As Underclassmen Flood the N.F.L. Draft, Landing Places Dry Up

Clifton Duck might see a bit of the NFL draft this weekend like he has done for years. But he can’t. “It is everyone’s dream to go to draft on TV,” he said. “But it’s a long, unchecked process and you can’t tell what is happening.”

For Duck, his dream of playing in the NFL has so far eluded him. Despite his height of 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, Duck had been named as the all-conference defensive in Appalachian State for each of his three seasons. But when the team’s coach took over the Louisville program and took some staff away, Duck assumed he would join in 2019 design.

Duck didn’t seek much advice about his pro potential and essentially relied on himself to impress the NFL staff. “Whatever team or camp I went to, I knew I was going to produce,” he said.

Duck, like an increasing number of underclassmen leaving college early, was not drafted. He signed a free agent deal with the Chicago Bears in May 2019 and had a solid bearing, including an interception and a 62-yard runback in a preseason game against the Giants. Still, he was cut.

He returned home to his parents’ home in Charlotte, NC, and since then Duck has taken online classes in the Appalachian State to complete his communications degree (he’s a semester short), trained, trained at his old high school and works on the night shift at CarMax. The 2020 Canadian Football League season has been canceled but he has been contacted by a local scout for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers so he is now preparing for July training camp. If that goes well, who knows? For Duck, the NFL dream is still alive.

“You just go back to first place and keep working.”

In the 31 years since the NFL began giving lower classes the opportunity to sign up for the draft, the number of those doing so each year has more than tripled while the jobs available have not.

In 1990, 28 underclassmen signed up for the design and some cashed: five were among the first 10 picks. However, ten were not drafted.

As of 2014, the total number of underclassmen who signed up early and had not yet graduated approached or exceeded 100. More underclassmen are drafted, but also those who were not drafted jumped and topped most of the 20 years. This year 98 underclassmen have signed up for the draft.

While the NCAA addressed the increase in early entrants for the NBA draft with a 2018 rule change that would allow players to return to college before a deadline if they haven’t signed up with an agent, college football isn’t considering any such change.

Unlike in basketball, where unprotected players can hope to compete with the G-League or the pro teams in Europe and China, or in baseball with 120 minor league clubs, the options in football are few.

“There is no alternative. There is no way to play in Lithuania, “said Alabama coach Nick Saban told The Athletic in 2018.

There are only 53 active players per NFL team. This year’s draft will include 259 slots, including equalizing picks, and 98 underclassmen have been added to the pool through early registration. An NCAA study on the 2019 draft showed that only 6.8 percent of eligible Football Bowl Subdivision players were occupied.

“The NFL is a private entity with a successful business model,” said UConn coach Randy Edsall, who has also worked for NFL teams. “If a young man comes out early, he’d better make sure that he has done his due diligence. When you explain, you understand what the consequences are. You have to live with this decision. “

The NFL declined to comment on this article, but referred to theCollege Player Development ”on its websitewhich outlines the mission of the League’s College Advisory Committee. “The board will rate up to five underclassmen from each school, although ratings for additional players will be considered on a case-by-case basis,” the website said. “By limiting the number of players the committee evaluates, the scouts can focus on the players with a realistic chance and provide more accurate projections.”

Many players do not seek or ignore the advice of the committee. Axios reported that during the 2016 and 2017 drafts, 80 lower school students who were advised by the committee to stay in school declared early anyway.

As the number of early participants increased, so did the discussion about change – but there was little evidence of consensus. The NCAA did not respond to requests for comment.

Saban and former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who now coaches the Jacksonville Jaguars, have discussed some of these proposals with NFL officials, but mediating a solution between two bureaucracies like the NCAA and the NFL is likely to be an Ice Age process .

One popular suggestion is for the NFL to adopt a system similar to the NBA’s model. Underclassmen who don’t sign with an agent can join a pre-draft combine – this June this year – and receive feedback to maintain college eligibility if they retire from the NBA draft by July. But in football, underclassmen have to sign up for the NFL draft in January before the scouting combine, which traditionally takes place in the spring.

Rick Neuheisel, a CBS Sports commentator and former college coach, argued that any player who wasn’t selected should return to school even after the draft.

“Why are we letting them run over the plank?” he asked.

Other suggestions include expanding the NFL practice groups, creating a development league like the G-League of basketball, or distributing advisory committee assessments early on.

But the solutions are also complicated. The colleges would have prepared for a roster in spring practice that did not include the early attendees, and a new recruiting class would have been signed in February to address the expected roster gaps. College roster management would be messed up.

It is too late for any of these suggestions to be of any use to James Williams. He won 3,090 all-purpose yards as a running back in Washington state in three years, and he explained so after his junior year in 2018. Williams’ position manager had left before that season, and Williams didn’t have such a good connection with replacements. A freshman began to delve into Williams’ playing time. He and his girlfriend had a baby in December.

The College Advisory Committee advised him to stay in school and told him he lacked the size and speed for the pros, but suspected that the Washington State passport scheme and competition would be obstacles to his position.

“If I had gone back how much better would I have been?” he asked. “I felt like I was going to just go and take my risk.”

On the third day of drafting, when the final three rounds were selected, he had a party for him at a restaurant in the Los Angeles area.

“But when they hit the last 20 picks, I panicked,” he said.

Williams was not drafted. What followed was a free agent deal with Kansas City and tryouts with Washington, Green Bay, Indianapolis, New England and Detroit where he played in an exhibition game.

But he didn’t stay. So Williams signed a contract with the CFL’s Blue Bombers. Meanwhile, he lives with his fiancée’s parents in Lewiston, Idaho, educates high school students and works as a personal trainer. It’s a semester without a degree in humanities.

“I have dedicated my life to football for 21 years, but I don’t want to rely solely on football,” said Williams. “If it doesn’t work out, that’s a message to find something else I’m passionate about.”

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