Running back Michael Ford declared for the NFL draft after his junior season at LSU in 2012. Four months later, he wasn’t drafted.
He must have regrets.
“I didn’t second-guess myself,” Ford said, “and I didn’t hang my head.”
While it may appear that Ford was ambushed by his greed or his ambition—or the conniving of an agent—hold your pity. Ford played in the NFL in 2013. As an undrafted free agent, he played 12 games on special teams for the Chicago Bears and made around $496,000.
Instead of sharing time with three other NFL-caliber running backs at LSU during the 2013 season, Ford began his professional career, which is significant considering the perishable life of an NFL running back.
Darrington Sentimore, on the other hand, is full of regret. He was a defensive tackle at Tennessee in 2012. A good one. He passed up his senior season in 2013 because, he said, an agent told him he would be a middle-round draft pick. He wasn’t drafted and is home in New Orleans trying to catch on with an Arena Football League team.
"I made a bad decision,” said Sentimore, who started his college career as a blue-chip recruit at Alabama, went to junior college and then transferred to Tennessee. “A lot of guys like me are sitting at home wishing they had that degree.”
The journey of underclassmen from college to the NFL does not go through a clean intersection with a working traffic light. This is a blinking yellow, and athletes with unconquerable faith in their ability feel they are going to be the ones who make it through in one piece.
Instead, many have serious collisions with a complex reality.
This year, college football is being depleted of a record 102 top-tier football players—players who have eligibility remaining and have declared for the NFL draft. That is a whopping 39.7 percent increase over the number who declared for the 2013 draft. (Of the 102, four have graduated.) Players are eligible to be selected after being out of high school for at least three years.
The reasons these guys are leaving come in all shapes and sizes, just like the players themselves. They flee for the NFL for the fame and the money, but it could also be to help defray the cost of raising a young child—or a fear of school, or poor grades, or anger at the college coach, or depth-chart stagnation, or a mother’s illness, or a player simply graduating with eligibility remaining and on and on.
One of the most influential reasons the number of eligible college players declaring for the draft has jumped—65 in 2012 to 73 in 2013 to 102 for the May 8, 2014 draft—is actually none of the above.
Many players are leaving because NFL teams have a new business model. Remember Sam Bradford’s extravagant six-year, $78 million deal with the Rams in 2010? Well, that kind of money was off the table the next season, as No. 1 pick Cam Newton signed a four-year, $22 million deal under the new labor agreement. That change has had a seismic effect on college football.
Some college players used to put their ambition on hold for a year and stay out of the draft for a chance to move from the second or third round to the coveted top half of the first round, where there was big money in the first contract, enough to retire on. The rookie wage scale implemented in 2011 removed that incentive—at least that’s what underclassmen have come to believe. Might as well jump now, players think, because they'll be a year closer to the second contract, where there is big money.
The second contract also means players are closer to the NFL’s retirement requirement of four “active” seasons. So, is there a wake-up call coming—a series of draft-day busts—or is this the new natural order of things?
Look around at all the players nationally who have spent their high school and college years eating right, attending camps and building their bodies. Look at how much the coaching has improved in high school and college. Look at the increased emphasis on offseason training. No less than Grant Teaff, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, says the pipeline is stuffed with elite players, and they will keep coming and coming.
Wide receivers in this draft are a good example of the gusher of talent. You start with Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, then Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, LSU’s Odell Beckham, Jr., Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks, and then you finally get to Southern Cal’s Marqise Lee, whose skills suggest he would have been a top-10 pick 10 years ago. He will likely go in the bottom half of the first round.
But there are risks in that contested territory between staying in school and leaving. In 2011, 56 declared early and 13 went undrafted. In 2012, those numbers were 65 and 21. In 2013, 73 and 23.
“I look at this number (102) for the draft,” said Georgia Tech senior defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu, “and I see a lot of busts. I hope it doesn’t happen, but this is a big number of players coming out.”
SCHOOL, GLORY OR BUST
Bill Polian cannot conceal his disgust at the wage-scale alibi for leaving school. He fumes over the “get your clock started” jargon. Polian, the former general manager of the Buffalo Bills, the Carolina Panthers and the Indianapolis Colts, said somebody needs to be more responsible to college football players and save them from their ambition.
“There is a lack of good judgment and appropriate guidance for youngsters who come into the draft who are not ready physically, emotionally and mentally, who would be much better served spending another year at the college level,” said Polian, an NFL analyst for ESPN. “That point has not been made loudly enough. It’s being drowned out by this chorus of 'get your clock started.' I’m sick and tired of hearing it.
