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27 players left college early and fell out of the 2017 NFL draft. Why scold them?

Don’t judge a group of people without knowing their individual circumstances.

Florida State v North Carolina State
Florida State receiver Travis Rudolph went undrafted after declaring early for the NFL.
Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

It happens at every NFL draft and happened again this year. More than a couple of players left collegiate eligibility on the table to declare for the draft, and then they didn’t get drafted.

Instead of playing another year in college, they’ll scrap for NFL roster spots as undrafted free agents. Some will just get tryouts. Some won’t even get that much, and their football careers will be over at once.

This year’s draft had 95 players with “special eligibility” and eight more who left their college teams early after graduating, and now the Associated Press’s Ralph Russo has the count at 27 undrafted underclassmen. They include Florida State receiver Travis Rudolph, Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans, and Texas A&M receiver Ricky Seals-Jones.

It’s not hard to come up with a criticism of these players, if that’s your goal. All of them could’ve spent another year at college on a scholarship. They could’ve had lots more fun on campus. Maybe they could’ve made themselves school legends or brought [insert conference] titles back to their schools. Whatever you conjure up!

It’s wrong to shame these players as a group

Players have assorted possible reasons for wanting to leave college with game eligibility remaining:

With the NFL's rookie wage scale, the mega bucks are made on a player's second contract, not the first. So the sooner a player enters the work force, the sooner he can get to that second deal.

And if a player is younger when he is angling for that second deal, he is likely to receive more money, as NFL teams value youth. This is especially true for older players who might have failed a grade or two before college. Some early entries are 23 years old. They don't want to be trying for that second contract when they're two years away from turning 30.

And what if a player realizes he is already maxed out as an athlete? In that case, returning to college is not going to help his draft stock. It will hurt his career earnings. He is wasting a year of not being paid, when he could instead make $100,000 as a practice squad player.

Others may hurt their draft stock by coming back.

Or what if a player realizes there is a good chance he would lose playing time to a more talented underclassman if he were to come back? What if he has a disagreement with his coaching staff? What if a scheme change will result in lost playing time?

Or what if a player realizes that next year's draft class at his position is way more loaded and that his only chance of getting drafted is to leave right now?

Some players need liquid income to help their families.

Auburn running back Peyton Barber entered early to provide for his homeless mother. He went undrafted but now has a UDFA contract with the Buccaneers and a chance to make a lasting pro career.

They might be tired of playing football for no liquid payment, given the immense physical peril the sport puts its players in. Risking your body for free is something any reasonable person might decide not to do.

Do these players regret their decisions to turn pro? Surely some do. Not every career decision is a good one. But I’m quite certain these players know their own needs and goals better than any of us do. It’s hard for us to judge them en masse.

The NFL’s taken some steps to help players make these choices

It’s a rare fit of player-first thinking on the league’s part. Starting with the next draft cycle, a couple of underclassmen per team can participate in scouting pro days. They’ll get more chances to hear feedback ahead of time from league evaluators, and that should help them make informed decisions. This should aid smart choice-making.

Arkansas coach Bret Bielema thinks underclassmen who go unpicked should have the option to return to school. Currently, players are professionals the second they hire representation, and nobody can go through the draft and then return to school. Their NCAA eligibility burns up early in the draft process.

That reform could be logistically tricky, but it doesn’t seem that hard to pull off. It’d be nice to see something like it put into place, making underclass draft decisions as low-risk for the players as possible.

But absent that, we shouldn’t criticize the players who shoot their professional shots and don’t meet our vision of immediate success.