Senior Bowl chief critical of growing early exits to NFL

jjones@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 19, 2014 

— Nearly 100 underclassmen declared for May’s NFL draft by last week’s deadline, setting an all-time record.

But that mark, which has risen each of the past six years, is considered a dubious one by some, including Phil Savage, Senior Bowl executive director.

Ninety-eight underclassmen declared for the draft early, which blasts last year’s record of 73 and more than doubles 2009’s mark of 46. The flight of players without four years of college football under their belts has Savage skeptical of what these student-athletes are being told.

“I think it’s an issue and something for the good of the game, both at the college level and the NFL level, that’s going to have to be addressed, one way or the other,” Savage said Sunday. “When you see almost 100 underclassmen come into the draft, and there are 250-some odd slots, there’s going to be a lot of kids that have been sold a bill of goods come the first week of May.

“Personally I think it’s bad for college football and I think it’s bad for the NFL, because players are coming into the league after three years of college and they’re not ready.”

Underclassmen like South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel are all but guaranteed a first-round selection. But a draft pick isn’t sure-fire for some of their counterparts.

Of the 73 underclassmen who declared for last year’s draft, 21 went undrafted, and that number likely is to be higher this year.

One of the consensus opinions for this mass exodus has to do with the NFL’s collective-bargaining agreement and the new rookie pay scale that was implemented just before the 2011 draft. What once was an instant pay day for rookies now has become a contract that’s more team friendly, and thus players are looking to get into the NFL faster in order to get to a bigger second contract.

In 2010, the St. Louis Rams signed No. 1 pick Sam Bradford to a six-year, $78 million contract with $50 million guaranteed. A year later and after the new CBA, the Panthers signed Cam Newton as the No. 1 pick to a four-year deal worth $22 million.

“With (an average pro) career span of a little over three years but not quite four,” Savage said, “it tells you that most of the players do not get to that second contract. And that’s what they’re kind of being encouraged (to do). It’s, ‘Hey you’ve got to get plugged into the system and get to that second contract.’

“And what happens then, the players that are in the league for three-plus years, (the team executives) say we can go find someone cheaper that’s coming out as a rookie that will cover kicks, etcetera, etcetera.”

All 32 NFL teams selected a player during last year’s draft who participated in the Senior Bowl. The Panthers took Senior Bowl alumni Kawann Short and Kenjon Barner in the second and seventh rounds, respectively.

Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard wouldn’t be at the Senior Bowl if not for a recent change to the rules. Hubbard took a redshirt during his freshman year and played for three years under coach Nick Saban. Hubbard graduated in December and is one of four players who recently graduated with eligibility remaining.

He said he felt prepared for the draft after being part of two national championships with the Crimson Tide as well as receiving his degree in business management.

“The situation is benefitting a lot of people in many ways,” Hubbard said. “It kind of puts people in my situation that education is first. If I didn’t graduate I wouldn’t be here.”

Missing from this year’s Senior Bowl are several top-rated skill position players because a majority of them are underclassmen. Fresno State’s Derek Carr and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd headline the quarterback group. Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews probably is the best-known receiver in the game. No running back in Mobile this week is expected to go during the first two rounds of May’s draft.

Savage didn’t express concern with the growing number of underclassmen leaving affecting the viability or prestige of the Senior Bowl. The event still will bring in coaches, scouts and executives from all 32 teams to evaluate potential draft picks, and it will help polish the players on the field and in interviews for the entire pre-draft period.

“There are people way beyond my pay grade that have to make some decisions in terms of where’s the future … of underclassmen playing in some sort of all-star game,” he said. “Right now I would say it’s a 0 percent chance. I think people at the league level, ownership level, general manager level, that’s a discussion they probably have to have in the future.”

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