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The NFL is making it easier for college underclassmen to make smart draft choices

Football’s powers-that-be are doing something good.

Ohio State v Oklahoma Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

The NFL is making it easier for underclassman football players to get a sense of their professional potential, and it’s doing so in a way that just about everyone should favor.

Starting this upcoming February, underclassmen who might want to leave school for the NFL Draft in 2018 have an avenue to get as full an evaluation as possible from the league’s College Advisory Committee. That’s the industry panel of talent evaluators that offers feedback to college upperclassmen (or otherwise draft-eligible players) interested in leaving school early for the draft, usually after their junior seasons.

Five underclassmen per program will be allowed to participate in their schools’ pro days next spring, where scores of NFL coaches and scouts come to watch. Then, NFL teams can keep scouting them as if they were already draft-eligible for their junior season, ideally putting less rush and more knowledge into their evaluation and decision-making processes.

If a team has more than five underclassmen who want the extra eyeballs, it can apply for more slots, "subject to the determination of the NFL that the players are legitimate draft prospects," says a joint release from the league and the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) on Monday. Two years ago, the NFL limited schools to five committee "draft grade" applications per team, with a similar application process to get more if there's enough talent to demand it.

"While there is no question that obtaining a college degree is a transformative experience for so many people in society and a goal to which we encourage everyone to aspire to, for those talented few individuals that have the ability to succeed in the NFL prior to exhausting their college football eligibility, this new agreement will ensure they have better information with which to make their decision," NFL football operations vice president Troy Vincent said in the release. "We appreciate the efforts of our partners at the AFCA in making this new agreement a reality."

The AFCA is an 11,000-member organization of football coaches, with many college coaches among its ranks. The AFCA’s urging led to the draft advisory committee’s beginning in 1994, and the panel’s been advising lots of juniors ever since.

So, that’s a lot of bureaucracy. But this makes a lot of sense.

High-profile coaches have asked for this kind of thing before.

Urban Meyer wants a draft combine for underclassmen, and this isn’t that, but the inclusion of underclassmen at a school’s pro day is a pretty strong step in that direction. Nick Saban has expressed a similar sentiment, worried that players don’t get good enough advice while they’re deciding to leave school early or not. Bret Bielema even wants undrafted underclassmen to be allowed back into the college ranks. This doesn't go that far, but it gets at the same issue.

Last year, 30 players left college eligibility on the table, entered the draft, and didn't get picked. We shouldn't judge those players, but the sport should absolutely arm them with as much information as possible.

Here’s Saban:

Probably at least half of those guys probably shouldn’t have made that decision relative to whether they didn’t get picked, or where they got picked," Saban said. "They’d have been better off enhancing their draft status by staying in school and developing as a player. There is a group of people out there not being responsible on how they help these guys, and create unrealistic expectations of what their future might be as a football player based on where they are in their development."

To some degree, more underclass evaluations are self-serving for college coaches. If a good college player isn’t ready to be a good pro and gets told that a year ahead of time, maybe he’ll be less likely to rush into a decision to leave, and he’ll stay to help that college coach win more games.

But the point that college coaches might benefit obscures the real point here: players definitely do. Information is a great source of power, and giving players as much information about themselves as possible helps them make smart life choices.

Football players are right to think about their NFL potential years in advance. This is the kind of reform that lets the league, teams, and players learn more about each other, and it’s hard to see a way that’s not a good thing.