without a school to return to or a true developmental league to join.

Between the lines: Many undrafted players will sign with NFL teams, but those deals guarantee them very little money and almost zero job security. So, unless their sole mission was to never attend another college class or eat another slice of dining hall pizza, the majority of undrafted underclassmen would have been better off returning to school.

How it works: Leaving school early is risky for all collegiate athletes, but it's a far tougher and more permanent decision for football players.

  • In basketball, underclassmen who don't hire an agent can participate in the NBA combine and gather direct feedback, all while maintaining their college eligibility. Baseball is even more lenient: if an underclassman is drafted but doesn't sign a contract, they can return to school no problem.
  • In football, underclassmen must make the "stay or go" decision months ahead of the NFL combine, and there's no turning back. This forces them to rely solely on intelligence gathered by their coaches; an official evaluation by the College Advisory Committee (CAC); and the advice of agents, many of whom provide false hope to lure clients.

The big picture: The number of underclassmen who have declared for the NFL draft has more than doubled since 2011, and this trend shows no signs of slowing down.

  • During the 2016 and 2017 drafts, 80 underclassmen who were advised to stay in school by the CAC declared anyway. Some were given bad advice, some decided against better advice and others simply had no interest in continuing to play football for free.
  • "There are 50 to 60 guys every year now that are going out for the draft that probably shouldn't. And they would all be in next year's draft," Alabama coach Nick Saban told The Athletic following a similar outcome last year.
  • "So it becomes almost a vicious cycle because if those 50 to 60 players didn't come out, it would be a horrible draft. Because there wouldn’t be enough players — they all left last year."

Potential solutions:

  • An underclassmen combine would help prospects gather more information about their draft standing before making their final decision.
  • A true developmental league would create more opportunities for undrafted players to continue their careers. Here's an idea: why not expand the NFL's practice squad and turn it into one?

The bottom line:

"Every player thinks they're going to play in the NFL, and only 2% make an NFL team. Somebody is creating an unrealistic reality. ... There's no alternative. There's no option where I can go play in Lithuania. There isn't one. You're out."
— Nick Saban, via The Athletic

Go deeper: NCAA to vote on rule limiting early recruiting