INDIANAPOLIS — Greg Robinson decided to leave college for all the usual reasons.
He played for a national championship at Auburn, is generally regarded as a top-five pick and wants to help his family financially. For the 6-foot-5, 332-pound offensive tackle, the decision to give up his final two seasons of college eligibility made sense.
For some of the other 101 early entrants in this year’s draft, whether they’re ready or not, it’s a choice fraught with risk.
“I can guarantee you 30 of them (underclassmen) will not make a roster and if you’re lucky enough to end up on a practice squad, they won’t get credit for the season and your development as a player is going to be arrested,” longtime NFL executive and ESPN analyst Bill Polian said. “Some won’t even make the roster or a practice squad and then they won’t have any college eligibility left, and in many cases they won’t have a degree.”
The current crop of early entrants includes many players fans are counting on to become franchise cornerstones: Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, Jadeveon Clowney, Johnny Manziel and Sammy Watkins. All come with questions, some about their maturity.
The list is also rife with smaller-school stars such as Willie Snead, Brett Smith and Pierre Warren, who could go anywhere or not at all on draft weekend.
This was not what the NFL envisioned when it opened the door to players who had been out of high school for at least three years.
From the inaugural underclassmen class of 1995 through 2010, the list of non-seniors declaring for the draft remained essentially steady, with 31 to 54 declaring each year. The number topped 50 only six times during that span.
Over the past four years, when the new collective bargaining agreement and rookie wage scale went into effect, things have changed dramatically. A record-breaking 56 underclassmen declared for the draft in 2011. A year later, it was 65. Last year, it was 73 and now it has jumped to 98, plus four players who have graduated but have eligibility remaining – enough to fill more than three full rounds.
Those who work closely with college football players insist it’s no coincidence.
Like NBA Draft prospects, football players are increasingly being advised to make the jump sooner so they get that second, richer contract at an earlier age.
“If you’re a good player, even second- and third-round draft choices are good football players. You’ve got to get through four years before you get to free agency and three years before you start to talk about a contract extension,” agent Tom Condon said. “So I think that is a motivating factor.”
Because the average NFL playing career lasts less than four years, many players never get that second contract – a fact many of them never consider.
Indiana University coach Kevin Wilson makes sure his players get that information. While Wilson has one underclassman in this year’s draft, receiver Cody Latimer, he worked alongside a large group of young college stars at Oklahoma who found themselves debating whether to stay or go, including Sam Bradford and Adrian Peterson.
Wilson also wants his players to know something else.
“It’s mathematically proven that more college graduates make it (in the NFL) and more college graduates are the most likely to get the second contract,” he said.
What confounds Polian is why players tend to ignore evaluations of the NFL’s Draft advisory board, which he helped create in the mid-1990s. While Polian acknowledges it’s wise for those with first-round grades to leave school, and a tougher call for those getting second or third-round grades, he believes everyone with a grade lower than the third round should go back to school.
Wilson acknowledged that he’s found the board to be remarkably accurate.
But it’s not just agents or family members pushing players to leave early. Players honestly believe they can defy the odds.
“You don’t come out until you know you’re ready mentally and physically,” former Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby said. “Maybe the contracts, yes, you’re not getting as much money in the first rounds and in the early rounds like you were, so that’s an incentive to go ahead and get out there.”
They’re more fearful of injuries while still in school, too.
The NCAA offers catastrophic insurance for NFL prospects and does allow athletes and players’ families to purchase “loss of value” insurance if a player, such as former South Carolina running back Marcus Latimore, sustains a significant injury that drops him down several rounds. An NCAA spokeswoman said families can use loans to pay for the coverage as long as they don’t borrow against a player’s future earnings. Conferences also can help by using money from the student assistance fund to help pay for the premiums.
Polian thinks the NCAA needs to do more.
“The NCAA doesn’t provide anywhere near the appropriate type of insurance to come back to school that they ought to,” he said. “Look, if you care about kids going to class and graduating, they can get this done and they should.”
The reality, though, is that more underclassmen think they’re ready to make the jump for a variety of reasons, including money.
“I have two younger siblings, and it would be a blessing if I could help my mom put them through college,” Robinson said. “That would just be something in my heart that I would love to do. As far as my older brothers and sisters, I’m going to help them as much as I can because they have kids.”