In January, 98 college football players decided to leave school early to pursue jobs in the National Football League. Some of them, perhaps as many as 20, will be taken in the first round of the NFL draft that begins Thursday, and they will sign multimillion-dollar contracts.
More will be left undrafted and will never play in the NFL. They cannot return to college football. Instead, they become trivia questions and serve as cautionary tales in the dangers of coming out too soon.
For every Johnny Manziel, the young Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback for Texas A&M who is about to cash in on the NFL, there are the tales of Greg Lee and John Clay.
Mr. Lee was going to break all of the University of Pittsburgh's receiving records before he made the decision to turn professional after his junior year in 2005. Coming off a season in which he caught 49 passes for 962 yards and seven touchdowns, some projections had Mr. Lee being taken in the fourth round of the 2006 draft. He might have been, if not for a hamstring injury that disrupted his training and led to a poor 40-yard dash time at Pitt's pro day. The doubts about his speed led to Mr. Lee going undrafted. He never played a down in the NFL.
Mr. Clay led the Big Ten Conference in rushing as a sophomore at Wisconsin in 2009. As a junior he was a finalist for the Doak Walker award and had another 1,000-yard season when he decided to forgo his final season of college eligibility.
He also went undrafted. Mr. Clay signed as a free agent with the Steelers and made their practice squad as a rookie in 2011. With two games left in the season, the Steelers elevated him to the active roster and he ran for a 10-yard touchdown against the St. Louis Rams in Christmas Eve game at Heinz Field.
That ended up being the highlight of his short-lived NFL career. He injured his hip during training camp in Latrobe the next summer and was placed on injured reserve. Mr. Clay received an injury settlement from the Steelers and has not played in the NFL since.
Stories like those are increasing as college players turn professional with more frequency. The 98 underclassmen who declared for the draft this year is a record. In the past decade the number of underclassmen entering the draft has more than doubled.
"No one talks about the pitfalls of not making it," said Bill Polian, a former NFL general manager with the Bills, Panthers and Colts who is now an analyst for ESPN. "Or about the guys who don't make it to a second contract. Fifty percent of players don't make it to a second contract. What are you left with?"
Both sides now
Dave Wannstedt knows both sides of the issue. The former Pitt head coach spent 18 seasons in the NFL and 20 seasons in NCAA Division I football. One of his first duties as a head coach in the NFL was selecting USC receiver Curtis Conway with the No. 7 overall pick in the 1993 draft. Mr. Conway, an underclassman, was a successful choice. He played 12 seasons in the NFL, compiled more than 8,000 yards receiving and scored 52 touchdowns.
Mr. Wannstedt saw the darker side of the underclassman issue when he became a college head coach for the first time at Pitt. He was hired in 2005 and coached Mr. Lee for one season. In early January 2006, Mr. Lee had to make a decision about whether to return to school or declare for the draft.
Mr. Lee went through process of being evaluated by the NFL advisory board, which gives feedback to underclassmen and estimates where they will be taken in the draft. Mr. Wannstedt also made calls to his friends around the NFL on the player's behalf.
"With Greg Lee, the highest I remember people were talking about with him was the fourth round," Mr. Wannstedt said. "That was coming from the NFL advisory board. I think I talked with six or seven general managers or owners about him and it was never higher than the fourth round. But I was new to Pitt. I was only there for a few months and Greg didn't know me enough to trust me."
After three years of bouncing between NFL offseason rosters and NFL Europe, Mr. Lee was out of professional football by 2008. He came back to Pitt to complete his degree after his playing career ended, and according to his Facebook page, is working in sales in his native Florida. Neither Mr. Lee nor Mr. Clay could be reached for comment.
In 2009, another of Mr. Wannstedt's players made the wrong decision about when to go to the NFL. Greg Romeus was a lightly recruited player from Florida who developed into a top-flight defensive end prospect by the time he was a junior at Pitt. He was the Big East co-defensive player of the year in 2009 and was told he would be a borderline first-round pick.
Completing his degree was important to Mr. Romeus, and because of that, Mr. Wannstedt encouraged him to return for his senior season. Back problems forced Mr. Romeus to miss time early in his senior season and a torn anterior cruciate ligament ended it. He was not taken until the seventh round of the 2011 draft, spent two seasons with the New Orleans Saints, but never played in a game in the NFL.
"What I always did was if a kid was going to be a first-rounder or a high second-rounder I would call them into my office and I would tell them they had to go," Mr. Wannstedt said. "There was only one time in my time at Pitt when I encouraged someone to come back and that was Greg. I regret it to this day.
"Greg was 30 credits shy of graduating. He was a preseason All-American. He had a legitimate opportunity to be a top 10 pick. But education was important to him. He was going to be a late first-round or early second-round pick if he had come out as a junior. I'll probably never get over that one."
