Florida offensive lineman D.J. Humphries, Utah offensive lineman Jeremiah Poutasi and Penn State offensive tackle Donovan Smith made the same bold choice, opting to bypass their final year of eligibility despite a disheartening review from the NFL draft advisory board.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The NFL Draft Advisory Board recommended to D.J. Humphries that he stay in school for another season. He didn't listen.
"I had a gut feeling," said Humphries of his decision to turn pro. "It felt like the right time for me."
Initially met with some skepticism, Humphries' decision is starting to look brilliant. The Florida offensive tackle rode a wave of momentum into the scouting combine, to the point that he's now being discussed as a potential Round 1 pick come April.
Not every underclassman's early entry story trends upward like this, which is why the NFL adjusted its advisory board's approach following the 2014 draft. A record 107 underclassmen declared last year, and nearly four dozen went undrafted. The league's immediate response was to limit the number of players per school who could ask the board for feedback (five) and to change its grading scale.
Before the changes, players were given a projected round for where they might be drafted; now, those grades are limited to first-round, second-round and "stay in school". Humphries received the last of those designations.
"I took it as a challenge almost," he said. "They were telling me I should come back, so I'm going to show 'em."
Utah offensive lineman Jeremiah Poutasi and Penn State offensive tackle Donovan Smith made the same choice as Humphries, opting to bypass their final year of eligibility despite a disheartening review from the advisory board.
"Obviously, mine said stay in school," said Smith, who turned in an up-and-down year with the Nittany Lions.
While the advisory board's attempts to keep perceived mid- or late-round prospects in school failed in these cases, the number of underclassmen to declare for the draft did drop rather dramatically from that record mark of '14. In all, 84 players bypassed their remaining college eligibility to enter this year's draft, 23 fewer than a year ago.
"Only 61% of the kids [underclassmen] that entered the draft last year were drafted," Steelers GM Kevin Colbert said. "So I think a lot of kids that weren’t drafted regretted that decision [to turn pro] because they ended up a free agent. They gave up a season of college football where maybe they could have enhanced their draft status coming into this year.
"I also think the change in the college advisory committee was big ... and I think the combination of those two things, they learn from their experience that college football is still a good avenue to enhance your NFL draft status and I think they want to make the most of it."
The advisory board itself is comprised of a combination of scouts and NFL front-office personnel. Their word is not scripture so much as a guideline for any player considering the jump to the pros.
Smith didn't move up draft boards until he performed well at the Senior Bowl. Humphries received yet another boost Wednesday when he weighed in at 307 pounds, a dozen pounds heavier than his playing weight at Florida—and an increase the NFL wanted to see from him.
Those developments came long after the board's responses were delivered to draft hopefuls.
"We want the kid to make an informed decision," NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent said when announcing the board's changes last July. "Use our resources, make an informed decision. Each institution has those resources for every prospect and every head coach. The numbers and the facts speak for themselves."
At the very least, the adjusted grading scale forces prospective early entrants to do a little more digging when they do not land a coveted Round 1 or Round 2 score. Poutasi, like Smith, said the decision ultimately was a family one; Humphries was adamant that he reached a verdict by himself.
In any case, ignoring the "stay in school" recommendation to declare for the draft is a gamble. There is a substantial difference between landing in Round 3, for example, than in slipping out of the draft entirely. And while Humphries, Poutasi and Smith likely had some idea that they were draftable talents, the advisory board offers little help beyond providing an opinion on a player's value.
"I went back, talked to my family and made the decision on my own," Smith said. "I had my degree [Criminology], graduated in 3 1/2 years, so it was time for me to tackle my next goal and become an NFL player."
"[Turning pro] was in the back of my mind for a while during the season, but I was trying to focus on the season and not think about it," Humphries said. "My dad told me, 'You take care of this level, the next level will take care of itself.'"
That advice Humphries was far more willing to hear.