HOOVER, Ala.—Everything seemed fine for Alabama through the 2014 SEC title game. Afterward, coach Nick Saban noticed a change. The Crimson Tide had dealt with underclassmen making NFL decisions before, but for whatever reason, this particular group seemed to get more distracted. And Saban, who always disliked the fact that the NFL’s draft advisory board grades for underclassmen came in less than 10 days before bowl games, began to hate the NFL draft calendar even more.
“Our team chemistry from the SEC Championship Game to the playoff was affected by something,” Saban said Wednesday morning at SEC Media Days. He suspects that chemistry was affected by players weighing their futures while also preparing for the biggest game of their season.
Saban wondered aloud why—after the NFL altered its draft calendar in 2014 in an attempt to further its 24/7/365 domination of the news cycle—college players should still have to declare for the draft by the middle of January. Why should players get less than a month after receiving their grades and only a few days after finishing their collegiate careers to make their decisions? “They’ve moved the draft back,” Saban said. “They have not moved back the date to declare for the draft.” That college football has now extended the season for the two teams that advance to the national title game has only exacerbated the issue.
This may sound like Saban making an excuse for Alabama’s loss to Ohio State in last season's Sugar Bowl. That’s absolutely true, but it doesn’t make him wrong on this particular point. It would be easy for the NFL to change the calendar to help college players and coaches without hurting the draft scouting process. Hold back the draft advisory grades until after the college players’ seasons have ended, and then give those players until Feb. 1 to declare for the draft. Combine invitations can still go out in early February. NFL teams would still have ample opportunity to endure paralysis by analysis between Feb. 1 and draft day.
Meanwhile, teams such as Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon and Florida State could play in the postseason without players wondering if their next play could cost them a first-round slot. In fact, it might help the grading process for the advisory board members to consider how college players perform in high-pressure, high-stakes playoff games.
Saban said the pre-draft process doesn’t affect certain players. Tailback Eddie Lacy played two of the best games of his career (the 2012 SEC championship against Georgia and the BCS title game against Notre Dame) even though he was trying to decide whether to leave Tuscaloosa or come back for another year. It is no accident, Saban said, that Lacy also made an immediate impact in the NFL. Players who can work through the clutter tend to be more successful in general.
The same could be said of Ohio State offensive tackle Taylor Decker, who learned in December he’d be highly coveted in the draft if he opted to leave the Buckeyes after the playoff. Decker did not let the decision distract him. Instead, he dominated against Alabama and Oregon. Now he’s back in Columbus for another season.
Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland was one of the Crimson Tide players wrestling with the choice to declare this past December. “I got some good feedback,” Ragland said. “But I knew in the back of my mind I wanted to stay.” Ragland said he didn’t feel any pressure—he only wanted to play football—but he understands he might be the anomaly. “I think it should be pushed back,” he said. “It would give people more time to make the right decisions for their lives. If you’ve got to rush it, you’re going to make a bad decision.”
It’s easy to understand how some players could find themselves paralyzed by the choice. Imagine someone hands you a piece of paper that informs you that you’re in line for life-changing wealth as long as you stay healthy over the next four months. Now imagine you have a football game in nine days. Wouldn’t the specter of career-ending injury creep into your mind? Everyone who has played football knows the chance of injury increases when worrying about injury causes players to go less than full speed, but that’s probably tough to explain to someone who just got official confirmation that millions of dollars are on the line. It might make it easier for those players to focus and play their hardest—likely reducing their chance of getting injured and increasing their chance of impressing an NFL team—if they didn’t receive that information until after their final game.
“We had six guys in this situation this past year and 11 the year before,” Saban said. “So we're trying to get ready for a game, and all of a sudden, a guy finds out he's a first-round draft pick or a guy that thought he was a first-round draft pick finds out he's not a first-round draft pick, and we're trying to get ready to play a playoff game. I think that it would be better not to submit that information to a player until he was finished competing in college.”
Saban said NFL officials told him the league would consider altering the calendar if enough college coaches raised the issue. Saban said he has tried to drum up support among his colleagues but hasn’t had much success. He understands some coaches might be worried about pushing the deadline so close to National Signing Day. Coaches want to know how many scholarships they have to work with. Of course, most coaches usually have a good idea of how many players plan to leave early. “I kind of know who's leaving every year,” Saban said. It’s highly unlikely any program would have more than one annual late-January surprise from a player who bucks conventional wisdom by either staying or going.
This is one of the few issues in major college football that has an easy solution. However, it is not the NFL’s responsibility to solve any of college football’s problems. But if the league would do a solid for its free farm system, it might help some players prepare for the most important games of their seasons instead of worrying about what they can’t control.