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NFL Draft: Underclassmen who go undrafted face unforgiving career path

Thomas Barrabi

The 2019 NFL Draft includes dozens of college football underclassmen who forfeited their remaining amateur eligibility for a shot at professional stardom, in many cases delaying their college degrees, even though many will end up without a job by Saturday night.

This year’s field of prospects contains a record 111 underclassmen, some of which, such as Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, are all but guaranteed to be selected by an NFL team. However, recent history shows that many will go undrafted and, having renounced their college eligibility, will be unable to return to school to play football.  Of the 106 underclassmen who entered last year’s draft, 37 players, or 35 percent, went undrafted.

“Look, I am 100 percent NFL. I’m 100 percent guys have careers. But people have to be smart about the business decisions they make relative to the NFL because it is all business,” University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban said at a press conference earlier this month. “When people make emotional decisions, they’re going to have to suffer some really difficult consequences for themselves in the future because you don’t have to go out for the draft early. You can come back and play.”

Undrafted rookies who manage to earn an NFL roster spot have little job security. The NFL’s minimum rookie salary is $480,000, though pay drops significantly for players who end up on the practice squad. For players taken after the draft’s first few rounds, contracts contain few financial guarantees, meaning players can be cut at any time, for any reason.

The NFL takes steps to educate underclassmen about the realities of the draft process through its College Outreach program, which includes presentations on how NFL teams scout players and how difficult it is to earn a roster spot for even a few years. The NFL also has a college advisory committee, which evaluates underclassmen and projects when they can expect to be drafted – if at all.

“The overwhelming majority will never play in the NFL. And those who do will likely be out of football before they’re 30. That’s why it’s important for them to excel in the classroom as well as on the field. College prepares student-athletes for the realities of life — with or without football — and the NFL wants them to understand how important it is to stay in school and get their degree," the NFL says on its operations website.

Despite efforts by the NFL and some college programs, the number of underclassmen entering the draft has grown in recent years. An anonymous AFC executive estimated that 40 underclassmen could go undrafted this week, according to Sports Illustrated.

Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn attributes the trend to misleading advice from agents, associates and other who stand to benefit if a player does manage to land a contract.

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“Unfortunately, the way college football is going, these players are getting bad information about how high they might go," Quinn said, according to ESPN. "And it's not the colleges' fault. I think it's other people, family members, other influences in their career that are telling them, 'Hey, go out early.'"

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