“If you don’t make the team, you don’t start your clock. So what are you left with?”
Players might get a spot on a practice squad, but that is limbo. Practice squad players may only work out two days a week. They get no credit for time served toward a pension.
“You would be much better off continuing to play at the collegiate level, to say nothing of staying in school and progressing toward a degree,” Polian said.
Polian’s message of restraint gets into the ears of the players after they hear from families, friends and agents about the riches of football and the fact that they can always go back to school. But you cannot always go back to school. Tennessee will pay for Sentimore’s tuition and books, but he has to get together the money for room and board, and that is not easy.
“I was making $200 a game in the Arena League,” Sentimore said.
This is where the NFL College Advisory Committee should be of service. Polian was one of the architects of the committee in 1993. It advises players of their draft positions. The committee has to answer to college coaches and to NFL GMs about available talent, which Polian says helps to keep it neutral and objective in its assessments.
“We are not necessarily interested in helping college coaches. That’s not in our best interest,” Polian said. “If they can help us win, why would I want a player to stay in school? The question here is who is more objective: the NFL Draft Advisory Committee or agents who are trying to scare up clients and make money?”
Players need to take a second look at the idea that they should declare early for the draft because they can no longer hit the lottery by staying in school and playing their way into the first round. It’s a fallacy. Improving draft position from second to first round is still lucrative.
For instance, guard Jonathan Cooper, the No. 7 pick overall by the Arizona Cardinals in 2013, signed a four-year, $14.55 million fully guaranteed deal. Wide receiver Robert Woods, the ninth pick in the second round by the Bills, signed a four-year deal worth $4.92 million, with $2.92 million guarantee.
Mike Mayock, a draft analyst for NFL Network, said college players have to understand the economics of a team and the inherent value of high-round draft picks. The economics alone should keep the lower-round draft picks in school.
“If the philosophy is to get to a second contract, that’s fine, if you get to the second contract,” Mayock said. “But the higher you are drafted and the more money a team has invested in you, the longer they are going to have a commitment to you to get to that second contract.”
Here is a number. Mayock, a former player who wrecked his knees early in his career, knows it by heart.
“The average NFL player does not get to four years. That’s what it takes to get a pension,” Mayock said. “Plus or minus three-and-a-half years, that’s the average length of an NFL career. It is not even four years.
“It frustrates me when these kids come out and talk about the second contract.”
THE AGENT DILEMMA
Pat Dye Jr. is an agent. He represents Georgia Tech senior defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu, who figures to be picked in the second or third round of the 2014 draft. When Attaochu considered leaving for the NFL after his junior year in 2012, Dye was waiting with a pen and paper.
But the paper wasn’t a contract. It was a blank sheet, and Dye told Attaochu to write down his list of pros and cons for entering the draft a year early.
Attaochu had received a “third round or lower” assessment from the NFL College Advisory Committee. He appeared to be a solid high-round draft pick, but Dye had him do a self-scout nonetheless.
Attaochu made the lists, studied them side by side and stayed in school.
“You have to make a decision by yourself,” Attaochu said. “There are a lot of agents who try and push guys into coming out, and it has flooded the market.”
Dye is 51 years old. He has been in this business for 27 years. He has to go back to campuses over and over and meet with coaches, players and administrators. If he were luring players out of college just for the agent’s cut of the deal and then discarding them, the welcome mat likely would have been pulled in years ago.
“Agents are not the best source of information, by and large,” Dye said. “Often times, an agent knows that if he can persuade a player to come out of school, they have an instant client and immediate fee. There are some reputable and well-informed agents who will not sugarcoat things to entice a kid to come out early.
“Heck, I’m a coach’s son, and I am accountable for everything, I mean everything, I say to a kid or his family. I am going to be accountable to them and their program for anything I say. I never want to create unrealistic expectations, because I have to live with these expectations on draft day. For that reason, I have advised far more players to return to school to improve their draft stock than I have advised to declare early.”
Attaochu had a terrific senior season (12.5 sacks) and then solidified his draft status even further with a good showing at the Senior Bowl.
“I just wanted to finish what I started. I wanted to gain some intangibles of college football. I wanted to gain the experience of my senior year, which was a leadership role, and graduating and enjoying my senior year,” Attaochu said. “I didn’t want to rush that aspect of my life. If I had come out last year, I would have been 20 (years old) in the draft. Now I am 21. I learned a new defensive scheme. You have to weigh all those things.”
