Leaving Early for the NFL Is One of the Safest Risks a CFB Player Can Make

Adam KramerNational College Football Lead WriterJanuary 24, 2014

Alabama defensive back Vinnie Sunseri (3) tries to get the crowd to cheer louder during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Butch Dill/Associated Press

The entire thing is one enormous gamble. Let’s start there. By participating in a regulated game of college football—or even a run-of-mill practice in pads—you’re putting your body at risk for the cost of a scholarship.

That’s not meant to exaggerate the risks of the sport or undermine the value of a college education. It’s simply a realistic picture of what each college football player has to weigh when offered a chance to play in the NFL before graduating.

And while there is an inherent risk in leaving school early without a degree—and even more so without assumed money on the table—it’s no more risky than playing another season with everything to lose. That's what players forget, which can become a reality on a single play.

For the Johnny Manziels, Jadeveon Clowneys and Teddy Bridgewaters of the world, the decision isn’t much of one at all: Leave whenever you’re allowed to—say no goodbyes to the iniquitous system on the way out—and get paid handsomely to do what you love.

As for the majority of underclassmen—a staggering 98 in all that left early this year—the choice isn’t quite as simple. The top-10 potential and talks of early rounds give way for reality. In fact, many players will be left scrambling, hoping to latch on with a team as an undrafted free agent.

That seems somewhat ominous on the surface, but rarely is a fallback this encouraging. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that.

As for the draft, there are only so many slots and so many deserving players to fill them. In recent years, a number of underclassmen have tried to take up much more space in the spring affair.

Underclassmen Leaving Early (By Year)
USA Today

Because of this, the growing trend of early departures is beginning to garner negative attention. And the words “mistake” and “issue” are tossed around freely as this mass exodus trends upward.

Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage views the rise of early departures as a negative that will need to be addressed. He expressed those thoughts to The Baltimore Sun.

I think it’s an issue and something for the good of the game both at the college level and the NFL level that’s going to have to be addressed, one way or the other. When you see almost 100 underclassmen come into the draft, and there are 250-some odd slots, there’s going to be a lot of kids that have been sold a bill of goods come the first week of May. Personally I think it’s bad for college football and I think it’s bad for the NFL, because players are coming into the league after three years of college and they’re not ready.

Of course he does. Savage’s annual moneymaking scout fest depends specifically on players going through the complete collegiate process, hence the name of the game. When marquee talent leaves early, his game suffers. That’s not to say his opinion isn’t valid and his concern isn’t genuine, but his current title greatly impacts how this criticism should be assessed.

And while “for the good of the game” sounds like a noble cause, this should have absolutely no bearing on someone trying to make a living. The infusion of young talent hoping to capitalize on their value when they’re allowed is nowhere in the picture of the enormous football to-do list.

Dave Martin/Associated Press

Alabama head coach Nick Saban, a regular at this process, has also jumped into this discussion with a similar perspective to Savage.

"I don't think the NFL really wants this, I don't really think the colleges want this," Saban said to AL.com. "I don't think it's in the best interest of the players and I don't know what the solution to the problem really is."

Including the five who decided to leave early this year—a high for the school—17 Alabama underclassmen have left early during his tenure. Like Savage, the current trend is directly impacting how Saban operates. It’s the price he pays—if you want to call it that—for recruiting more ready talent than any coach in the country. It’s this same system, however, that has allowed Saban to thrive.

While selling recruits on the NFL isn’t the only message, his success in this department has molded Alabama into the recruiting power it is today. Players commit hoping that—if the process plays out accordingly and their development goes as planned—they will have a chance to play at the next level. And if they are able to leave early and get paid to do so, everybody wins.

Of course, not everybody wins, or at least that’s the assumption. Last year, 21 of 73 underclassmen who declared went undrafted. This year, a significant portion of the 98 players will be without a team immediately following the yearly podium celebration. 

It’s easy to assume that those who weren’t drafted made a mistake. Then again, many of these players will latch onto NFL teams and eventually make rosters. For perspective of what this means, the rookie minimum in 2013 was a cool $405,000. 

Think of your post-graduation salary for a moment and process this "disappointment." And was your education paid for—or almost completely paid for—to start?

The casual assumption is that these teetering juniors and sophomores should return, improving that fifth- or sixth-round grade to say a second- or first-round mark. You could make the case that this is an even greater risk than coming out early.

Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

What happens when that hopeful player looking to improve his stock has an awkward plant and blows out his knee in Week 4 of the regular season? Or, worse yet, what if a player gets hurt in the final portion of the scouting process? 

That happened to former Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin at Senior Bowl practice this past week. He went through the complete process like many have suggested he should, and he’ll leave with little to show for it for his loyalty. He has his degree—something the underclassmen do not—although his full stay at school, even after a superb senior season, came with a setback.

There lies the risk of seeing it through. Each snap comes with an incredible amount of danger, which is why it’s impossible to blame a player for capitalizing on his ability (and his health) when he can. Earning a scholarship to play a sport you love is a wonderful situation to have. Receiving nearly a half-million dollars in one calendar year to do the same thing is a lovely alternative. And that's the floor.

If it doesn't work out, then perhaps there will be a few semesters of paid education in their future. But given the incredible ceiling for earnings, the flawed value of the student-athlete and the paper-thin shelf life of a football player, going back to school isn't exactly the doomsday prophecy many proclaim it to be.

It's a risk, but then again, that's nothing new to those put in the position to take it.