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NFL to inform, discourage underclassmen: What it means

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What are the draft implications? How can teams use this to their benefit?

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Albert Breer of NFL.com has reported that the league issued a memo to college coaches that laid out guidelines for underclassmen considering declaring eligibility for the draft. The guidelines were given to advise how colleges and players approach new changes to the league's draft advisory board.

The draft advisory board has assisted college athletes in deciding whether to declare for the draft, or wait. The athletes apply for a draft grade, and the board provides an assessment analogous to professional scouting by franchises, to evaluate their chances of getting drafted.

The changes are to limit the number of college players per school who can apply for a grade from the advisory board, and to increase accuracy, by way of avoiding ambiguous assessments, in their draft grade tiers, eliminating draft grades of lower than 2nd-round. The new grades are effectively binary, assuring the 1st & 2nd round graded players they can confidently expect to be drafted, while avoiding inadvertently inflating false hopes for those who stand a real chance of not getting drafted, so as to not unduly influence their eligibility decisions.

There's quite a bit more to explain, in the immediate reasoning at hand behind these changes, so I suggest you take the time to read Breer's article first, before proceeding, in which we expound a bit more on the implications.

Background

Traditionally, underclassmen have been relatively uncommon. The league strongly discriminated toward seniors -- not without warrant -- for years, and 1-A football schools with a legacy of producing professional stars seemingly were complicit in how they advised their student athletes. It was a fairly natural evolution that generally benefitted all parties involved. Colleges, in particular, disliked losing their best players, after having dedicated the development time within rather short eligibility windows. The league enjoyed a more mature and developed talent pool, holding less risk of failing and busting.

And the players enjoyed a higher likelihood of getting drafted and producing a successful professional career. Or that seems to have been the pitch sold to them over the years. Again, not without warrant. By volume it's certain to be true, but it hasn't intrinsically aligned with an individual's best interests.

In recent years, there's been a distinct trend of underclassmen declaring for the draft.

Like so many barriers that stand in place for little more reason than that institutions hold strongly to unwritten rules, distinguished success of exceptions lead to questions of whether they are actually exceptions, to questions of the long-entrenched assumptions, to a movement and outcry to remove the barriers and support the unfairly marginalized.

But enough about Russell Wilson.

Social progress in the same vein is often difficult and messy, but when entities in a hyper-competitive environment, such as franchises in the NFL, stand to gain a competitive edge, the situation is much more conducive to old, unwritten rules being re-written. And so, as underclassmen have collectively built a curriculum vitae of distinguished success, rookie success, the notion of an underclassman declaring for the draft has become so commonplace, it's now scarcely notable or worth mentioning.

Problem

The problem we have now, is defining what the problem is, or whether there is one.

The apparent paradox is easy to identify. The league, collectively, stands to benefit from underclassmen staying in school another year. Yet the league, individually, stands to benefit from plucking the finest fruit first. A royal riviera pear in the hand, not yet fully ripe, is better than an aaron curryberry (the safe pick senior). Not only are you grabbing a player with potentially a brighter future, by virtue of remaining distinguished while standing on level ground amongst his more fully developed peers, but you also get a career that starts one year earlier, which is no small perk.

This is what we call tragedy of the commons. The collective stands to benefit from restraint, but the individual has no discipline to resist the (perceived, potential) immediate (and individual) payoff.

In an open labor market, this might not be a problem, or it might be one that fixes itself. In the controlled labor market of questionable legality, an undesirable market dynamic can be controlled for the collective's benefit.

And that's the impetus behind these changes. The league's view is, the rising tide of underclassmen is a problem. They're not the only ones. The same incentives behind the old paradigm remain in place.

Let's avoid a fully jaded take and recognize there is tangible value to the athletes themselves, and the college & professional colluders genuinely believe, to some extent, that they're considering the players' interests as well. I believe they are. I believe there's merit to the view. But in writing this article I couldn't find more suitable words to use than 'discriminated,' 'complicit' and 'colluders.'

Solution

Draft Grade Limits

As laid out in Breer's article, the league's advisory board is limiting the number of players who can apply for a draft grade, to 5 per school, with an extension process that allows colleges to apply for additional grad slots according to the talent on the team.

The seemingly small number isn't suppressive. Eight colleges exceeded 5 requests last year, Breer points out, when there were no limits, but when a record number of underclassmen declared for the draft (107). The most grade requests came from LSU, at 11. The limit doesn't seem to pose a drastic change.

The league's stated intent is to further involve colleges as more active stewards of their athletes' prospective careers. The schools will apparently distribute these options to request a draft grade in a manner they see fit. How that plays out remains to be seen. The one clear result is that fewer underclassmen will acquire actionable assessments of their current chances at starting a professional career.

In most sciences, an actionable result, a result with any hard implication, is rare. Most of science involves slowly eliminating the falsifiable possibilities. Most sciences prefer more rigorously collected data than less. Although potentially ambiguous, potentially misleading, it's easy to imagine how the assessments could yet be helpful in several situations (i.e., a junior who thinks he's got a shot at cracking the first round, getting back a grade of "no potential to be drafted").

There's broad developmental value to staying in school, of course, and the league's materials distributed to athletes and coaches showed "12 players who received 4th-7th-round grades in 2013 going in the top two rounds in 2014, including first-rounders Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, Kyle Fuller and Jason Verrett."

