The number of underclassmen who have declared for the draft has risen each year since 2010, and for a team like the Chiefs, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In fact, some draft analysts believe that because of the influx of talent in this year’s draft, the Chiefs, who pick 23rd overall, stand to find a talent at the end of the first round they might not ordinarily get.
“I think it is probably one of the deeper talent pools that we’ve seen in the draft at some time,” said NFL.com draft analyst Bucky Brooks. “There are several positions where you have a number of guys that would probably rate out as first-round talents … you’ve got offensive tackles, a ton of receivers, a very intriguing quarterback class and runners.”
Chiefs general manager John Dorsey was hesitant to address the overall strength of the draft at the recent Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Ala., but didn’t dispute Brooks’ assessment.
“There are people who are speculating that,” Dorsey said. “Until we as an organization assess what the value is, I think it’s an unfair question, from our perspective, to quantify the answer by saying it’s a strong draft or a weak draft.”
“However, it helps that there’s added depth in the draft by the addition of juniors,” he said.
But while the Chiefs could be licking their chops at the deeper talent pool — a record 102 underclassmen entered the draft, which is 29 more last year, 37 more than 2012 and 46 more 2011 — Dorsey acknowledged there’s a dark side to it, too.
Nearly 29 percent of the underclassmen who declared last year went undrafted, and that number figures to rise this year with more entrants. Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith, who coached the North squad at the Senior Bowl, said the trend also puts a strain on the Falcons’ scouting and personnel staff.
“It puts them under a lot of pressure because we’re not evaluating juniors until they declare,” Smith said. “It shrinks the evaluation process for us.”
Translation: teams have more players to scout than ever before and less time to do it.
And while going undrafted doesn’t necessarily signal the end of a career — there will certainly be a handful of undrafted free agents this year who end up becoming players — it’s easier to make a team when a front office has invested a draft pick in you, and one can’t help but wonder if the same undrafted free agents who overcome the odds this year would have eventually been drafted (and thus, earned more money) had they simply waited a year.
“If somebody’s a first-round draft pick, then it’s a business decision you have to make to go into the draft,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban.
But there can only be 32 first-round picks in a given year, which is a problem for the litany of players who gave up their college eligibility for a shot at NFL riches.
“Only 37 of those guys got drafted in the first three rounds (last year) … and the rest got drafted in the fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh round, which is not a very secure future for you in terms of what your career might bring for you, the number of years you might play, as well as how much money you might make,” Saban said. “How can the NFL develop these players as well as we could develop them in college where they would have their most productive years in a college program?”
But thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement, which was reached before the 2011 season, players perhaps face more financial pressure to begin their NFL careers than ever before.
Not only has the new CBA tamped down slotted salaries significantly — gone are the days of top-five picks immediately becoming the highest-paid players at their position — but it also allows teams to add exercise an option for a fifth season for first-rounders.
Throw in the fact teams can franchise players after that fifth season, and that means that organizations are essentially allowed to keep productive first-round picks from hitting free agency for six years — and at a reasonable price, at that. To get the big money, the best players in a given draft class have to get some time in the league under their belts — the earlier, the better.
This new reality is one that agents — many of whom are simply trying to survive in a cutthroat world — surely prey on. When you add in the the litany of friends and family in a player’s ear, not to mention an ego fueled by the increased attention and coddling that starts at an earlier age, the large number of underclassmen in this year’s draft doesn’t surprise Saban.
“I think the culture is changing and it starts with guys when they’re in high school,” Saban said. “They get a lot of attention, they get graded, they get a lot of expectation put on them … I think more and more, we’re getting a basketball mentality in football, like I can go right from high school to the NBA.”
Players don’t have to jump into the draft cold, however. Well before they declare, underclassmen can get an idea of where they might be taken in the draft thanks to the NFL Draft Advisory Board, a panel of scouting experts made up of front office executives from around the league.
But the board, while reliable, isn’t infallible, and that’s why Dorsey says it’s crucial for a prospect to have a good support team in place, one that has the player’s best interest in mind and can tell it like it is.
“It’s like anything,” Dorsey said. “Who is your counsel? You better pick that circle of trust (carefully).
“People make decisions for different reasons. To me, it’s extremely sad because at the end of the day, you want what’s best for the kid. You hope he makes the proper judgments … but when he falls through the draft and somebody may have told him that he’s a first- or second-rounder, that’s a shame.”
The new CBA runs through 2021, which means this the underclassmen trend is that can continue for a while, unless another one — like many of them busting out — emerges.
In the meantime, college coaches like Saban will simply have to wait it out and do the best they can to help their players make good decisions.
“I don’t think the NFL really wants this, I don’t think the colleges want this, I don’t think it’s in the best interest in the players,” Saban said.
But from a purely selfish level, you probably won’t find teams picking in the lower half of the first round this year (like the Chiefs) complaining.
“It certainly helps them,” Brooks said. “There’s some pieces to the puzzle they want to finalize … and in every round of the draft, you can get a guy that can impact your football team.”