Leaving early: NFL success rate high for Bama underclassmen during Saban’s tenure

Declaring for the NFL Draft with remaining eligibility is a risky proposition for college football players. Regardless of the star quality of the prospects, there’s always a significant portion of those players who are selected later than projected and some even go undrafted.

It seems like more and more players test the NFL Draft waters early, foregoing their remaining years of eligibility in search of the significant payday that pro football brings. For the last two years, the number of underclassmen across college football declaring for the draft has reached triple digits; 10 years ago, only 46 players declared early for the draft.

Running back Josh Jacobs | Photo by Robert Sutton – courtesy Alabama Athletics

For Alabama, a program record seven underclassmen declared their eligibility for the 2019 NFL Draft, bringing the total to 38 during Nick Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa. Saban’s philosophy on draft decisions has remained the same throughout his time with the Crimson Tide.

“A lot of guys get it in their mind that they’re going to go out for the draft no matter what,” Saban said when speaking at the 2018 Reese’s Senior Bowl. “I think you all know my philosophy on that: if you’re a first-round draft pick, you should go. If you’re not, you should stay in school and try to graduate.”

The difference in signing bonuses between first- and second-round picks is great. The last pick of the first round can be expected to earn roughly $2 million more in a signing bonus than the first pick of the second round, according to Spotrac, a professional sports salary cap projection site. The differences become greater as the draft progresses.

Saban has typically steered his players in the right direction. Not counting this season’s early entrants, Alabama has had 31 players enter the draft early. Of those 31, 17 have gone on to become first-round picks. 27 of the 31 have been selected in the first three rounds of the draft, and only one player has gone undrafted.

Two of the three players who were selected in the fourth round or later, and the one player who went undrafted, were a part of the same class. In 2014, Vinnie Sunseri was selected in the fifth round by the Saints, Jeoffrey Pagan was selected in the sixth round by the Texans, and Adrian Hubbard became the lone early entrant to go undrafted.

That’s a remarkable run of success for Alabama considering the national average. Since 2011, only 68 percent of NFL Draft early entrants have been selected in the draft at all. Alabama is at a 96-percent drafted rate, a number that should go up this season.

Amari Cooper got off to a great start in Oakland before being traded to the Cowboys | Courtesy Oakland Raiders

Of Alabama’s seven early entrants in 2019, six are expected to be picked in the first two rounds. Quinnen Williams, Jonah Williams, Deionte Thompson, Josh Jacobs, and Irv Smith Jr. could all find themselves selected in the first round. Cornerback Saivion Smith was the one curious draft decision, and he is currently projected to be a late-round pick if he is drafted at all.

“We’ve always tried to provide our players with the kind of information from NFL teams, from football people, to help them make a good business decision about their future as football players,” Saban said at his annual draft decision press conference in January.

The return on investment for NFL franchises selecting Alabama’s underclassmen in the draft has been high as well. Eight of those 31 players have already gone on to Pro Bowl NFL careers, highlighted by the 2011 and 2015 crops.

In the 2011 class, all three players who declared early – Marcell Dareus, Julio Jones, and Mark Ingram – have made at least two Pro Bowls each. Jones leads the way with a program-high six, with Dareus and Ingram making two each. The 2015 class has produced six Pro Bowl invites already, with Amari Cooper and Landon Collins each being invited three times.

Several others are off to strong starts to their respective careers and could see a coveted Pro Bowl invite in their near futures. Derrick Henry and Marlon Humphrey are coming off of the best seasons of their young careers, and both Calvin Ridley and Da’Ron Payne were named to the All-Rookie team in 2018.

As much as he is frequently painted as a win-at-all-cost grump, Saban has always seemed to have the best interests of his players at heart when it comes time for them to sit down and make the tough decision on their football futures.

“Coach Saban’s like the Godfather of early leaving, so I trust him, and I trust what he told me,” Quinnen Williams said about his advice from Saban.

With the dangers of football more and more apparent, players will continue testing the waters of the NFL at high rates to take advantage of the short shelf life while they still can. At Alabama, those decisions almost always seem to pay off. H&A



Cover photo: Quinnen Williams after the Mississippi State game this past November – Photo by Al Blanton 

John Mitchell

John is a freelance writer with a focus on sports and pop culture. He has written for a variety of online platforms for the last 10 years, covering a wide array of topics. You can keep up with him on twitter @jlmitchell93.

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