Draft Grade Changes

The other change the advisory board is implementing is to the draft grades themselves. Previously, the draft grades given out were

  • "As high as the first round"
  • "As high as the second round"
  • "As high as the third round"
  • "No potential to go in the first three rounds"
  • "No potential to be drafted"

The new grades: first round, second round, and neither.

As Breer points out, the board's effectively advising any player who doesn't have a strong chance of getting drafted in at least the 2nd round, "to stay in school."

The board's effectively CYA'ing, is what they're doing. Breer describes the league's view of "an area where [the league] could be contributing to the problem," and they've elected to avoid potentially propping up false hopes for players to make "shaky decisions" upon. That's not an inconsiderate thing, to determine to avoid. But the result for underclassmen considering declaring for the draft is a broader range of ambiguity, with no real insight to their chances beyond positive confirmations of what would have already been likely well known by many people: that a player with 1st/2nd round potential has such potential.

The widespread, crowdsourced draft enthusiast community, which to a large extent encompasses the Field Gulls community, are strongly accurate at this level of granularity. I don't think I could find an example of a 2-round mock draft that included a player that ended up not getting drafted at all. The advisory board's draft grade accuracy, cited by Breer, held true at 70- and 80- percent clips in the first two rounds, but dropped to nearly 50% for third grade and lower.

I don't think I'm stepping out on a limb too far by saying most draftniks' accuracy falls along similar success curves. The advisory board's accuracy doesn't appear to be a notable concern. The talent pool of a typical draft often seems to have up to three tiers of talent within the first 40 picks. After close to a hundred players have been selected, as the fourth round starts, the talent difference between the players picked and those crossing their fingers not to become Mr. Irrelevant, or even one of the few hundred UDFAs signed after the draft, is a talent difference that's hard to identify.

The absolute glut of mock drafts year round with stronger accuracy than the advisory board's new grading tiers effectively renders their grades not very useful. When a 7-round 2015 mock draft is issued this summer, some of us may wonder how closely it aligns with pro teams' actual assessments. Previously, these advisory board grades would have provided a close approximation of those teams' assessments, if with limited accuracy. The only remaining alternative, now, is for the athletes to hope Rob Rang updates his prospect rankings for 2016 in time.

Streamlined in the name of avoiding misleading assessments, the actual impetus behind these moves is a motivation unhidden by the league, to coerce underclassmen to stay in school.

Exploitation

Whatever we may think of the reasoning behind it, the changes are implemented. Now the question comes, what does this mean for the draft? How will teams use this to their benefit? Will it make for greater draft parity, or will the shrewd take advantage and separate themselves further?

2010 was a good draft. Recognized a couple years before it occurred, we saw talk and possible action considering the broader talent acquisition strategy of trading off players and draft capital to stock up on 2010 picks. It was certainly a draft that the Seahawks stocked up on, and they reaped a fine harvest. As we all well know.

  • Russell Okung
  • Earl Thomas
  • Golden Tate
  • Walter Thurmond
  • EJ Wilson
  • Kam Chancellor
  • Anthony McCoy
  • Dexter Davis
  • Jameson Konz

No notable UDFAs for Seattle, that year, which has almost come to be regarded as unusual, by now. The unusually deep talent pool certainly benefited from the then-record 53 underclassmen, likely prompted by the looming rookie wage scale. The number of Pro Bowl selected players in the first two rounds, 21, making for 1 out of every 3 players drafted getting lei'd going to Hawaii, Miami and/or Glendale, Arizona.

2014 doubled that underclassmen count. 2011 As the number of non-seniors has risen, the rate at which they're getting drafted has dropped. As one might expect. As the talent pool has been expanded by this trend, each year, there may have been a corresponding drop in draft success rate, as a league, collectively. We may need to wait a few more years to see if the success or lack thereof is detectable statistically. Conceivably, there could have been instead a higher success rate, as teams had more clear, good choices on the board to make.

Fewer underclassmen makes for a smaller talent pool, on a single-year basis. Fewer underclassmen makes for more developed talent, more falsified fringe players with "no potential." Or, seemingly, a more competitive environment, with the same 32 teams competing over the scarcer resources, with each pick potentially being valued more by virtue of a potentially higher likelihood of success.

On the other hand, Sophomore and Junior tape may be disregarded a bit more. Which means disappointing senior seasons, due to extrinsic reasons, may be overlooked, and the later rounds and UDFA pool may be bolstered further. Football causes injury, shortens careers, and the increased number of senior years takes away from the number of NFL years, collectively.

Seems like a situation where the early round hits aren't likely to be bigger, by average, than in years past, but possibly slightly easier to avoid a bust. But conversely, the ability to find a player that fits your team, in the later rounds, may not be slightly easier, but may have potential for bigger hits.

I doubt that teams will actively disregard sophomore and junior tape; I expect that if that happens, it's subconscious. But teams that perform a fuller level of due diligence on non-seniors, and who have constructed the ability to find late round success, may find themselves hitting bigger home runs while hitting at approximately the same rate.

Of course all of that is speculation. What we know right now is the NFL determined to reduce the number of underclassmen declaring for the draft, we know the incentives and benefits they and the NCAA have at stake, and we know they've taken steps to reduce that number.