Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell, WR Antonio Brown and WR Martavis Bryant began their careers at the combine.
INDIANAPOLIS – This year, there are 74. That's 24 fewer than a year ago, a decrease significant enough to bring it in line with the total from two years ago. When it came to the number of underclassmen annually declaring themselves eligible for the NFL Draft, it seemed as though it was a situation similar to the price of gasoline. All we have known is that whenever the number moved, it was moving up.
But now gasoline prices are 38 percent lower in some parts of the country than they were one year ago, and the number of underclassmen declaring for the 2015 NFL Draft is down almost 25 percent from the previous year.
The price of crude is responsible for the former. Whatever is responsible for the latter is fine with General Manager Kevin Colbert.
"The number of kids who didn't get drafted in 2014 hopefully influenced these kids to make a more sound decision," said Colbert. "It's something that's a big problem, I believe, with these kids getting misinformation and thinking they're one thing and they are not."
What often makes headlines when it comes to underclassmen in the NFL Draft is how many of them are first-round picks, but what bothers Colbert is the growing number who don't even get drafted and then find themselves jobless and unable to get back on a college campus.
In 2011, 11 of the top 14 picks were underclassmen, as were 27 of the top 64. In 2012, 10 of the top 12 were underclassmen; the first round contained 19; and there were 27 underclassmen picked through selection No. 64 at the end of the second round.
In 2013, 14 of the 32 first-round picks were underclassmen, and 25 were picked over the first 64 selections. Last April, fully half of the players picked through the first two rounds were underclassmen.
Those are the numbers used to entice college players to jump to the NFL, but every bit as significant in terms of their decision-making process should be these: Last April, when fully half of the players picked through the first two rounds were underclassmen, there was a higher number of players not drafted at all: 37 of the 98 who had declared.
"We were at 98 underclassmen in 2014 and only 61 percent were drafted," said Colbert. "There were a lot of kids who ended up as free agents who could have been playing football in college and maybe enhanced their 2015 draft status. I hope the message got through that coming out early isn't always the wisest decision."
Like all teams, the Steelers have picked underclassmen in drafts, and they have picked underclassmen high in drafts. Last year, three of their nine draft picks – No. 1 Ryan Shazier, No. 2 Stephon Tuitt, No. 4 Martavis Bryant – were underclassmen, and in the five drafts from 2010-14, 11 of the 44 overall picks (25 percent) have been underclassmen.
"(The NFL) changed up the process with the college evaluation committee that the players submit their names to," said Colbert, who believes that may have had an impact in this year's numbers.
In the past, the committee would designate a round of the upcoming draft to each prospect who submitted his name. That temped some into coming out early because they were told to "get the clock started toward the second contract." This time, the committee designated only first- and second-round projections to those deemed worthy, and then everyone else got no grade at all.
And in terms of the whole "getting the clock started toward the second contract" thing, since the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed in March 2011, only 27 percent of all underclassmen drafted even stuck on a roster long enough to get a second NFL contract.
"So maybe that gray-area (in the committee's evaluation) left more kids in doubt," said Colbert. "So potentially I hope the information is getting out that it's not always wise to come out early."
NO INTEREST IN THE VETERAN COMBINE**
On March 22, there will be a veterans combine held at the site of the Arizona Cardinals practice facility. The league expects to invite 100 players for drills that will be open to all 32 NFL teams.
NFL director of football development Matt Birk said, "You're talking the NFL free agent who is one year out of college and was in a training camp, or a 10-year veteran who has been a starter in the league. It will be very diverse, although at first it probably will tilt toward the younger guys."
"I'm not really interested in it to be honest," said Colbert about the veterans combine. "Personally, it's about what they do once they get into the league. We already know big and fast they are. To me they're not going to get any faster, so you better base it on what he did in the league. With college players you're dealing with looking at potential, and with pro players (it's on videotape). Most of these guys who go to the veterans combine will have been in camps. They're veterans. They've been practice squad players or they've been active players. So what they do in a workout, I'm not really interested in. I just want to see what they did when they did have their chance to be NFL players."