Nick Saban critical of record number of NFL draft early entrants

A record number of underclassmen declared for the NFL draft this year. Many won’t be selected.

On the heels of another national title, Alabama had five underclassmen declare: DB Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB Ronnie Harrison, DL Da’Ron Payne, WR Calvin Ridley and RB Bo Scarbrough. One player opted to return for his senior season was Tide running back Damien Harris. Wednesday at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, Saban was asked about Harris’ decision.

Of course, Saban is happy Harris, who led the team with 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns, will be back with the team in 2018, but his answer centered more on the players around the country who chose not to follow that path.

“I think that Damien wanted to finish his education. I think he likes college, he likes school. A lot of guys, man, they got it in their mind that they’re going to go out for the draft no matter what, and 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,” Saban said. “I think it’s getting tougher and tougher and more and more guys are making the decision to go out early. And at least 50 percent of those cases, it’s not a good decision, and a lot of those guys don’t make a team.”

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Saban noted how different football is compared to other sports in that it lacks a minor league system. That makes it even more difficult to find life in the NFL.

“What people don’t understand, and everybody should know, is professional football is the only sports league, professional sports league, that doesn’t have a minor league system,” Saban said. “Baseball has a minor league system. Aaron Judge, he’s a pretty good baseball player, right? He spent a couple years in the minor leagues developing. Well, you don’t do that in football. The only development you can do is in college. So where you enter the league is of utmost importance.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban speaks to fans during the school’s national championship celebration, Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, in Tuscaloosa. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

According to NFL.com, 28 of the 95 underclassmen who declared for the draft in 2017 went unselected. Many caught on as an undrafted free agent, but many are already out of the sport completely without a college degree in their back pocket. This year, a record 106 underclassmen without degrees entered the draft.

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Saban thinks draft prospects need to be more aware of the realities of professional football.

“It’s all or nothing. And if they don’t make the team, there’s no place else for them to play and they can’t go back to college and play. So I think the road we’re going down right now is not always best for a lot of the players that are making decisions to go out early,” Saban said.

Some players opt to pursue a professional career even when they know they face an uphill climb. Even a spot on a practice squad could be a huge financial boon for a player and his family. In those instances, it’s hard to question somebody’s decision to leave school. But a lot of the time things align with what Saban expressed.

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The number of early entrants has fluctuated in recent years, going from 98 in 2014 to 74 in 2015 before jumping back up to 96 in 2016 and 95 in 2017. That figure made a big jump this year and will likely lead to a big percentage of early entrants going undrafted. Perhaps that will cause some prospects to stay in school for an extra year.

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Sam Cooper is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!