On Underclassmen And The Shifting Dynamics Of The NFL Draft

While writing about new punter Brad Wing’s chances of becoming the regular punter for the Pittsburgh Steelers yesterday, and the comments regarding him made by team general manager Kevin Colbert at the NFL Combine, I also touched on the topic of underclassmen and maturity levels, and I think it’s worth further comment.

While addressing the media, Colbert was asked essentially if Wing had extra responsibility to prove that he was mature and responsible enough to be a professional athlete, after a college career tainted by physical and verbal altercations, poor displays of sportsmanship on the field, failed drug tests, and finally dismissal from the team.

Wing, an Australian, spent only two years in college, becoming a Ray Guy Award semi-finalist as a redshirt freshman in 2011. Following the 2012 season, which ended in a team suspension from participating in the team’s bowl game, Wing declared for the 2013 draft.

After going undrafted, he spent camp with the Philadelphia Eagles before being released prior to final cuts. He spent the rest of the 2013 season out of football before the Steelers signed him to a futures contract.

Colbert’s answer to that question was quite simply that the team would never have signed him if the organization believed he had questions of character detrimental to the team.

Furthermore, he described Wing as an underclassman that wasn’t ready mentally to become a professional, but after another year, a marriage, a child, and perhaps a dose of humility, it seems that Wing is ready to take off with his career. Whether or not he actually succeeds from a football standpoint is immaterial to the broader narrative.

With the news that a record number of underclassmen have declared for the 2014 NFL Draft, it makes me wonder how many more players there will be like Brad Wing. Colbert described this class as one of the most talented that he’s ever seen, but also has the potential to be the most immature, with a high level of ‘bust-ability’, thanks to the near-triple-digit influx of underclassmen involved.

I find this quite interesting, because it could change the dynamics about this whole system works, both on the college and professional levels.

When the new collective bargaining agreement did away with the gigantic contracts for first-year players a few years back, I believe it strengthened the desire of college athletes to declare before their eligibility was up.

While there are exceptions such as Andrew Luck, who stayed a year longer than necessary, I believe there are more with the mindset of Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney. These players know that, in the post-Sam Bradford world, the real money lies in that coveted second contract, often when a player might be hitting 27- or 28-years-old.

If players can get in negotiating position when they’re just 25 or 26, then their case will be made even stronger. Additionally, it gives them a longer period of maximum earning potential, as they’re more likely to earn a more lucrative—and quite rare—third contract.

There are many facets of this issue, perhaps too many to properly explore here. But as the facade of the ‘student-athlete’ ideal continues to erode, and players continue to demand earlier access to the opportunity to begin their professional careers while being penalized for profiting in any way from their own name, it may just be a matter of time before wholesale changes come to how this whole process is conducted.

There are three facets of this topic that I intend to explore further. For one, I want to understand this underclassman-infused draft class as an experiment on maturity levels and the future viability of declaring early on a broad scale.

In addition to that, I believe if underclassmen on the whole can yield positive results as professionals, I intend to explore the implications that this will have on college football policy, as well as the potential of cyclical boom and bust drafts, as the exodus of underclassman players good enough to declare early resets the talent level across major college football programs.

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • RW

    Can we get the combine thread permanently at the top of the thread list?

  • RW

    I think that this might be the limit to a younger crowd. Certainly there will not be high school players coming out who are ready to jump to the NFL, nor will there be any one-and-done players like in college bball. The physical demands of the NFL are just too much.

  • Rob H

    It is an interesting subject, more of a psychological/developmental study than an athletic one, and since I minor in psychology that appeals to me. I agree that the fact that they need to be physically mature to survive in the NFL is going to keep it from getting too far out of hand.
    Even at 21-22 though, I’m not sure how I would have been able to deal with being thrown hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars, and then told not to make any big mistakes, because everyone is watching you.

  • cencalsteeler

    Nice post. Essentially, back in the day, personnel evaluated players based on talent alone. Now, along with talent, they must weigh in on other factors and investigate deeper into their investment. Your last sentence was dead on. Will the future hold psychological testing or interviewing? Possibly, as bad as we need a side kick time management coach for Tomlin, we may need a psychologist side kick for Colbert, too.

  • Rob H

    Oh, they already do them. With these 15 minute interviews at the combine, you’re not going to find out much beyond how well spoken/intelligent they are (or aren’t), and how they carry themselves, and you have the agents coaching them on how to answer the different questions they’ll get. When they narrow things down and start bringing guys into their facility for those all day things, a good psychologist or psychiatrist can find out a little more, and maybe catch them on some things, but even that usually requires multiple sessions to produce more than an educated guess.
    Bottom line for me is, I wouldn’t want somebody like Colbert’s job. It’s impossible to guess right all the time, and anytime you’re wrong, people jump all over you and call you an idiot.

  • cencalsteeler

    I personally have a masters in psychology (though I don’t use it in my profession). If I was Rooney, I actually would have a full time psychologist or two along with the team physicians. There is so much involved in the sport cerebral wise, that any added advantage would be welcomed. A perfect example is Cody Wallace. Steeler Nation is in this kids corner and why? His play is admirable, but his “nastiness” is what is desired. I look forward to Matts articles and feel he’s tapping into something that is far beyond the gladiator part of the sport and is often overlooked in the game of football.

  • shawn

    i feel the same way … i would have a myriad of different professionals on my staff including a psych … i think all the problems of immaturity are a symptom of society as the younger generation continues to decline in so many aspects … we are living in the “ME” generation and far too much PC going on and not enough consequences for peoples actions … its great when u see “TRUE” professionals and mature people being valued …

    i think we did a GREAT job last year with all the quality individuals we brought in (Bell, Wheaton, Shamarko to name a few)

    Rarely is it the team with the best players that wins it all, but the players that play the most as a team that ends up being on top … and good leaders and individuals in the locker room are a great start to end down that road !

  • cencalsteeler

    Nice post. I think the “young money crew” was an eye opener for the organization. They saw the path these players were starting to go and put a squash to that. The draft picks you mention, to me, solidifies their approach. I mentioned on another thread to keep an eye on team leaders or captains coming into this draft. The Steelers might be more apt to gravitate towards them, and rightfully so.

  • shawn

    ya i noticed that … i think that is exactly the FO’s attitude and i for one am all for it … not saying we be like West Point and get Great Caliber people at the cost of talent, but if its even close you go with Character All Day as i think it pays off in the end … your insights into keeping an eye on captains and team leaders is right on the money and very perceptive !

  • LayDownTheHammer

    Absoutely. That’s why the Scouting Combine etc. and the NFL Draft business are all very very imperfect. There’s no way to gauge work ethic and coachability when the going gets tough. Yet those two things are IMO more important than size and speed.

  • 243546

    Why would the rookie wage scale increase the number of underclassman who declare for the draft? The financial incentive to leave college early has been reduced.