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How the NFL views the NIL era: ‘This whole draft landscape has changed’



The Athletic

The bright lights and quarterback debates will be there as always when the NFL Draft begins Thursday night. But something is different this year, which will become more apparent as the rounds roll around and we start Day 3 on Saturday.

Only 58 underclassmen have declared for this week’s draft – down from 130 players in 2021 and the smallest number of underclassmen since 2011. For those in NFL circles, the introduction of NIL money is an obvious factor.

“It’s crazy to fathom that some of these guys made more money in college than they did in the NFL,” Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur said.

Players began signing marketing agreements following the 2021 Supreme Court ruling that collegiate athletes are entitled to payment for their “name, image and likeness.” The pandemic-shortened 2020 season also played a role in players staying in school, as they were given an extra year of eligibility. And then the NCAA allowed players to transfer without sitting out a year.


How name, image and likeness affect NFL draft decisions

NIL payouts are not public figures, but most of the players selected in the top three rounds this week now have money in the bank. USC quarterback Caleb Williams, the projected top pick of the Chicago Bears, is estimated to have earned around $10 million while in school. He may be an outlier, but NFL coaches are noticing a difference in their interactions with draft prospects in the NIL era.

“You look for the guys that have that look in their eyes,” Las Vegas Raiders coach Antonio Pierce said. “You can really feel it, and you can also see the guys who are entitled, who have NIL money, which is a problem because they are privileged. They have money in the bank.

“When I came into the league, I was broke. These guys already have damn jewelry on and the Louis Vuitton is already rocking.

Las Vegas Raiders coach Antonio Pierce wants players to enter the NFL with the same kind of competitive edge he possessed. (Steve Marcus/Getty Images)

Pierce wants players with an edge, and he believes that already having money in the bank from college could impact how hard they are willing to work to make a starting lineup in the NFL. Compounding that problem, Minnesota Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell said it’s harder to know how players will respond to adversity when so many players enter the transfer portal in the blink of an eye.

“They already have money in their pockets, so you’re seeing some guys not going as fast in the pre-draft process,” agent Ron Slavin said. “And no one eats those packets of ramen noodles anymore.”

The NFL minimum salary for a rookie in 2024 is $795,000. Players who are drafted sign standard four-year deals — first-round contracts also include a fifth-year option — that scale based on draft slot. The deal for No. 1 – believed to be Williams – is worth $38.5 million over four years. At the start of the second round, the four-year value drops below $10 million. Starting around the fourth round, players average about $1 million per season on their rookie deals.

And that’s where there seems to be a huge decline in player quality in this year’s draft.

“Clubs say this is a really good draft after 150 picks, and then it falls off a cliff,” agent Steve Caric said.

New York Giants general manager Joe Schoen said Thursday that 170 players returned to school this year with recordable grades, according to the team’s assistant director of player personnel Dennis Hickey.

“Partially because of COVID and NIL, this whole draft landscape has changed,” Baltimore Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said. “There are fewer players to draft, fewer underclassmen.”

“All those guys stayed in school for NIL money,” said Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy. “You will see teams late drafting players that they would normally sign as priority free agents.”

Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said players he has been scouting for years are still not in the draft.

“It’s a matter of supply and demand,” he says. “The defensive line was apparently a big deal in college, and a lot of those guys got paid a lot of money to go back to college. And so that will affect our competition and the depth of that position and other things.

NFL teams will likely look for fifth-, sixth- and seventh-round picks and move up ahead of the draft.

“We’ve talked about the idea of, (in) the later rounds of the draft, if there’s no one you covet, possibly trading that pick for a better pick,” DeCosta said.

The feeling around the NFL is that the quality of draft prospects drops after this year’s fourth round, in part because so many players opted to stay in school. (Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Jason Belzer, the CEO and co-founder of Student Athlete NIL (SANIL), manages more than 30 booster collectives for some of the larger Power 5 schools.

“I think the NIL has impacted the NFL significantly, but for the better,” Belzer said. “You have more and more players choosing to stay in college football and develop and get paid rather than go into the draft. There are several quarterbacks who have made over a million dollars who won’t get that kind of money because it will be a late pick. The NIL is the best thing that ever happened to the NFL when it comes to development.”

