NFL insider notebook: New NIL rules could impact flow of underclassmen turning pro, plus Week 2 picks

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Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Current underclassmen at schools across the country could look at this year’s NFL Draft and see an opportunity for themselves. One hundred of the 128 underclassmen who declared got drafted. No NFL Draft before had seen more than 73 underclassmen be drafted, and nine of the top 10 drafted players were underclassmen.

But one year is not a trend, certainly not after such an anomalous 2020 pandemic-altering season. In fact, the biggest reason we’re seeing such high-level college football these first few weeks seems to have plenty to do with the “super seniors” who got an extra year of eligibility, and there’s optimism in NFL circles that this year could prove a turning point from the annual trend of dozens of underclassmen going undrafted.

That’s what I’ve gathered after talking with agents, scouts and personnel executives around the league the last two weeks. A historic amount of players with degrees coupled with new NIL rules could lead to a needed sea change that will impact both college and pro football.

“The number of underclassmen going in the top 4-5 rounds will remain largely consistent with years past, but those late-round type guys should be more likely to stay in school,” one NFC scout told me this week.

The National Football Foundation reports that 1,922 players at 125 FBS schools are playing this year with their undergraduate degrees already in hand. That’s more than double the 964 players in 2019, and it far outpaces the 835 players in 2018 and 721 players in 2017. (The NFF didn’t tally the numbers last season.)

The reason for the big number is obvious: the COVID-19 pandemic granted an extra year of eligibility to all fall sport athletes.

Those players with an extra year under their belts will be flooding the draft market in a few months, theoretically squeezing out the Day 3 underclassmen that in years past have vied for those slots.

Until 2008, the NFL had never seen 50 or more underclassmen declare for the draft in a single season. In 2014, it ballooned from 73 to 102 while breaking the century mark for the first time. The number has stayed above 100 since 2016.

While the number of underclassmen declaring for the draft has grown over the years, the percentage of underclassmen going undrafted year to year has remained roughly the same. Eight underclassmen went unselected in the 1996 NFL Draft, and that represented a near identical percentage of the group as the 37 players that went undrafted in the 2016 NFL Draft.

What’s concerning is the trend we saw before the anomalous 2021 NFL Draft. In the three drafts between 2018-2020, 41.7% of players with remaining eligibility who left for the draft did not get picked. Before this year’s draft, the 2019 NFL Draft set a league record for most underclassmen declaring (135), most underclassmen drafted (73) and most underclassmen undrafted (62). Forty-six percent of underclassmen who declared were not selected in 2019, an all-time record.

There’s a caution against finding too many trends in this data. Decisions to leave with remaining eligibility are individual decisions. Those players are influenced by a unique group of people around them. Sure, they all get guidance from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, but that’s about the only control group involved in the decision-making process. Everything else is fluid.

“Yes,” said an AFC scout agreeing with the thesis that there should be fewer undrafted underclassmen, “but they also worry more about getting injured.” Staying in school for another year means being another year from getting a four-year contract in the NFL.

One potential saving grace here is the introduction of NIL money into the equation for underclassmen thinking of making the jump. NIL money isn’t NFL money, but players who are good enough to get drafted are, in theory, good enough to get some money off their name, image and likeness.

“Too many fringe prospects leave school early because of financial need,” the NFC scout said. “They screw up their long-term futures (in their long-term careers as well as sacrificing a chance to get their degree) by making short-sighted financial decisions. The NIL stuff would provide another alternative.”

One agent talked me through how this could go down with a player: the top schools are assembling NIL departments. They will pitch these fringe draft players on local and national sponsors they are working with or soon will work with. It continues:

Build your draft stock so you’re not in no man’s land. Make enough money. Do good in school and get your degree. Come back and play. It’s the deepest draft ever coming up and you’ll be more attractive in 2022. We’ll make sure you’re covered.

It’s an interesting consideration. I certainly won’t argue with a young man deciding to forego the final year of college for the dream and riches of the NFL, but only if he knows he’ll get drafted. Seeing the dozens of players each year who make the ill-advised decision to leave school just to go undrafted is difficult, and maybe this year will offer a course correction that will benefit the players, college football and the NFL.

Linebackers, anyone?

I’ve heard the Green Bay Packers were working the phones early in the week to get some linebacker help for their defense following the 38-3 drubbing by the Saints. Green Bay (obviously) didn’t get much in the way of help, though, as teams who may have been willing to part with linebackers two weeks ago didn’t want to do it now that the season has begun and injuries have already taken place.

Kudos to Sirianni

 I loved what Nick Sirianni did in his first game as head coach. Sirianni didn’t make the game too difficult for his second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts. He gave the QB options in the passing game while not forcing him to read every little thing the defense was doing.

“There’s a couple times where, ‘Hey, Jalen on this coverage, on this play, I want your eyes over here.’ All right, and there’s a guy blitzing over here, and he felt and he went out,” Sirianni said this week. “So, he kind of showed really good instincts and good feel.”

