This year's magic number was 36.
That's the number of underclassmen who weren't selected in this year's NFL draft. In all, 98 declared this past January, meaning roughly 37 percent went undrafted.
The reality of the numbers and percentages becomes more sobering by the year. It'd be great if every player who entered the draft—early or not—was able to realize their dream of playing in the pros. Watching the likes of Jadeveon Clowney and Michael Sam break down into tears of raw emotion is part of what makes the draft—and its unnecessarily long gap from the end of the NFL season—worthwhile.
But, that's not the nature of the draft. There's going to be an equally heavy dose of disappointment for those underclassmen who didn't hear their name called.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay thinks media plays a role in players making ill-advised decisions to declare early:
In response, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk wrote on Sunday that draft experts actually share a responsibility in the increasing number of undrafted underclassmen.
While crafting mock drafts several months to a year in advance may contribute to the trend, so does bad advice. That can come from family or friends, social media or the NFL Draft Advisory Board.
Bleacher Report's NFL Lead Writer, Michael Schottey, explains:
In any case, Alabama head coach Nick Saban believes the trend is bad for both the NFL and college football.
"I don't think the NFL really wants this, I don't really think the colleges want this," Saban said via 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."
The solution itself is hard to find, but ultimately, the decision comes down to dollars and value. There's no reason for a draft-eligible underclassman not to at least consider jumping to the pros, no matter where he might land—if he lands anywhere at all.
B/R's Adam Kramer wrote in January that declaring for the NFL draft early is one of the safest risks a player can make:
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?
A quick glance over the list of top undrafted free agents, courtesy of Gil Brandt of NFL.com, boasts plenty of recognizable names: Florida State running back James Wilder Jr., Oklahoma State wide receiver Josh Stewart, Florida defensive back Loucheiz Purifoy and Oregon tight end Colt Lyerla.
Remember all of those guys? Many weren't drafted for reasons unique to them, whether it was off-the-field issues, injuries or simply because they hit their football ceiling.
Sometimes, the reasons are even more personal. Texas linebacker Dalton Santos recently took to Twitter to ask for donations, which is allowed under NCAA bylaws, for his mother's open-heart surgery. If a player is draft eligible and his mother is sick, the chance to land a six-figure salary that would pay for medical bills is tempting.
Almost all of the players on the aforementioned NFL.com list have already signed with teams as undrafted free agents. Perhaps they'll make the team and the league minimum.
Suddenly, the bad advice doesn't look so bad. The mistake doesn't look so costly.
Since NFL teams can draft or pass over any player they want while keeping their hands clean, there's no incentive to make life better for players at the collegiate level. And since the NCAA does not allow athletes who declare early to return and finish out their eligibility, they're left to figure out what to do next.
One option would be for the NCAA to allow undrafted athletes to return to school, but that requires loosening either scholarship caps or transfer restrictions—or both.
But if the NCAA paid all of its football players an additional stipend and/or allowed them to profit from their likeness, the value of staying in college football would go up.
Would it prevent all underclassmen from declaring early? No, because a possible six-figure salary is still six figures, but the risk/reward balance shifts.
This isn't a proposal that affects only the football players in the so-called "Power 5" conferences. This applies to every level of college football that offers a scholarship.
How does the NCAA make it work? There's no easy answer—certainly nothing easy enough to be explained here.
It's up to the schools, and their highly educated administrators, to figure it out. After all, the NCAA membership's willingness to act as a de facto D-League for the NFL while refusing to alter the status quo is why this issue exists in the first place.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand.