RonMorris

MORRIS: Leaving early for NFL can be risky

rmorris@ thestate.comMay 17, 2014 

Former South Carolina Gamecocks cornerback Victor Hampton (27) October 2013.

FILE PHOTOGRAPH — The State

THE MOST eye-opening statistic out of the recent NFL draft was not that Coastal Carolina had as many players (two) selected as South Carolina, but rather that 37 percent of the players who left college early were not picked in the draft’s seven rounds.

The initial reaction, from NFL coaches and executives to college coaches, was that those 36 undrafted early entries made poor decisions. The college coaches were most vocal in their belief that the athletes should have remained in college, perhaps enhanced their draft status a year later and, most importantly, helped those coaches win more games.

Nick Saban, Alabama’s coach, has suggested a change in the way NFL teams evaluate college talent. His proposal would give athletes a better knowledge of whether or not to leave early. BYU’s Bronco Mendenhall has proposed penalizing agents who wrongly steer athletes toward leaving college early.

The truth is what college coaches have been telling their athletes for decades: If you are not absolutely certain of being selected in the first three rounds of the draft, return to play your final season in college.

The NFL is a numbers game. Every team every season opens preseason camp in the summer with anywhere from three to six roster spots open. To fill those precious spots, each club drafts anywhere from seven to 10 players, then invites a boatload of other free agents to try out.

Although no draft picks are guaranteed to make a roster, those selected in the first two rounds are likely to do so. A third-round pick also has a reasonable chance of playing on an NFL team. Beyond that, you do the math: Less than a handful of opportunities exist with 20 or more players auditioning to make a team.

So, why would someone such as Vic Hampton, the South Carolina defensive back, opt out of his senior season of college football to enter his name in the NFL draft? First and foremost, Hampton, like every player with any competitive fire, believed he was ready to play pro football.

After that, the decision-making process gets a little murky because of NFL rules. The NFL does not allow players to sign up for pro football as high school graduates. In fact, a player has to be three years removed from high school to be eligible to turn pro.

It is a bad system, one predicated on the NFL not having a minor-league system like that in professional baseball. As a result, an exceptionally talented football player such as Jadeveon Clowney is forced to play three years of college football, all the while running the risk that a disabling injury could cost him a pro career.

Many athletes never want to be college students to begin with. Then, after three years, they weigh the advice of their college coaches, who naturally want them to remain on their teams, against the chatter of agents who direct them to pro football on the chance they will see a big pay day.

NFL teams give underclassmen an evaluation grade and estimate on where they might be drafted. Still, if you no longer want to play college football and you believe in your ability to play professionally, then you end up like Hampton and Kelcy Quarles, the former USC defensive lineman. Both left early. Both went undrafted.

All totaled, there were a record 98 underclassmen who entered this year’s NFL draft early. Of those, 36 were not drafted. Another 22 were selected after the third round. Every player’s situation is different, but by my calculations there were 58 (59 percent of underclassmen) who should have played another season of college ball.

Because those numbers are so staggering, college coaches are searching for remedies to the problem.

Saban proposed that the NFL conduct smaller combines following the college season to evaluate underclassmen who are not considered elite-level prospects. He believes that process would result in more players returning to the college game. Mendenhall, according to CBSsports.com, says an agent should be de-certified if 30 percent of his underclassmen do not get drafted.

At least Saban’s proposal is geared to better educating the college athlete on an important decision in their life. My guess, though, is that most underclassmen who declare early for the draft cannot be swayed by any amount of advice.

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