Underclassmen deciding on NFL Draft face several factors

For Jadeveon Clowney, the decision to turn pro after next year is as easy to answer as whether I’m going to eat a tub of Ben & Jerry’s this week.

It’s simply going to happen.

But since every street runner, high school friend or fake dead girlfriend might want a piece of the likely No. 1 pick in 2014, South Carolina is prepared. Clowney won’t get special treatment, though.

“With somebody in his situation, it’s making sure they understand the rules and know the resources they have,” said Chris Rogers, South Carolina’s associate athletics director for compliance. “Really, we need all our student-athletes to know that -- walk-on or No. 1 draft pick.”

There aren’t 73 Jadeveon Clowneys. And there probably aren’t 73 draftable underclassmen from last season, yet there was last week’s official NFL announcement of early declarations, all 73 of them, a record by a pretty wide margin.

Five years ago, 46 players declared. At this pace, the 2016 class could double that total.

After talking with three college assistant coaches and three NFL agents, there are several reasons for the spike.

Turns out Clowney might not get special treatment, after all. In fact, less-heralded players faced with tough decisions sometimes get more attention -- in the form of bad advice.

“Sometimes the more that a guy is struggling to make a decision, the more likely he is to get people in his ear,” new Cal offensive coordinator Tony Franklin said. “I’ve seen street agents telling a guy, 'You’re a first-rounder. Don't hurt yourself by coming back,' when they clearly aren’t. Some are smart enough not to listen; some aren’t.”

From the 2009 NFL Draft class of juniors, 16 of those players are no longer in the league. Fourteen of them weren’t drafted.

Considering the average NFL career lasts roughly 3.5 years, maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise. But aren’t juniors supposed to be the best of the best? That’s why they are coming out early, right?

The decision isn’t always as simple as draft stock or even a family situation, the people interviewed for this story said. Here are the most popular reasons that I found from those talks:

Lesser first-round money/NFL salary cap

When the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement cut first-round pay in half in 2011, going in the second or third round became less of an issue.

You’re no longer playing for the rookie deal.

You’re playing for the second contract.

“Before, that one round alone was significant enough to make you weigh your decision more -- a $5 or $10 million swing,” said NFL agent Ashanti Webb. “Now that’s lessened. The salary cap is the No. 1 prevailing factor I hear and see from agents and players.”

Going in the first round is still a sweet deal -- $20-plus million in guarantees among top-five picks.

But the difference between the signing bonus of a 29th overall pick ($3.6 million for Vikings safety Harrison Smith) and an early second-round pick ($2.32 million for 34th overall pick/Colts tight end Coby Fleener) probably isn’t enough to dissuade players from coming out.

So you take your draft positioning and work toward the next contract.

Assuming there is one.

Five-star syndrome

One assistant SEC coach explained a theory about the players with five-star rankings coming out of high school.

About 40 percent of those five-star players really blossom. Then maybe 60 percent never pan out because they thought they were better than they actually are. Still believing this, some of them go to the league early.

“They all think they are going to get drafted,” the coach said. “Yet you’d be amazed at all the three stars that make it to the NFL and play well.”

There’s always room for recovery. Ask Will Hill, a five-star recruit who, after three years at Florida, was left with a series of ill-advised tweets and the trusty Undrafted Free Agent status in 2011.

But Hill had 38 tackles and a forced fumble for the Giants this year. Not every player will work his way back.

The family dynamic

This one isn’t going away. Some people leave early for family reasons, it’s that simple.

Franklin has heard the line several times over the years -- I have to make it to take care of my family.

That’s understandable. One more year in college is one less year of earnings. (Those looming $2,000 stipends aren’t sizable enough to change anything on this front.)

But sometimes players don’t realize that another year might help draft positioning -- and future earnings -- if they are projected as a late-round pick.

“As a coach, you’d like to think you can help them improve in that area with one more year,” Franklin said.

Naivete -- not so fast

Coaches and athletic directors like to paint the picture of agents preying on innocuous players who are just trying to go to school and be the best they can be.

In some cases, this might be true. Everyone interviewed for this story acknowledged runners are still a problem, despite new NFLPA rules designed to keep them out in exchange for more contact between certified agents and players. 

But as Webb points out, players aren’t dumb. They notice the billions of dollars going to schools and conferences but not their pockets. Coaches parlay conference championships into new jobs. A recruit can play for a coach who can leave at any time, even if they can’t do the same without penalty.

“Everybody is getting rich but the players,” Webb said. “I think players think about that when deciding whether to leave early or not.”

Muscled out

Some schools are so stacked, a junior simply can’t get enough carries or defensive snaps. Or maybe a bigger, stronger sophomore is waiting to take his spot.

It might hurt more to stay. And players pay attention to cases such as Matt Barkley, who will have to work his way back into the first round after a sub-par senior year.

If a player becomes too far gone academically, his coach might advise him to leave. This happens.

This is when it becomes less about draft stock and more about being out of options.

“You know it’s a bad deal for the kid, but he’s going to hurt his stock if he stays,” said one NFL agent.

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