Published September 13, 2015
Far from the spotlight at Radio City Music Hall where the next generation of NFL players was being selected, more than three dozen early entrants to the draft were waiting at home, jobless.
Forget grabbing one of those lucrative contracts or any of that guaranteed bonus money. Even worse, many of them didn't have a diploma to help them find employment outside of football if no one called.
Did they get bad advice from agents or incorrect information from NFL talent evaluators? Too much pressure from their families to seek the quick buck?
Was there something — or a lot of things — in their off-field backgrounds that made them untouchable in the selection proceedings? Injuries or unimpressive workouts that forced their stock to plummet?
Did they simply not belong in this deeply talented draft? Or perhaps in any draft?
Out of a record 102 early entrants this year, 39 went undrafted. Fortunately 33 of those wound up with NFL tryouts. But a college free agent's road to success in the NFL — or even making a roster — can be tortuous. It's hard enough for a majority of draftees to break through, let alone someone who was ignored through 256 picks.
Agent Ben Dogra, whose impressive client list includes dozens of first-rounders, from the league's top RB, Adrian Peterson, to Robert Griffin III to J.J. Watt, wonders who is advising the players.
"For that many to declare early and not get drafted, those are staggering numbers," Dogra said. "We understand why some apply: They don't feel they can handle the academics, or there are injury concerns, or maybe there's a situation with the coaching staff.
"Often, the input they get comes from agents. If you are not getting that input, like some of the players say, the only other place probably is from draft sites and the internet and the media. That's not going to be reliable information."
Reliable info from unbiased sources and the NFL advisory committee could paint a clearer picture of how early the prospects could expect to be chosen — if at all. And whether they were served better by remaining in school for another season.
Overall, 31.4 percent of the 2,036 players on league rosters at some point in 2013 were not drafted. With only seven rounds plus 32 compensatory picks, maybe that's not so surprising.
But youngsters are bucking the odds when they leave school early, particularly when their position gets overloaded in the draft. That's what happened to running backs George Atkinson III, Kapri Bibbs and Brendan Bigelow. All three landed on their feet, as running backs must do, with Oakland, Denver and Tampa Bay, respectively.
Of the 39 undrafted early entrants, 10 were running backs.
"It's getting harder and harder for a back to get drafted these days," said Atkinson, who joined the team his father starred with as a cornerback.
Even the NFL's advisory board that gives players evaluations of their status and potential draft round can't present a full analysis for the potential early entrants.
"Unfortunately the one source that gets the least amount of attention from the player is the NFL's draft advisory board," says former NFL general manager Phil Savage, who now runs the Senior Bowl.
Savage said he'd support moving the declaration date from Jan. 15 to Feb. 1, to allow more updated information about height, weight and speed to be considered, giving the player a more accurate idea of where he might end up.
"If it's not high enough, the player would still have the chance to go back to school for spring practices."
Clearly, a large number of the early entrants disregarded any negative appraisals this year.
"It was a tough decision, and I was hearing anything from (round) four to seven," said Oklahoma State receiver Josh Stewart, who wound up signing with the Titans. "And I thought that was perfectly fine for me because all I wanted was an opportunity, and to know that they had me four to seven when I got my reviews back, it was a for-sure thing."
Of course, it wasn't a certainty, and Stewart had to scramble to get a look.
So did Kelcy Quarles, an end who played on the other side of the defensive line from top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney at South Carolina. Quarles was bitter about being ignored, but he ultimately hooked on with the Giants.
"I felt like I did the right thing," he said of leaving school one semester short of graduating. "People said it might have been a bad decision, but it wasn't a bad decision. I'll see what happens. I'm not worried about not making the team. I plan on being here. I talked to my line coaches (at South Carolina) and they told me I was making the right decision."
Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith thought he was doing the same, then called the empty draft experience "terrible," although he landed with Tampa Bay.
"To not be drafted, it was really really hard. You're sitting by your phone for hours, just wondering,"said Smith, part of a decent but not great quarterbacks class.
Not all of the early entrants left school without graduating, so if their long-shot chances don't come to fruition, they do have that diploma. It could be a very valuable item for them long before September's kickoffs.
"I waited all day on graduation day for the call," Syracuse running back Jerome Smith said. "It didn't happen."
Then the Falcons called after the draft. If Smith had any insecurity about coming out early, they were erased.
"Absolutely not," he said. "I graduated college. I put myself in a situation to make it, so I'm all right."
AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton and Sports Writers Charles Odum, Teresa M. Walker, Schuyler Dixon, Josh Dubow and Fred Goodall contributed to this story.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL