Early entrants flood 2016 Combine

INDIANAPOLIS – It's always said they wished they wouldn't, but deep down they know that they will anyway. And even while understanding the potential pitfalls associated with dabbling in this pool of talent, they cannot resist.

The 2016 NFL Scouting Combine opens today and continues through Monday, Feb. 29, and it's going to be the first chance for representatives of the 32 teams to get their hands on the 96 players who have been "granted special eligibility for the 2016 NFL Draft." What that means is that each of those 96 players has met the league's three-year eligibility rule and each has submitted a written application in which he renounced his remaining college eligibility. The deadline for applying for such a waiver was Jan. 18.

Being granted special eligibility is NFL code for turning pro early, with the current three-year rule referring to the time that has to pass between high school graduation and the player qualifying for "special eligibility." And it certainly is a curious relationship among the colleges, the NFL, and those looking to begin a career as a professional football player.

The NFL typically says it wishes prospects would stay in college and complete their eligibility, because the maturing and seasoning to be gained by taking advantage of that opportunity can serve those individuals well once they get a chance to make an NFL roster. But the NFL also knows that these young men are going to want to become professionals as soon as the rules permit. The colleges prefer the best players stick around the longest, because it leads to victories and happy alumni, but then some of those same colleges will trumpet the number of players their programs send to the NFL as a way of recruiting more talent out of high school. And in the end, a lot of them end up getting picked in the early rounds of the draft every year. A good number don't get drafted at all, but nobody really believes that's going to happen to them.

And so here we are once again, with 96 underclassmen renouncing their remaining college eligibility to cast their lots in the hope of making a living in the NFL. These 96 are among the 330-odd invitees to this Combine that gets underway this morning with the annual parade of general managers or coaches to the podiums in the media area, and then the actual on-field drills begin Thursday.

"I guess it's probably more of the norm than not normal, being that it was just two years ago we had close to the same amount," said General Manager Kevin Colbert about the trend toward high numbers of early entrants. "But really I haven't broken it down in terms of one significant reason."

Why they're here, at this point, likely will be a topic for the interview sessions, but now that these 96 are here, scouts, coaches, assistant coaches, personnel directors, trainers, doctors, everybody, get their first chance to start getting into the nitty-gritty of their strengths and weaknesses. Now, the NFL evaluators are only interested in whether, and to what degree, these players might help their teams, because technically all underclassmen are off limits to NFL scouts until they in fact apply for and are granted special eligibility.

In 2015, there were 74 early entrants into the draft, with 60 picked overall, and 18 of the 32 first-round picks were underclassmen. In 2014, there were 98 early entrants, and 40 of the top 100 picks were underclassmen. In 2013, 52 of the 73 early entrants were drafted, with 14 coming in Round 1. In 2012, it was 65 players declaring, with 44 drafted and 19 of those coming in the first round.

For the Steelers, in their previous three drafts, nine of the 26 overall picks were underclassmen.

Coach Mike Tomlin said he crafts the 15-minute interview sessions differently when the player is an early-entrant as opposed to the guy having completed his eligibility.

"They are different in that part of the (underclassman's) interview is dedicated to finding out why the young man perceives he's ready (for the NFL)," said Tomlin, "and what processes did he go through in terms of making the decision. Early-out guys are young, and you want to know did he make an educated decision, did he make a mature decision, did he gather information in a professional manner? Or, is he just chasing hopes and dreams. That's revealing in terms of their overall maturity, just the process by which they come to the decision. Forget whether the decision is right or wrong for them. The process by which they gather information and come to the decision tells you a little bit about their overall maturity and maybe provides a window into that as you proceed. That has been the case with some of the early-out guys we've acquired over the years, whether Ryan Shazier or Maurkice Pouncey or Le'Veon Bell or others."

It's no secret that the Steelers will be shopping this offseason for players who can improve their secondary, and some 16 of the 330-plus invitees to the Combine this year are listed as defensive backs.

"I'm in favor of giving them the opportunity (to jump to the NFL), because we live in America and some of these guys are ready," said Tomlin. "Unfortunately some guys come out when I believe they aren't ready, and that's why I said what I did previously.

"There's so much information out there these days from a technology standpoint and just knowledge of one another. I can think back to years ago when I first came to the Combine, guys would come here and it was interesting to watch the players interact and get to know one another. Now at the Combine, these guys have known each other since the high school all-american football games, and through social media. There's a lot more knowledge about the field and where they stand within the field, and that's what I think makes the early-out thing more inevitable because there's less mystery involved in it."

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