NFL teams are having to adjust their pre-draft practices as the pool of players they’re picking from gets younger and younger. This year, a record 98 underclassmen left school early to become eligible for the draft. At the NFL Scouting Combine, 85 of the 335 players auditioning for scouts were underclassmen, the most ever.
“There’s 98 guys [underclassmen in the draft], I believe,” said Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider. “You have to go back and do a lot more work.”
The additional work comes largely from having one less year in school for area scouts to get to know these players over their careers.
The Packers have not shied away from picking players who leave school early: their first round pick in 2012, Nick Perry, left Southern California after his redshirt junior season.
“We would prefer that all the players get their education, finish out their eligibility, and I think they would be more prepared to play in the NFL,” said Packers general manager Ted Thompson. “It’s not to say there aren’t juniors that can come in and play competitively in the NFL, and some of them have great, long careers and everything’s fine.”
So why are more and more players coming out early? Each can only speak to his own reasons, including some who cite the risk of getting injured in a return to college.
“I put all I could into the school, and it was time for me to go,” said former Southern California defensive end George Uko who left school after his redshirt junior year. “I got out of there without single injury, that’s a blessing from The Lord, I felt like I had to seize that opportunity and go.”
Another factor, though players are less apt to talk about it, is the new collective bargaining agreement between the teams and its players got rid of huge contracts for first round picks. That may make it seem to players like there is less incentive to go back to school, hoping to improve your draft stock.
“I think as a general rule, guys that complete their eligibility in college are more prepared, more mature and ready to play in the NFL than underclassmen,” said Thompson. “By definition, most of the guys that come out as underclassmen are extraordinarily talented. It’s a horse a piece.”