About a third of Hurts’ attempts were at or behind the line of scrimmage. No Week 1 quarterback had fewer completed air yards (3.4) or intended air yards (3.7), and that was clearly the plan against a bad Falcons defense. (He was also lethal down the field once he lulled Atlanta to sleep.) But that style won’t work against the 49ers this Sunday, and Sirianni will need Hurts to use his legs more against San Francisco. But if this is a trend of Sirianni tailoring the game plan to both Hurts and the opponent, it’s an encouraging sign for Eagles fans.

Nassib sales spike

You’ll recall back in June when Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib came out as gay. Last week, he became the first publicly gay active player on an NFL roster, and on Monday night he became the first publicly gay player to play in an NFL game.

Nassib played on 30 defensive snaps in the overtime win against the Ravens. And though fellow defensive end Maxx Crosby won AFC Defensive Player of the Week, it was Nassib’s sack of Lamar Jackson and forced fumble that gave the ball back to Las Vegas in the closing minutes of overtime, where two plays later Derek Carr found Zay Jones for the game-winning touchdown.

I thought that play — along with the general exposure he received being on a nationally televised game — might give his jersey sales a boost. I reached out to a league spokeswoman who provided me with NFL Shop numbers.

Nassib’s jersey wasn’t in the top 200 of best sellers as recently as August. By Monday in the buildup to the game, he cracked the top 100 by coming in at No. 90. On Tuesday after his performance in the win, his jersey was ranked at No. 69.

It took courage for Nassib to come out this summer, and by all accounts the Raiders franchise and the NFL community have handled it extremely well. His play — and not his sexual orientation — will dictate how he fares in this league moving forward, but it’s great to see the support he has through this one metric.

The Cam Chronicles

There was not and is not a great deal of interest in Cam Newton around the league since his release from the Patriots. Every league source I’ve spoken with since last Friday regarded his half-hour video with his father as a mistake to varying degrees. The main issue was that Newton himself said his “aura” would be a “distraction.” Never, ever call yourself a distraction. Newton is also unvaccinated, so to join a team would require him testing negative for five days before he could even get in the building. Also, there was next to no quarterback attrition in Week 1 for him to even find a slot.

Lastly, and perhaps most telling, the Washington Football Team did not show much interest in signing Newton after starter Ryan Fitzpatrick was placed on IR. Head coach Ron Rivera loves and respects Newton, but that Washington is rolling with Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen shows what sort of “distraction” Newton’s “aura” could be. And it also points to the knowledge Washington’s medical staff — some of which had been in Carolina previously — has on Newton.

Saquon debuts kicks

I got to get an early peek at Saquon Barkley‘s new Nike Saquon Air Trainer IIIs and I expect they’ll sell out quickly when they go on sale Oct. 8. The pearl white kicks are a throwback to the old Bo Jackson trainers, and they have subtle nods both to NYC (reflective detailing on the toe for construction zones and two black stripes across the Swoosh for Barkley’s eyeblack.)

Barkley’s been a Nike athlete since leaving Penn State in 2018, and they did right by the Giants franchise running back. It’s hard for a football player to have a cool sneaker. We won’t name names here, but a few current and recent NFLers have tried their hand — eh, foot — at this and I wouldn’t think to put them on my feet. Barkley has the best football signature shoe that’s out there.

Week 2 picks

It may have been a bad Week 1 for favorites but it was a solid one for me. Favorites went 7-9 last week but here we went 11-5 on straight-up picks. I took the Football Team on Thursday night, by the way.

Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
TV: Fox | Stream: fuboTV (click here)

I’m looking at a Bengals team that finally won a close game under Zac Taylor and is building confidence. A team where Joe Mixon leads the league in broken tackles after Week 1 with six. And a Cincy team that’s facing a Bears defense that allowed points on six of seven drives last Sunday night.

The pick: Bengals

Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
TV: CBS | Stream: Paramount+ (click here)

Vic Fangio’s aggressiveness paid off last week against the Giants when he went for, and got, three fourth-down conversions in the first two-and-a-half quarters. The Broncos lose Ronald Darby to IR but can simply elevate Patrick Surtain II to a starting role. Until the Jags show their head coach realizes the season has started, I’m not picking them.

The pick: Broncos

Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET
TV: Fox | Stream: fuboTV (click here)

The Cardinals whooped the Titans offensive line last week and I don’t have much faith in how Minnesota is going to stand up against Chandler Jones and Co. this week on the road, where their communication struggled vs. Cincy. Mike Zimmer’s defense also let me down, and there’s no one on that “D” who can do a good job at containing Kyler Murray.

The pick: Cardinals

Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
TV: CBS | Stream: Paramount+ (click here)

The Chargers offensive line answered the bell this past week against an elite WFT defense by allowing just five pressures and two sacks, especially considering the Chargers saw the third-highest blitz rate per drop back in Week 1. I think Dak Prescott is on a short list for MVP candidates, but his OL concerns me from a run-blocking standpoint, and they’re starting Terence Steele at right tackle Sunday. Not for nothing, since 1990, teams that start 0-2 have just an 11.6% chance of making the playoffs.

The pick: Chargers

Other games

Browns over Texans
Rams over Colts
Bills over Dolphins
Patriots over Jets
49ers over Eagles
Steelers over Raiders
Buccaneers over Falcons
Seahawks over Titans
Chiefs over Ravens
Packers over Lions