Another successful NFL draft has come and gone, and with it 253 student athletes were lucky enough to get their names called in front of record crowds. Now, as the summer approaches, these hand-selected athletes will begin their professional journey as they become acquainted with their new team and city. They will spend hours and hours memorizing the playbook and just as many hours in the weight room. While all this is going on and the world follows these newcomers, the majority of eligible athletes will go undrafted. Inside the overwhelming number of drafted athletes is a much smaller but no less important group: Underclassmen.
The declaration of underclassmen into the draft has been a debate for as long as football has been around, it seems. Should a student stay in school for the entirety of his college eligibility, or is it justified to forego that eligibility and assume the risks that go along with it?
There are an unlimited amount of factors that play into whether or not it is the right decision to declare early. For some, even after all the risks have been weighed and the draft grade seems to be in their favor, unforeseen circumstances leave them with no phone call. So, it is easy to see the argument of underclassmen staying in school, and in some cases that is the right decision.
What can’t be done is make the statement that all athletes should stay. Not all cases are black and white and here are just a few reasons why in most cases, declaring early is in their best interest.
Chances Are In Your Favor
According to the NCAA, roughly 3,000 student athletes are eligible for the NFL draft each year. Given that each draft since 2000 has averaged 255 draft picks; around 8.5 percent of those eligible will be drafted. Now, this is not the amount that will make a roster or have a lasting career in the NFL. This number solely represents the percentage of eligible players that will be drafted.
Inside of these 3,000 eligible athletes are a fluctuating number of underclassmen that are granted eligibility to enter. The most recent draft had 103; in 2016 the number was a record 107 while the 2015 draft had only 84. Of the 103 in 2017, 70.8 percent of underclassmen were drafted; in 2016 71.9 percent were drafted and in 2015 71.4 percent were drafted.
The numbers alone show that more underclassmen then not have been getting drafted. Of course there are the few that declare too early and are not ready for the jump, but the majority have made a name for themselves and are confident in their draft stock.
There are many things that can interrupt a college career. The one that stands out above them all is injury. Year after year we watch numerous players affected by ACL tears, Achilles ruptures and many more variations of injury. With today’s medical technology, most of these are not detrimental to whether or not they can recover, but are without question a set back.
The main setback from injury comes in the form of draft stock. This year’s draft had a prime example. A tight end out of the University of Michigan decided last season to return for his senior year, even though some scouts had him as a late first- to early second-round pick. In the final game of his senior year, Jake Butt suffered a torn ACL, exponentially decreasing his stock.
Prior to the injury, Butt was considered one of the top TE’s in the draft and was slotted to go early in the first round. When draft day came, Butt slipped all the way down to the fifth round.
It’s situations like these that make underclassmen apprehensive about staying for another year. Some cases are not as lucky as Butt’s. Some pass up the opportunity and never recover from fall in stock as well as the confidence organizations have in taking the risk.
Lengthy is not a word that most NFL players use when describing their careers. In a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the average length of an NFL career is 3.3 years.
With so many factors such as competition at positions, injury, finding better value or any other reason an organization might show you the door, it’s easy to see how truly expendable an athlete is once in the league. It is a constant grind to prove that you have what it takes to help your team while being able to do it at a price they feel is reasonable.
Unless you are a superstar, you hold very few chips at the bargaining table. This puts a lot of pressure on athletes trying to make a name for themselves and pushes college athletes to jump at opportunities when they are available. Once an underclassman is given the notion that if he enters the draft he will surely be taken, it is hard to pass up at that chance, and who can blame them. They are young men who see fortune and fame just around the corner.
Elephant In The Room
You can’t talk about reasons an athlete would forego the remainder of college without mentioning the one major influence—money.
It is no surprise that these student athletes salivate at the dollar amounts thrown at them. Most people will never see in a lifetime the amount of money a football player can make in just one contract. If given the choice between the slimmest chance at making millions or playing football for free another year and risking injury, the majority will choose the money.
Maybe it isn’t the most responsible choice, but it’s the most realistic one, and anyone who plays the lottery consistently is an example of that mindset.
It’s The Dream
When it’s all said and done, the main reason these athletes enter the draft early is because it’s their dream to play professional football. If they have the opportunity to do so early, that’s just one more year they are living that dream. And in the end, isn’t that the entire point of playing collegiately?
We all know that not everyone makes it, but that can be said for any career field you choose. The purpose for anyone in any field should be to chase the dreams they have. For all the underclassmen that chase theirs a year early, Godspeed to you. To be at a level able to compete with the best of the best at the game you play, make the decision that best fits your situation.
For some, it is to stay. For others, it is to seize the moment and take what is rightfully yours to take. A shot at being a professional athlete.