Looking to make the NFL without having what might normally be considered NFL-level talent? This is your year.
“There are going to be some absolute slaps drafted this year,” one scout told me. “‘Slaps’ as in rejects.”
With the NCAA granting athletes an extra year of eligibility after a COVID-warped season, a large number of players are returning to school, and the pool of prospects attempting to go pro is significantly smaller than in standard years.
There are a few different ways to measure the number of NFL prospects in a year, but perhaps the most telling is to look at the number of players who have signed a standard representation agreement with an NFL agent. Signing an SRA doesn’t guarantee the player is going to be drafted or even signed as an undrafted free agent, but it is proof that someone thinks they have a shot.
By mid-April of 2019, 1,972 players had signed an SRA. By mid-April of 2020, 1,839 players had signed.
This year, as of April 7, that number was only 657.
Another way to judge the depth of the draft class is by looking at the size of an NFL team’s “backboard,” a ranking of undrafted free agent–type prospects. Most teams have a front board for players they consider worth a draft pick, and a backboard for the others. I asked scouts and personnel execs around the league how the size of the latter group compares to previous years and most report it’s noticeably smaller. One veteran scout said his team’s backboard is down by about 20 percent, and that his team is having conversations about 150 fewer players this year. Another team’s personnel exec said he’d estimate their backboard at 20–30 percent smaller than in a normal year.
Let’s do some quick math: There will be 259 players drafted this year, which is the third-highest since the draft went to seven rounds in 1994. (The number fluctuates each year because of compensatory picks, and this year’s will be the first to award compensatory picks to promote more diversity in hiring of head coaches and GMs.) After the seven rounds of the draft, each team typically signs about 10 undrafted free agents, so that’s another 320 players, which puts the class at 579, not far off the total number of players who have signed SRAs.
Simply put, this is a really good time to be a late-round/free-agent caliber prospect.
“You are going to see some PFAs [priority free agents, or the top tier of undrafted prospects] going in round 6 and 7 this year,” said NFL agent Christian Kranz, of Generation Sports Group. “Next year there are going to be 2000 or more kids in the draft, so guys who would go in 6 and 7 [this year] are going to be low-money camp bodies [next year] because the talent is going to be so rich.”
Kranz represents several clients who will benefit from the smaller class size this year, one of whom is Kene Nwangwu. Nwangwu played running back for four seasons at Iowa State, but was stuck as a backup behind two elite talents during his time, Chicago Bears running back (and third round pick) David Montgomery and Breece Hall, a sophomore who had a breakout 2020 season and should be a top running back in the 2022 class. Nwangwu caught the league’s attention at his pro day when he ran a 4.31 40, a very fast time for his size, 6-foot-1, and 210 pounds.
In a normal year, it might be a stretch for a team to draft a career backup like Nwangwu, no matter how impressive his pro day. This year, I’ve heard from several scouts for different teams who think Nwangwu will be drafted.
Another poster child of this tiny 2021 class is Kenny Randall, a DT out of D-II Charleston. Randall is 25 years old, which is totally decrepit in football years. Scouts tell me he’s got a good shot to be drafted this year, something his age alone would have prevented in the past.
So what does this year’s thin draft class mean for the actual draft? Several scouts tossed around the possibility of NFL teams trying to trade their late-round picks for future value; a fifth-round pick in 2021 is theoretically worth less than the identical pick next year.
“The draft is weak after the third round or fourth round,” the personnel exec said. “If you’re a team with a bunch of extra late-round picks, you probably need to sell a few picks for next year picks.” Of course, that strategy is dependent on finding a buyer.
The small draft class of 2021 also necessarily means that 2022’s is going to be overstuffed, with borderline prospects’ odds of making the NFL longer than ever.
“Next year is going to be deep,” the scout who bemoaned this year’s “slaps” told me. “You are essentially going to have three draft classes. The super seniors, the seniors, and the underclassmen. Next year among the college free agents, there will be some guys who should have got drafted.”
Perhaps illogically, some prospects are still choosing to take their chances next year.
Inside The League, a consulting service for the football industry, tracks every prospect that signs with an agent. Per ITL’s signings grid, five prospects who were invited to the Senior Bowl (meaning they had fulfilled graduation requirements) decided to return for an extra collegiate season, and one player who was invited to the NFL scouting combine, Nicholls State receiver Dai’Jean Dixon, decided to return for a fifth season. According to ITL’s data, 24 players who signed with an agent and received an all-star game invite decided to return to school.
“That is lunacy, that is idiocy,” said Neil Stratton, owner of Inside the League. “Setting aside the injury concerns, if you go out and have anything less of a season than you had last year, you are going to be downgraded. If you go out and you have a lousy season, you are going to be a forgotten man. This year, if you got a combine invite and/or a Senior Bowl invite, you are stamped as a legitimate prospect.”
“If you are part of this draft class, you have a much better chance of at least making it to camp,” Stratton told me. “Not necessarily making a roster, but, the numbers are on your side because it is just so much smaller.”
Unfortunately—and I know you’re thinking about it—this does not mean that you, the Defector reader, can just go out and become this year’s Mr. or Ms. Irrelevant. Mostly because the deadline to declare for the draft has already passed. I think you would’ve had a pretty good shot though!