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As NFL Draft nears, the NIL and portal ripple is obvious

In Sports
February 21, 2024

The NFL Draft Combine begins next week, the official start of a familiar process that concludes in late April with the actual selections.

There is one thing missing this year, however. Collegiate underclassmen — at least in the numbers we’ve seen in past drafts.

A player can petition the NFL for early entry — or “special eligibility” — once he is three years out of high school. This year just 54 athletes did so. Another four players who completed their undergraduate degrees ahead of schedule are also eligible.

The 58 total early entrants is the lowest since the 2011 draft, when 56 college juniors entered. It is markedly down from most of the last decade, when the list annually hit triple digits.

The number is just 43% of the record 135 who entered the 2019 draft early and just 50.4% of a seven-year stretch from 2016-2022 that saw an average of 115 players leave school early.

It is part of an emerging trend that saw the number cut to 82 for last year’s draft.

The reason?

The most obvious ones are the combination of college football coaches’ favorite punching bag complaints about how disastrous the game has become.

  • The transfer portal, which grants a player immediate NCAA eligibility when they switch schools.

  • Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) rules that allow players, especially star ones, to be effectively paid to play college football.

Yeah, go figure.

There is no questioning that these two changes have created a different world in college football, and not all of it is perfect.

However, despite the wails of complaints from coaches, there have been noted positives for the sport as a whole and many teams in particular.

It turns out players aren’t rushing out the door of college football now that they can use the portal to react to coaching changes and seek better playing opportunities.

Others, meanwhile, are choosing to remain with their team and chase championships while being rewarded financially by fan collectives for their prior success. Plenty of players are choosing the guaranteed money of playing college ball over the uncertainty of the draft, where the seven rounds produce a little more than 250 selections.

The result is 60-80 additional high-end talents populating college football rosters next fall. And it’s changing the competitive complexion of the sport … for the better.

Projected first-round picks — who will sign guaranteed deals into the eight figures — are still mostly jumping into the draft as soon as possible. Of the 58 early entrants, 21 are projected first-round picks in the latest Yahoo Sports mock draft. That includes eight of the top 10.

No one would expect anything different for Caleb Williams, Drake Maye or Marvin Harrison Jr.

However, that means just 37 others — some of whom will be in the mix for late first-round status — are willing to leave before their eligibility runs out.

That’s more talent in the college game. More recognizable names. More roster continuity.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 01: Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers (3) passes the ball during the Allstate Sugar Bowl playoff game between the Texas Longhorns and the Washington Huskies on Monday, January 1, 2024 at Caesars Superdome in New Orleans, LA. (Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As recently as 2021, the New York Times reported that college coaches such as Alabama’s Nick Saban and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer had discussed ways to reverse what they identified as a problem for their sport — scores of players ignoring NFL scouting advice, jumping into the draft and not making a roster.

Turns out the solution was coming.

A transfer portal that grants immediate eligibility allows players who might have previously felt trapped in a situation with a coaching change, poor coaching or lack of opportunity, to find a greener pasture rather than just gamble on the NFL.

Meanwhile, the rise of NIL has allowed school collectives to pool resources to encourage quality players to return for another season.

In 2023, Michigan boosters notably created the “One More Year” fund to try to offset the allure of mid-round NFL money. It was able to keep at least five returning stars — including running back Blake Corum, wide receiver Cornelius Johnson and offensive lineman Zak Zinter — who were instrumental in the Wolverines winning just their second national championship since the 1940s.

That plan has served as inspiration for rival Ohio State, which was able to keep in Columbus for next year numerous draft candidates, including running back TreVeyon Henderson, wide receiver Emeka Egbuka and defensive end JT Tuimoloau. The Buckeyes will open the season ranked in the top five nationally, if not No. 1.

The impact of returning players is everywhere, though, and includes a number of potential first rounders, including Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers, Georgia quarterback Carson Beck, Clemson linebacker Barrett Carter, Wisconsin cornerback Ricardo Hallman, Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders, Michigan safety Rod Moore and so on.

All of a sudden, 2021 feels like ancient history.

Players have options, fans have familiar stars returning and the sport as a whole isn’t losing talent like it once did.

Maybe the NFL Draft is a little less flush in raw ability. The league will survive, as college football — thanks to its supposed twin evils (portal and NIL) — will thrive a little bit more.

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