So, do you really want to leave college early and try your hand at professional football?
The 2019 NFL draft has just concluded. There were 254 young men selected last week by the 32 National Football League teams during the seven rounds of player selections.
The eligible players automatically included all of the seniors and other players who have utilized their four years of college football eligibility.
The NFL rules also permitted college football players who participated for at least three seasons to leave school and declare eligible for the NFL draft.
This season, there were 144 early entrants – players who put their names into the proverbial NFL draft pot-of-gold in Nashville last week.
After all was said and done, though, 49 of those 144 players (34%) never heard their name called in the seven rounds of selections. Based on the current NCAA rules, these 49 players are not permitted to return to play college football next season, either.
There is some good news for these players, though. Many of these 49 football players will (or have already) signed with an NFL team as a free agent beginning on Sunday after the draft concluded.
The bad news? The odds of an undrafted player making it onto an NFL squad are quite low.
NFL teams will make difficult decisions about players on next year’s team based on math, finance, and politics.
Let’s look at the math first. There are 53 players who made the final squad from the most recent football season. NFL teams are permitted to carry an additional ten extra players (who each earn about $100K/year) on their developmental (or “Practice”) squad.
This summer when training camps open, the NFL will allow each team to begin practices with a maximum of 90 potential players.
Assuming no retirements or trades, that means that there will be a maximum of 27 new players (the seven draft picks plus unsigned free agents) competing to earn a spot on the roster/practice squad by the end of August.
Now, let’s talk finance. If the team just spent an additional $15 million per year to keep one or more of their veteran star players happy, then the payroll needs to be trimmed elsewhere.
NFL teams will then look at the cost of keeping a few of their older (and much more costly) players and, potentially, replace some of them with the younger (and significantly cheaper) rookies or last year’s practice squad players.
In 2018, the NFL’s salary cap was set at $177.2 million per team. If the star quarterback receives $25 million and his #1 receiver gets $15 million, the other 51 players can (theoretically) share the remaining $137.2 million (or about $2.7 million/player).
In 2018, the NFL minimum salary for a rookie making the team was $480,000. Many other veterans on the team will earn significantly more, so the team must keep an eye on its bottom line when making personnel decisions this summer on who to keep, trade, or cut.
Then there’s also the politics of being drafted.
No matter how good or bad the #1 draft pick of your team performs during this summer’s training camp, it is likely that the team (which paid a significant amount of bonus money to their first round picks but significantly lesser amounts for Rounds 2 through 7) will keep that player on the roster for a least a couple of seasons.
The draft “glow” also burns brightly for those selected with 2nd, 3rd, and 4th round picks – at least for their first NFL season.
NFL teams simply hate to admit that they goofed on during the spring NFL draft. The team’s General Manager is responsible for the success (or lack thereof) for all player personnel selections and player development. His job rides largely on the success of the seven annual draft picks.
For most of the college football players who went unselected last weekend in the NFL draft, they have or will soon sign with an NFL team who acted “interested” in them during the pre-draft workouts earlier this spring to become one of the 90 players at the team’s training camp this summer.
They will get an opportunity to compete for a job, but the odds are against them.
These undrafted free agents will have to find a way to impress the team’s coaches enough to keep them and release a veteran player, practice squad player, or one of this year’s drafted rookies to make the team.
Every year, there are a number of undrafted rookies who will make NFL squads.
Several memorable NFL players were undrafted free agents and eventually became professional stars. Undrafted college players such as Kurt Warner (St. Louis Rams QB), Tony Romo (Dallas Cowboys QB), Antonio Gates (Chargers TE), Jeff Saturday (Indianapolis Colts Center), James Harrison (Pittsburgh Steelers LB), and Warren Moon (Houston Oilers QB) all went on to have incredibly successful NFL careers.
To succeed in the NFL as an undrafted free agent, you will need loads of talent, a hard work ethic, and more than a little luck in order to defy the odds to have a lengthy and financially rewarding NFL career.