Nick Saban’s 2018 team could be one of his best at Alabama. The Tide had a bunch of incredible true freshmen on 2017’s title-winning team, and they’ll return more than a handful of key veterans. One of those is starting running back Damien Harris, who put off the NFL draft to return for his senior season.
During a media scrum at the Senior Bowl on Wednesday in Mobile, a reporter asked Saban about Harris’ decision to play another year at Bama. Saban said he was glad to have Harris back, then launched into an extended commentary on draft decisions:
“A lot of guys, man, they got it in their mind that they’re gonna go out for the draft no matter what, and I think you all know my philosophy on that: If you’re a first-round draft pick, you should go. If you’re not, you should stay in school and try to graduate. I think it’s getting tougher and tougher, and more and more guys are making the decision to go out early.
“And at least 50 percent of those cases, it’s not a good decision, and a lot of those guys don’t make a team. What people don’t understand, and everybody should know, is professional football is the only sports league, professional sports league, that doesn’t have a minor-league system. Baseball has a minor-league system. Aaron Judge, he’s a pretty good baseball player, right? He spent a couple years in the minor leagues developing. Well, you don’t do that in football. The only development you can do is in college. So where you enter the league is of utmost importance.
“And I just think that gets overlooked by a lot of players, because it’s all or nothing, and if they don’t make the team, there’s no place else for them to play, and they can’t go back to college and play. I think the road we’re going down right now is not always best for the players that are making decisions to go out early.”
Those comments starts at the 53-second mark here:
Saban’s right that more and more players are coming out early.
The 2018 draft pool includes a record 106 players granted special eligibility by the league. (Those are players who have been out of high school for three years and not graduated from college. It covers most juniors who declare early, but 13 others qualified just by having graduated.) There’s been a huge spike in special eligibility over about a decade. The NFL says there were 46 such players in 2009, and that total has risen almost every year. At least 95 have gotten it in four of the last five years.
Alabama has five players turning pro this year with college eligibility remaining.
Saban’s also right that a lot of these players don’t make NFL teams.
The 2017 draft included 27 early entrants who didn’t get picked. Absent full data on hand about how many made rosters as undrafted free agents, it’s still safe to say that a bunch of them are already out of the sport, and more will be soon. NFL careers are short even for players who get picked, and it’s hard to stick after going undrafted.
The NFL doesn’t let players go through the draft and then return to college. The league considers them professionals and wipes out their eligibility as soon as they sign with agents. Former Wisconsin and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has suggested letting early entrants return to school if they don’t get picked. It’s a worthwhile idea, but it’s also not happening any time soon. The league has taken steps to give underclassmen more feedback on their NFL stock, but that can only do so much.
But there could be a million reasons for someone to declare early.
Maybe a player needs the money. Maybe he wants the money, which is fine, too. College football players don’t get paid, even when they’re on an Alabama team that can generate $45.9 million in pure profit in one year. The NFL’s rookie minimum in 2018 will be $480,000, and the practice squad minimum will be $7,600 a week. Both are a lot more than zero dollars and zero cents, even if a player coming out early has no guarantee of collecting any of that.
Maybe a player doesn’t like being in college. Maybe classes aren’t his thing. Maybe he doesn’t like a coach. Maybe he’s just not happy there, and maybe he’d rather not put a season’s worth of strain on his body for no pay. All are fine reasons to turn pro.
For another matter, universities don’t close down when players turn pro, and many scholarships now come with a promise to let players return later to finish their degrees. No one requires anyone to graduate in exactly four years.
There’s potential value in waiting a year and finding a better landing spot, especially in a league with no developmental system. But the only person fully qualified to evaluate anyone’s draft decision is the guy who made the decision.