By Ryan Mayer, CBS Local Sports
The NFL early-entry rule is by far the most strict of all the professional sports. If you’re unfamiliar with the rule, here it is directly from the NFL’s website.
“To be eligible for the draft, players must have been out of high school for three years and must have used up their college eligibility before the start of the next college football season. Underclassmen and players who have graduated before using all their college eligibility may request the league’s approval to enter the draft early.”
So basically, in order to enter the NFL, you as a player must be at least three years removed from high school. Generally, this rule is accepted because the NFL more so than the other professional sports leagues requires a level of physical maturity that is not usually attainable following high school.
In the NBA, a smaller player directly from high school or after one year in college can generally survive. Major League Baseball routinely drafts high school players and brings them up through their minor league system. The NHL is similar with only the truly top flight high school players jumping immediately to the league. Nonetheless, these sports give the option to at least make that jump if the player is deemed physically mature enough to handle the rigors of the professional game.
The NFL does not offer that option. Not even a year or two out of high school is enough for football players according to this rule, and again it has been accepted as a good policy because of the “grown man strength” needed to safely play at the NFL level.
Enter Leonard Fournette. LSU’s sophomore running back is built like a Mack truck. Listed on the LSU athletic site at 6’1″ 230 pounds, the sophomore was the #1 recruit coming out of high school and since taking the field for the Tigers has looked like a man amongst boys. Just watch the tape of his runs against Auburn this past weekend.
Just in case you missed it in those highlights, here’s a closeup view of Fournette just blowing up the Tigers’ Blake Countess (a graduate transfer).
Fournette, despite those kinds of athletic gifts and strength won’t be allowed to enter the NFL Draft following this season because he’s only two years out of high school. Let me ask you something. Does that look like a kid who needs to be more “physically mature?”
The problem is, he’s just the latest example of an NCAA player who could definitely go pro and handle the level of physicality. Robert Nkemdiche (Ole Miss), Jadeveon Clowney, Marcus Lattimore (South Carolina), just to name a few recent players who dominated in their sophomore seasons but needed to remain in school rather than starting their professional careers.
You might say, “Why is this a problem? They’ll get to go pro eventually, they just have to wait another year.” That’s fine, but consider the case of Marcus Lattimore who in his sophomore year coming off a freshman campaign in which he rushed for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns, tore his ACL. He tried to come back for his junior year, only to tear multiple ligaments in his knee. He never fully made it back to that potential and ended up retiring from the NFL earlier this year. Fournette himself had his own injury scare later in the Auburn game when a helmet hit his knee as he dove over the pile.
The problem is football is a brutal sport, a lesson we are becoming more and more aware of with each passing month it seems. For the average NFL player, their career lasts just 3 years according to the NFLPA whereas the NFL argues it’s 6 years. Either way, that’s an extremely short period of time for a player to maximize his earning potential and attempt to set he – and often his family – up for a comfortable life. Why not allow a player who has shown at the college level that he is physically ready to take the next step the opportunity to start his career?
I’m not advocating a one-and-done rule like there currently is in basketball, but even the NBA in looking to extend that age restriction is only looking to make it 20 years old. That would, on average, be after a player’s sophomore year in college. Why not the same for the NFL?
High school athletes today are stronger and faster by far than their predecessors ever were. This is a cause for a re-examination of the NFL’s eligibility rules. The one that is currently in place hurts those exceptional athletes that are ready to enter early.
The argument against it would come down to more underclassmen entering the draft and maybe going undrafted. Well, there’s an easy fix for that. Allow the players that go undrafted to re-enroll in school. But, that of course would challenge the long held belief of “amateurism” and that’s a topic for another day.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him. Agree/Disagree? Thoughts, comments, complaints? Email or tweet him.