Dye, however, said the 2011 wage-scale change is a reality. Players are leaving because of it, whether or not anyone wants to accept it.
“This new rookie wage scale, particularly in the first half of the first round, has reduced the incentive for returning to school in hopes of significantly improving your draft stock,” Dye said. “Moving up from 25 to five is not nearly the financial windfall that it used to be. So, the mantra in the agent community is the sooner you come out, the sooner you get to that second, and hopefully more lucrative, contract.”
Dye said the other issue that should not be overlooked is the NFL trying to reduce its medical bills by getting younger. Just in 2013, the average age of an NFL player dropped eight months, he said. The younger the player, the thinking goes, the less prone to injury he is.
Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley was in an even stronger draft position than Attaochu. In 2013, Beasley had 13 sacks and was named to a list of All-American teams. He has decided to stay for his senior season in 2014. Beasley said he wants to get his degree and mature physically and mentally. He also wants to stay close to his teammates. Clemson is a faith-based program, and Beasley said that also played a part in his choice.
University of Tennessee head coach Butch Jones had his player personnel director, Bob Welton, put together a presentation for the whole team in the summer of 2013, soon after Welton arrived from the NFL, where he was a scout for nine years. The video was shown on a big screen and featured a timeline of 80 years, or the course of a player's life expectancy. Welton posted a career length for each position. He put a typical career of five years next to the 80-year timeline, and players found out just how short their time in professional football really is compared to their entire lives.
“When you put that in front of them,” Welton said, “their reactions were amazing. You can’t allow short-term greed to lead to long-term regrets. Coach Jones says that all the time. Kids are looking for a reason to leave. You have to get them off this moment. Tough it out. Get the degree. You will be better off in the long run taking care of a child or your mother.”
Welton will tell players to ask the agent who is talking to them about leaving school to evaluate their game. “What do I look like on film? Describe me on film. You need to ask the agent that,” Welton said. “See how much they know about you.''
Gil Brandt, former Dallas Cowboys executive and now a draft analyst for NFL.com, said schools need to do more one-on-one with players. There has to be a consistent, up-close message that entering the draft is risky business for most players.
“The guy that stays in college for four years has a much better chance of staying in the league for a longer length of time,” Brandt said.
THE END GAME
Charles Davis, a color analyst for college games on Fox and an analyst for the NFL Network, said the day of reckoning is coming. The surge in three-and-dones will soon be fully examined, and players will be forced to pay attention to reality.
“We have to follow how many came out and weren’t drafted,” said Davis, who played at Tennessee. “The first-rounders that come out are not the issue. It is the guys that the advisory board projected much lower than that and came out. How did they do? Did they stay in the league? Are they in trouble now in their personal lives? We have to learn something from it.”
Is the trend of more and more players fleeing college ball for the NFL bad for the college game? Even the AFCA’s Grant Teaff, who promotes education first, has a hard time making that argument.
“The game has never been better. It has never been more watched in person, never been more viewed on television,” he said. “It’s a heck of a game right now, and athletes abound. It would take a real study to make the argument the college game has been harmed by all these players leaving.”
Brandt said the pipeline is stuffed with players who have had their bodies sculpted. There are more and more such players, and they are ambitious.
“The player that comes out of high school today is so much more ready to play college football than the guy 10 years ago or 20 years ago,” Brandt said. “All the high schools have a weight program, and if they don’t have a weight program, they have some kind of affiliation with a company that trains players.
“Everything has been accelerated. High school kids come to school in January, and they get a taste of classes, and they get the benefit of an extra offseason of workouts and spring practice. He is more mature physically and more mature mentally.”
Teaff added, “The kid that came to school in January probably feels like he has been there four years after his junior year.”
There is no certain remedy for the surge in players leaving school. It is up to them to decide their future in a complex reality, not for wise men to say they should stay in school. The players’ faith pushes them out and demands they succeed, even when rosters are a fixed number and half will surely fail. Michael Ford does not have a career yet, but he has not been a failure.
It is best to just watch the draft May 8-10 and not rush to judgment. Hold your fire.
You don’t know who will succeed and who won’t. There are collisions and nasty pileups, and then there is Ford and players like him. They are in a hurry and have made the decision to navigate, not wait.
For better or worse.