One of the most interesting developments recently in the college-to-professional transition in the world of football has been the increase in the number of underclassmen who choose to declare for the NFL Draft. Recent years have represented some of the highest figures of underclassmen declaring, with nearly 100 players doing so for the 2016 NFL Draft.
That is not in itself the issue. The issue is that, of course, not all of those players end up getting drafted—30 of the 96 underclassmen who declared this past draft were not selected. And that is an issue because one aspect of declaring for the draft is forfeiting your eligibility to return to school.
This has become an increasingly important issue as high numbers of underclassmen attempting to come out early becomes the rule rather than the exception. One might argue that it also hurts the seniors coming out by increasing the draft pool and reducing their chances of being drafted.
Underclassmen coming out is, generally speaking, good for the NFL, of course, because it does a better job of stocking each draft with as much talent as possible. Underclassmen often come out early because their talent level is such that they are already valued as a first-round candidate and NFL-ready player. If you can get that player a year early, then all the better.
Still, the NFL is not keen on introducing a wide swath of underdeveloped players, as it takes them longer to contribute to their teams. There are countless examples of juniors coming out and requiring time to develop, which they sometimes never get, and that occasionally leads to them washing out of the league, where that might not have happened otherwise if they got the proper attention and opportunity to develop in their college environment.
College coaches have no reason to favor losing their best players a year earlier than they have to, which is why individuals such as Nick Saban of Alabama and Bret Bielema of Arkansas both seized upon the opportunity to talk about these issues during the SEC’s spring meetings.
Both coaches agreed that something must be done to alter the rules pertaining to declaring that forfeits players’ future eligibility, arguing that players who go undrafted should be able to return to school, as is the case for the NBA Draft.
They also both contended that there needs to be a better system put in place that helps underclassmen make an informed decision about declaring. The NFL Draft Advisory Board tweaked their system of recommendation a couple years back, but more can be done. The suggestion was made to hold an underclassmen combine of sorts prior to the time at which a player would have to declare.
I frankly see no reason why something could not be done to implement sensible changes, such as simply allowing undrafted underclassmen to return to school, in a short amount of time to address the issue, which is becoming increasingly important. The Steelers just drafted three underclassmen themselves in a seven-player draft class.