He estimates that 40 college players earned more than the minimum NFL salary of $750,000 in 2023, while many more made $500,000, including a tackle projected to go in the sixth round this week. Belzer said about five players per Power 5 roster make more than $100,000.

For late selections who are not guaranteed to make the roster, the decision to return to school can be quite simple.

“Being drafted is a great honor no matter where you go – even in the sixth or seventh round – but if you’re picked in the seventh round, you get a $90,000 signing bonus, and that’s the only guaranteed part of your contract said Officer Eugene Lee. “Compare that to a school where you have a first-line starter at a P4 school and you say, ‘Hey, come back! We’ll give you $350,000.’ It’s just like, ‘Okay.’ You take out a loss of value policy and off you go.”

The later round prospects are simply taking advantage of the opportunity to have their cake and eat it too.

“For example, a fourth-round pick has the opportunity to go back to school and improve, increase his draft status and make more money next year,” Caric said. “And as insurance, he can earn what he would earn with a Day 3 signing bonus thanks to NIL and come back to school.”

More collegiate experience can be a good thing, especially at the quarterback position. Jayden Daniels played in 55 games at Arizona State and LSU, almost double the number of games North Carolina’s Drake Maye played in (28).

“We don’t have a minor league, and those extra years might be a few minor league years,” Adofo-Mensah said. “And that also depends on where they play and the system, how recognizable that is for our game.”

The Vikings, who had picks 11 and 23 in the first round, could trade up to fill their quarterback need, or just stay put and use their first pick on the best player available and the last pick on someone like Oregon QB Bo Nothing. Nix played a whopping 61 games at Auburn and Oregon and thinks his experience gives him an edge over the other potential first-round quarterbacks.

“Repetition is the mother of all skills, so the more you can do something, the better you get at it,” Nix said at the combine. “I was able to prove that as the years went by, getting better and better, learning new things, playing in different systems – five in five years is a lot, but that’s a lot of fun. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

Nix is ​​24 years old, which could impact his perceived upside.

Bo Nix’s age (24) could work against him in the draft process, but he thinks his experience is an advantage. (Zac BonDurant/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“I don’t think coming out a little older is a bad thing — and maybe even a better thing,” Raiders GM Tom Telesco said. “You have more experience and more maturity in that position. Other positions, it may or may not matter.

“Normally, as a scouting staff, we always say that we would like a younger player, because the man has the opportunity to develop and perhaps has a bit more ceiling. Is that true or not? I’m not quite sure. But I do know that there will be some players coming into the league who have good experience and may be ready to play a little earlier than in the past.”

Nix could have entered the draft last year but stayed for a chance to win a national championship and had the cushion that NIL allows.

That experience advantage may only apply to quarterbacks.

“I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had in recent weeks asking a club about Player A or Player B; the older age is always a negative,” Caric said. “They clearly want to draft someone they want for more than one contract. When you come into the league at 24 with these super-senior years, it’s not as attractive as the 21-year-old.”

Alabama offensive tackle J.C. Latham was able to enjoy a different college lifestyle than previous players, but said the extra money also helped him prepare for the NFL.

“It definitely makes you grow up,” Latham said at the combine. “You have to understand that you’re getting more money now, so there’s a bigger target coming your way.”

It can also help players learn to manage their money before heading into their first NFL rookie camp.

“If you want to create more wealth for yourself and your family, you really need to understand how to maneuver and manage it,” Latham said. “It definitely puts you in the mindset of really understanding what’s going on around you and how (you can) create your wealth early.”

All of these players who stay in school have to come out at some point, so the number of draftable players will grow again next year.

And GMs and coaches still need to sign good players to keep their jobs — owners don’t want to hear any excuses about the NIL impact after another losing season.

“I think — especially in the early rounds — it’s a really good draft,” Denver Broncos general manager George Paton said.

And while the NFL may wring its hands a bit about NIL, it doesn’t change the way they look at a player’s game tape and decide who to invest in.

“It hasn’t changed our preparation that much,” said first-year Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Macdonald, a former defensive coordinator at Michigan. “I was ready since we had it in Michigan.

“The only thing is that some of these players will have to take a pay cut to play in the league.”

— Staff Writer Tashan Reed contributed to this report.

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(Top illustration: Dan Golfarb / The Athletics; top photos of Roger Goodell and Caleb Williams: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images and Michael Reaves/Getty Images)