For the last six years the number of underclassmen who have chosen to enter the NFL draft pool a year or two early has increased. This year the increase was the largest ever, jumping from 73 in 2013 to 102 in 2014, counting the four players that graduated early. This trend has prompted Bills GM Doug Whaley and Director of College Scouting Kelvin Fisher to adjust their approach.
By NFL rules, area scouts and personnel executives cannot ask anyone on their campus visits in the fall about underclassmen. Prospects have to declare for the NFL draft and renounce their remaining college eligibility before NFL scouts can perform their due diligence.
Not until mid-January when underclassmen are officially deemed eligible for the upcoming draft can area scouts dive into the backgrounds of a handful of prospects from their region and evaluate game and practice tape on them.
But in the last five years the amount of underclassmen entering the draft pool has more than doubled forcing personnel executives to adjust their approach to scouting as a whole.
"It's tougher on us as scouts because you cannot look at those guys or talk about those guys until they officially declare and the list came out on Sunday so we can only start our process now and it condenses all that information into a shorter time period," said Whaley. "So it makes us work a lot harder and it's tough because those are usually the best players so you want to be as thorough as possible."
What Whaley and Fisher have done to lessen the burden on their area scouts is shrink their respective regions to allow their talent evaluators to spend more time at each of their campus stops.
"What we like to do is we condense their areas so they can have a better feel for everybody at their school," he said. "You could watch a guy as an underclassman and not scout him, but be aware of him. So if he does decide to come out early at least you have a basis to start on and that helps you out a lot."
To assist in the process of getting up to speed on the underclassmen this time of year the Bills and a handful of other NFL clubs rely on the BLESTO scouting service to provide a jumping off point for the 100-plus prospects that were thrust into the draft pool earlier this month. Simply put the BLESTO meetings are invaluable.
"This is our first chance to talk to our scouting service BLESTO on any guy they upgraded from the fall," said Whaley. "So they'll give us an update on those guys that they upgraded or gave a better draft grade. They'll go over those guys and then they will also give us a breakdown of all the juniors that came out and give us a draft grade of A, B, C or D. That will allow me and (Director of Player Personnel) Jim Monos to funnel our attention to the higher rated guys."
With more and more players coming out early it has diluted the caliber of talent at the Senior Bowl. Whaley says the majority of the players in Mobile this week will fall in the second to fifth round range in the draft.
"A lot of the star power from this senior class is in the league now," he said. "It seems like it's going to be a continuing trend with players coming out earlier and earlier and a lot of the guys that will be seniors won't be there. So you lose that depth that you usually have because the seniors aren't there."
Some blame the new CBA with the practice restrictions in the offseason and during the season. With less hitting college players believe they can save their bodies more effectively at the NFL level while also starting their career sooner. That allows players to get to their second contract, typically the most lucrative ones in their career, sooner as well.
The result is more inexperienced players are coming into the league putting a major emphasis on strong development type coaching from NFL staffs.
"It puts a premium on developing players," said Whaley. "And that's what coach Marrone preaches to his staff. We've got to develop them. They're ours."