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Who exactly is eligible for NFL Draft?

Over 250 players will be picked, but who’s on the list of candidates to begin with?

2012 NFL Draft - First Round Photo by Chris Chambers/Getty Images

So perhaps you played some football back in the day, and if Coach woulda put you in the game, your team woulda totally won state. Now you’ve got some gussied-up confidence and you want to see if you can get into the league, too?

Well, there are some pretty specific criteria you’re gonna have to meet. The complete list of rules is here, but below are the basics.

Have you been out of high school for less than three years?

If you haven’t, then it’s a no. Under the guise of protecting players from themselves, the NFL minimizes risk of investment by not letting a player jump to the league before he’s three years out of high school.

This rule’s been around since 1990 and has been challenged in a court of law. Most notably, former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett won a court case against the NFL, but a court of appeals saw the ruling reversed after the draft had already happened; he wasn’t picked. The case wasn’t picked up by the United State Supreme Court, and the challenge ended there.

If you are three years out of high school, you can declare as an underclassman.

It’s not the norm, as opposed to basketball, where underclassmen make the jump to the NBA all the time. This year, a record 98 have decided to do so, and that number has grown almost every year for the last decade (it was once only 40 in 2007).

There is a grace period here, though. Underclassmen submit their names for the draft and then get grades back from the NFL Draft Advisory Council. Registered scouts and members of team personnel departments evaluate players and give them grades. Players can then choose whether to proceed into the draft or stay in school.

Here’s the NFL’s breakdown of the last two years of underclassmen who were given first- or second-round grades, vs. where the players were actually picked.

NFL draft first and second round grades

Round Selected 2015 2016 Combined
Round Selected 2015 2016 Combined
1 10 9 19
2 8 10 18
3 2 3 5
4 0 2 2
5 0 0 0
6 0 0 0
7 0 1 1
Undrafted free agents 0 0 0
Total 20 25 45

Among players who were given grades to stay in school, the majority ended up being selected or signed.

Stay in school grades

Round Selected 2015 2016 Combined
Round Selected 2015 2016 Combined
1 2 1 3
2 4 4 8
3 8 5 13
4 5 2 7
5 2 7 9
6 5 1 6
7 1 6 7
FA 6 14 20
Total 33 40 73

If you were drafted as an underclassman who didn’t get a first- or second-round grade, it likely won’t be high. But it’s not like it’s impossible for you to get in the league. And being drafted high is already less lucrative than it once was, thanks to the rookie wage scale, although it is — of course — much more money than a player would get by staying in school.

After these grades are released, underclassmen can pull their names out of the draft process and return to school, no problem. But If you’ve signed with an agent before the deadline, your college playing days are over.

Obviously, college football players who have graduated in four or five years are also able to be drafted.

If you have graduated, your draft eligibility is only good for the year after you’ve graduated. If you didn’t go to college, it’s once four seasons have passed since you or your classmates (if you didn’t get a diploma) graduate high school.

Of course, you can also tell the league no, like the first draft pick ever did.

The league says it annually combs through approximately 3,000 names who are eligible for the draft.

Obvious places to be seen by team scouts are the NFL Combine and individual schools’ pro days. Often, a small school will do a joint pro day with bigger schools nearby, so just about all prospects should be able to get in front of NFL personnel.

You can theoretically enter the draft if you went to college and didn’t play a lick of college football, but four league seasons must have passed since you started college.

Yep, it’s four seasons if you didn’t attend college, but three if you did.

And there are always potential exceptions to any of these.

Players can always apply with the NFL for special waivers.

Every college football player at least has the dream of playing the NFL. Of course, some of those are closer to reality than others. If you fit in these criteria, you could join them in the hopes that your name will be called in the NFL Draft.