To leave or not to leave? That is the question facing a number of collegiate players who have a few weeks now to determine whether to return for another season or declare for the NFL Draft.
Any player whose high school class graduated three years ago is eligible -- that means juniors and redshirt sophomores. If a key player, especially a quarterback, leaves a college program it can substantially alter the outlook for success in 2014. Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater has made the decision to enter the draft, UCLA's Brett Hundley had a Sun Bowl for the record books and is still deciding, and it is almost certain that Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel will leave.
How do they make this decision?
When I advise parents and players in this process I start with one proviso. If a player has college goals he has not achieved, needs another year of maturation, or simply wants to finish his education on time -- he should go back to school. Criticizing a player for returning to school for another year is unfair. If a player is contemplating early entry because he feels economic pressure, or fears injury, or feels ready for the next level, then an analysis needs to be made.
The first step is to attempt to project how high in the draft the player will go in this year's draft and compare it to a projection of how he would be drafted a year later. The timing is unfortunate, players need to make this decision in mid-January, before the whole second season of college scouting has taken place. It is necessary to accurately assess how a player will perform at the combine and at the pro-scouting day on campus. The depth at the player's position in the current year as opposed to the following year needs evaluating.
When the junior rule was instituted, I helped advise Jeff George, Drew Bledsoe, Dan Wilkinson and Ki-Jana Carter who all came out early and were the first overall pick in the draft. Desmond Howard was the 4th pick in the first round. Other players I advised went back to school. I never wanted to be part of a process which unrealistically inflated a player's prospects. The NFL will provide a player and his family with the league's prediction of the player's round in the draft if he comes out. Sometimes these projections are exceeded by the player. College coaches can be information sources. USC's Pete Carroll was public in his advice that Mark Sanchez not leave school. It is certainly much easier to retain the current star than recruit the next one. At Penn State, Coach Joe Paterno advised RB Ki-Jana Carter to leave because his position was so injury prone. This year Washington RB Bishop Sankey declared for the draft after carrying the ball 600 times over the last couple years and lighting up the Fight Hunger Bowl.
If economics are the chief concern, the comparison of draft position this year as opposed to next can be translated easily into a contract comparison. Rookie bonuses have been dramatically reduced by the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement. Especially in the first round, the bonuses and guarantees can drop dramatically from the top picks in the round to the bottom.
Players yearn to be picked at the top of the draft. Most of the franchises are drafting high because they had losing records and rookies drafted by them may face some losing years. All of the projections which are made can be altered by unforeseen college injuries or NFL personnel moves.
Certain football positions require constant repetition to master. It takes a quarterback time to read the field and master an offense. Offensive line play can be improved with an extra year at college. Most players will benefit by another year in college, with the exception of running backs. At the end of the process most players decide by doing introspection and deciding if they currently feel ready for the next level and next challenge in their lives. The dream of young football players is to play in the NFL. It is a matter of personal choice as to whether this is the right time to try.