Which NFL Draft Underclassmen Should Have Gone Back to School?

A record number of underclassmen declared for the 2019 NFL draft. Who do evaluators think made a mistake?
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In 17 days, 254 players will be drafted into the NFL. This year, a record 135 players gave up remaining NCAA eligibility to enter the draft early. That number includes 103 academic juniors who decided to go pro, and 32 players who finished their degrees but had remaining eligibility.

The 135 non-senior draft entrants is up from last year, when 119 players (also a record) declared. In 2015, just 84 players declared early. The NFL Record & Fact Book keeps data on only the academic underclassmen (not those who finished degrees) who declared early for the draft. Over the last five years (2014-2018), of the 469 total underclassmen who declared early, 136 (28.9%) went undrafted.

When asked about the growing trend, which impacts his program every season, Nick Saban voiced his concern. “Now, we have guys that have no draft grades, seventh-round grades, free-agent grades, fifth-round grades that are going out for the draft,” he told reporters Saturday. “And the person that loses in that is the player.”

This year, seven Alabama underclassmen declared for the draft. Last year, it was 10. And Saban specifically (whether he wanted to or not) called out one former player as an example of someone who could have benefitted from staying in Tuscaloosa for one more season. “If you’re a third-round draft pick, and we had one here last year—I’m not going to say any names—goes and starts for his team, so he’s making third-round money, which is not that great,” Saban said. “He’d be the first guy taken at his position this year, probably, and make $15 to 18 million more. So, the agent makes out, the club makes out, and now they’ve got a guy that’s going to play for that kind of money for three more years.”

The only Crimson Tide player drafted in the third round last year was safety Ronnie Harrison, who started eight games for the Jaguars. Scouts I polled didn’t necessarily agree with Saban that Harrison would be the first safety picked in the 2019 class, but there’s no doubt he could have improved from the 93rd pick and made some more money. Harrison shot back at Saban with this tweet, where he defended his choice to go pro.

Last year, 34% of the 106 juniors who declared early were not drafted, and Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy wouldn’t be surprised if that percentage is even higher this year. He brought up the idea of the NFL implementing a model similar to the NBA, in which juniors can remove their names by a certain deadline before the draft. That way, the underclassmen could get a better idea of the range they might be drafted in, and whether they would benefit from another college season.

I asked scouts which underclassmen in this draft could have improved their draft position by waiting another year, and several made the point that almost all certainly would have benefitted, since declaring early only really makes sense for the top 30-40 picks, and those drafted after that could improve by returning to school. These prospects came up as underclassmen who should have returned for another season:

Mack Wilson, LB, Alabama
Deionte Thompson, S, Alabama
Tre Lamar, LB, Clemson
Vosean Joseph, LB, Florida
Bobby Evans, OL, Oklahoma
Greg Little, OT, Ole Miss
Zach Gentry, TE, Michigan
Elijah Holyfield, RB, Georgia

There are two major stories in this draft of prospects whose stocks have been dramatically impacted by their decision to return for their senior season. Kentucky EDGE Josh Allenhelped himself by having a career season and is now considered a top-five pick. Stanford running back Bryce Love was a Heisman Trophy finalist after rushing for more than 2,000 yards as a junior, but then had a disappointing senior season (739 yards rushing), and tore his ACL in the last regular season.

Saban’s take on underclassmen brings up a conversation that needs to be taken seriously, but he didn’t get into the other aspect of the conversation. How can college programs expect to keep talented players from leaving early without offering anywhere near the compensation the NFL does?

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According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the Giants hosted a pair of top defensive line prospects on Monday: Clemson DE Clelin Ferrell and Houston DT Ed Oliver. The Giants pick sixth and 17th in the first round, so keep an eye on these two as potential targets if GM Dave Gettleman opts to wait until next year for a quarterback . . . This is an interesting inside-the-draft-room perspective from former NFL scouting director Greg Gabriel, a cautionary tale on why teams need to be prepared for all draft-day scenarios.

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