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College Football's Radical Changes are Seeping into the NFL Draft

I have very few physical traits in common with NFL Draft prospects. I'm only an inch taller than Missouri running back Cody Schrader, and my arms have the same strength as Devonta Smith's legs. That became even more apparent to me during my trip to Indianapolis to cover the 2024 NFL Scouting Combine. However, I do think my breakfast choices throughout that week mimicked some of the changes the NFL Draft will undergo over the next few years.

For the first five days, I settled for a bland coffee and a small blueberry muffin from the hotel lobby daily. But by Saturday, I had turned one year older, and I recognized my worth by treating myself to the luxuries of scrambled eggs, bacon, and an iced latte from Starbucks.

This year's draft class is the Saturday breakfast of NFL history. They're older because of extra eligibility granted from COVID-19 exemptions. With the trend of players like Caleb Williams and Marvin Harisson Jr. not participating in many Combine events because they have nothing to earn, they're recognizing their worth. Finally, they're treating themselves to luxuries because some prospects' entire careers have taken place after the legalization of Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) payments. 

The NCAA has had to deal with its NIL mess for a while now, and it's just beginning to seep into the NFL. The most immediate impact on the league is that increasingly fewer underclassmen are declaring for the Draft. This year's 58 underclassmen to declare was the lowest total since 2011, a steep drop from the 130 that declared in 2021, three months before NIL was legalized.

The biggest ill effect of this will be significantly weaker middle rounds. The talent pool for the first two rounds will be primarily unchanged as schools won't be willing to match the salaries given at those selections. But for players at big schools with deep pockets, one more year of NIL money might be better than a round-three through seven salary. 

NIL has also made the transfer portal a standard option for players. With some prospects playing at two or three different schools, the pre-draft evaluation process is becoming more difficult for NFL teams. Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst spoke about the difficulties during his press conference at the Combine.

"it's becoming more difficult because usually, when you first start scouting a player, they've been there (their college) for three or four years, they were recruited by that staff possibly so they've (coaching staff) seen them (player) when they came in at 17, 18 years old, they've seen them grow, they seen their maturity levels grow so you have a better sense. Now guys are hopping around a little bit more so it's made the job a little bit more difficult."

Some general managers also believe that NIL money is changing prospects' character and work ethic. A report from Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer in 2022 included this quote from an NFC general manager: "That's where college football is changing, and we're starting to get more entitled players. It used to be that you got humbled at some point. Now, that never happens."

Surprisingly, Las Vegas Raiders general manager Tom Telesco has a less boomer and more modern take on NIL and the transfer portal. 

"There are just so many transfers right now, you just have to deal with it," Telesco said at the Combine. "If this was 15, 20 years ago, sometimes (it would've been) a little bit more of a red flag. It really isn't anymore. …It does take us a little bit more time as we do our background research because you have to go to multiple schools, talk to multiple scouts. It takes a little extra time to put it together, but I don't see that as a red flag for kids transferring."

It's difficult to gauge whether most NFL decision-makers think more like the anonymous one Breer quoted or Telesco. However, there is likely still a benefit to players sticking it out at a school even if the team is not good or they aren't receiving playing time. 

That's the case for Missouri defensive end Darius Robinson, a projected late-first, early-second-round pick this year who played five years for the Tigers. Missouri did not finish above .500 in his first four years. He was benched in 2022. But he was a big part of the team's turnaround to an 11-2, Cotton Bowl-winning turnaround season in 2023. His loyalty and resiliency undoubtedly will show up on NFL scouting reports.

The unicorn for the ramifications of NIL and the transfer portal will be quarterbacks. They'll typically have the most incentive to stay in college as they are usually near the top of a school's payroll. Schools will soon become direct competitors with the NFL for top-end quarterbacks.

Last year, Kalyn Kahler of The Athletic reported an instance where a college was using the salary of a player's projected draft range to determine how much NIL money to allocate to convince him to stay at the school. More quarterbacks staying in school led to what, according to Kahler, an NFL agent called an "anemic" quarterback class in 2023. The talent pendulum has switched the other way for 2024 regarding quarterback talent, but that is expected to swing back for 2025. 

For quarterbacks, some general managers might view the transfer portal allowing quarterbacks to receive more playing time and experience in different systems as a benefit. It's led to many quarterbacks, like Sam Hartman and Bo Nix, coming in with two or three extra years of experience before being drafted. Minnesota Vikings general manager Kwesi Adefo-Mensah likened the experience to having 'minor league' years.

"Quaterbacks is one position where I feel like it might be a little different because we don't have a minor league in our sport, you can almost treat those extra years as maybe a couple minor league years depending on where they're playing, system how relatable that is to our game," Adefo-Mensah said.

It can give teams the luxury that the Packers have had over the last two decades by being able to develop a young quarterback for years before he touches the field. Gutekunst, who has been on the Packers staff since 1999, might know this more than anyone else. 

"I've always thought, certainly the amount of time and games you've played in college I think really does equate to some success at times and over my time in the league, that's gone down a lot," Gutekunst said.

But he also recognizes that a quarterback constantly switching schemes can harm their development.

"I think the exposure to different schemes certainly can be helpful but knowing a scheme inside and out at a very high level I think would be more important because again even in our league, if you're constantly switching schemes on a quarterback, it's going to be really tough on them to excel at a high level."

The older prospects view the extra experience as a benefit. Besides his luscious locks, Hartman's surplus of college experience is the talk surrounding him. He started his collegiate career in 2018 at Wake Forest.

"I think it's huge," Hartman said. "I think it's a great opportunity for me to be able to show knowledge of the game. To be able to go and say 'hey, I've played in two systems' and be able to say 'hey, I went into two locker rooms, was a captain in both' it is a big, sitting down and interviews, being able to talk ball with coaches, show your knowledge is incredible."

Teams are starting to factor more experience into their draft evaluations. The San Francisco 49ers' success with Brock Purdy and not Trey Lance could serve as a helpful teaching point for the rest of the league. Lance only attempted 318 passes in college. Purdy started for four years at Iowa State and threw 1,467 passes. The one that was the very last pick in the draft (Purdy) has had significantly more success in the pros than the one selected with the third overall pick (Lance).

Of course, raw talent should still hold more weight. But having more tape on a prospect can only assure teams that they know what they're getting. Nix, who played at Auburn from 2019-'21 before transferring to Oregon from 2022-'23, is 24 years old. He seems to agree with Adefo-Mensah's idea of having quasi-minor league years.

"I think it just put everything together," Nix said of transferring to Oregon. "I think it provided me with some freedoms and provided me with some chances later in my career that maybe I didn't have at the beginning but we were able to be very versatile."

The concerns around Hartman and Nix's ages would be much more severe if they were at any position other than quarterback, the position with the longest lifespan. Adefo-Mensah said age factors much more into the Vikings' evaluations for other positions.

"It's an interesting dynamic. You're talking about a time in a young man's life where they're really rapidly going up their growth curve, strength, athleticism. We know the athletic peak happens and it doesn't happen at 20 so those are the things that we talk about."

Currently, these feel like only the first dominos that will fall from NIL's implementation and the transfer portal's increasing popularity. College football will never be the same as the NFL. Players now have options and won't have to settle like I did for bland coffee and muffins.

Cover photo: Getty Images


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