Getting the proper advice is one of the bigger problems in the pre-draft process for underclassmen. The advisory board was created in 1994 to help underclassmen gauge their draft stock. The board has been remarkably accurate over the years and gives honest feedback.
But many times family members and agents are involved in the process and that skews the perspective for the players who are making the decision. Many college football players come from disadvantaged backgrounds and an NFL paycheck can help their struggling families. Agents seeking to land clients by any means necessary, telling players what they want to hear, also play a role.
Collective bargaining fallout
Mr. Polian said the problem has been exacerbated since the new collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players was reached in 2011. NFL owners sought and received less lucrative rookie contracts. In return, players get to free agency sooner, in four or five years.
That's the main reason players are coming out in droves. Players want to begin their professional careers earlier. If they remain healthy and are productive they can sign more lucrative second contracts. For many, the gamble seems worth it.
"What we have are a bunch of pundits and bloggers talking about getting your clock started early, about how you have to get to your second contract earlier," Mr. Polian said. "This is what the agents have done to combat the salary scale. What we have are agents, with help from the media, encouraging kids to go. It's not in the best interests of the kids.
"Instead of listening to the advisory board, they're listening to the agents. People on the outside don't understand. If someone can really play in the NFL we want them in the NFL. The bottom line is if they fail, it's their decision. Don't blame the advisory board. The advisory board is not doing a bad job. It's doing a great job."
Agents, in turn, blame the NFL for devising a system that limits the potential earning power of young players.
"The system is such now that there is more incentive to come out," said Pittsburgh-based agent Ralph Cindrich. "In this CBA, the contract numbers are set. You don't have the windfalls you had in the past. And I think players are more willing to break ranks because that's why they're in college -- to play football."
But Mr. Cindrich agrees with Mr. Polian on the subject of agents giving bad advice. Unfortunately, Mr. Cindrich said, the players who fall by the wayside are the victims in the cruel business side of the sport.
"The agents do a horrible job," Mr. Cindrich said. "I'd say a large percentage really care most about getting a client. By and large, many of the players who come out are not ready. Many of them make foolish decisions because they have evidence that points to them not being ready.
"This is really about greed all around. You have the NFL being greedy, the NCAA being greedy, the agents being greedy and the players being greedy. And the way the system is set up now it's not a fixable problem. Players get so corrupted in college. They have their hands out. How many of them are really there for an education? Players are looking to get paid and bought and there are agents that are willing to do that."
Plenty of players
Any NFL fan who has been paying attention knows this is one of the deepest drafts in recent history. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert called the draft "as deep across the board" as any in his 30 years in the NFL.
That is due in part to the record number of underclassmen. It's a double-edged sword for the NFL. They have better players at their disposal, but they also have to worry about maturity issues with many of the players who spent only three years in college.
"We just keep our fingers crossed," said Mr. Colbert, who has selected a number of underclassmen in the first round, including Ben Roethlisberger, Santonio Holmes and Maurkice Pouncey. "Experience has told us that a lot of these younger players aren't ready for this. It's a huge leap. I don't think a lot of them understand that until they are actually on a playing field and see the increase in the quality of play. That's the physical part. But the emotional part of being a college kid and all of a sudden the next day being a professional, I think it's a little easier to transition from your senior year to the pros than it would be from a junior or sophomore year."
Of the 20 underclassmen who could go in the first round, three are redshirt sophomores and only played two seasons of college football. All three are projected to be top-10 picks. They are Mr. Manziel, Auburn offensive lineman Greg Robinson and Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans.
Their raw abilities tantalize NFL evaluators, but there are sometimes lingering questions that many front office executives believe can be answered with more time in college. As a result, while this is a deep draft from a pure talent standpoint, many of the picks are riskier than a normal year. Mr. Colbert called the group of draft-eligible players the most immature group he has ever seen.
"I think it's easier to evaluate a player that's been there for four or five years; he's more physically mature and hopefully he's more socially aware and secure," said Mike Mayock, a draft analyst for the NFL Network. "You get a more mature football player so it takes some of the variables out of play.
"I think a lot of teams think there is more risk out there associated with the evaluation process [of underclassmen]. However, especially in the first round, there are better football players out there the last few years."
Mr. Wannstedt, who won two Super Bowl rings when he was an assistant coach with the Dallas Cowboys, is well-versed in the NFL rhetoric regarding underclassmen, but he said much of it is lip service. The prospect of getting an underclassman who might be riskier but has more potential oftentimes is more attractive than a senior.
"Every coach and general manager is concerned about that, but it's clinic talk," Mr. Wannstedt said. "I've taken my share of underclassmen over the years. You say it. It sounds good. But if player X is an underclassman and has room to improve and player is Y is a senior who has maybe reached his potential, you're going to taking player X because he has more upside. Every coach gets them and thinks they're going to be able to coach them up."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.