clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Should the NFL Enter Its One-and-Done Era?

Will Anderson Jr., Bryce Young, and C.J. Stroud would have been among the top picks in last year’s NFL draft. But an archaic NFL rule that props up college football meant they had to wait. 

AP Images/Ringer illustration

When the NFL draft ends and draft analysts need to justify their professional existence, they often produce a piece of content that even they admit is kind of a gag—the way too early mock draft, a projection of next year’s draft, sometimes published mere hours after the current draft ends. Almost every publication that drops a way too early mock draft in May uses similar self-deprecating phrasing, and writers hedge throughout each piece. “Now, this is an extremely early prediction. … Expect big changes between now and next April,” wrote ESPN’s Todd McShay in his way too early mock from May 5 of last year. “These are often inaccurate exercises, at best,” wrote USA Today’s Mark Schofield.

But there was no need for hedging in the 2023 draft cycle. When you go through last year’s way too early mocks, basically every publication identified three likely top picks: Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, the 2021 Heisman winner; Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr.; and Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, a 2021 Heisman finalist. Even after the full 2022 college football season, the NFL scouting combine, and the monthslong predraft process, nobody has replaced them as the top three prospects in the draft. The Ringer’s 2023 NFL Draft Guide lists Anderson, Young, and Stroud as its top three players. With just a day until the draft, the exact order is far from guaranteed, but we know that those three will be toward the top because basically nothing about the 2022 college football season significantly altered their draft stock.

But it’s not just those three; 360 or so days ago, analysts were pretty dead-on about many of the other top prospects in this year’s class. The way too early mocks knew that Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter had top-10 pick talent, that Texas’s Bijan Robinson would be the best running back in the draft, and that Northwestern tackle Peter Skoronski would be one of the top offensive linemen. They knew Ohio State receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba would be considered a first-round pick, and the fact that he barely played in 2022 didn’t change that. They even had a hunch that Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson would get drafted high, even though he’d started only one game for the Gators at the time.

After the 2021 college season, it was already clear that these players had NFL talent—but they couldn’t go pro yet. These were players who graduated from high school in 2020 and couldn’t join the NFL until 2023, thanks to the NFL’s rule banning players from the league until they’ve been out of high school for three years.

The entire 2022 draft would’ve been different had many of the players I just mentioned been allowed to enter the draft as sophomores. Many analysts felt that Anderson would’ve been the best player available and the top pick in the draft—he plays the same position as last year’s no. 1 pick, Travon Walker, and had already emerged as a better prospect. And quarterbacks like Young and Stroud surely would’ve been selected higher than last year’s top QB, Kenny Pickett, who went 20th overall to Pittsburgh and was the only passer drafted in the first round. But they weren’t available. They had to wait, and so did the NFL.

The NFL’s three-year rule has been in place for my entire life as a football fan, so I assumed that it was a sacrosanct law handed down by the sport’s elders. It’s not! It was put in place roughly 30 years ago and was initially criticized for its arbitrary nature. But those 30 years have seen massive upheaval in college football. Now, virtually every year, NFL scouts are able to identify freshmen and sophomores who could be top picks but can’t enter the league yet. Remember the yearslong wait for Trevor Lawrence to reach the NFL? Did you see the articles about how USC sophomore Caleb Williams could have been the top pick in this year’s draft?

Letting NFL-ready prospects join the NFL as soon as possible isn’t just the best thing for the league—it may be imperative in a sport in which players have short careers that leave lifelong damage. The NFL should enter the one-and-done era.

In its early years, the NFL technically allowed players of any age to join. It wasn’t so much a rule as a loophole: The fledgling league didn’t really have a lot of rules … or fans. It was a ragtag bunch of semipro teams in midsize Midwest cities like Canton, Ohio, and Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was dwarfed by the significantly more popular college game. That changed in 1925, when the Chicago Bears signed Illinois superstar Red Grange immediately after the final game of his junior season. Grange played for the Illini one week and started a barnstorming tour with the Bears the next, drawing the biggest crowds the league had ever seen at that time. The NFL might have died in its infancy if not for the box office boost from fans flocking to see Grange.

But signing Grange before he finished his college career caused an uproar. College football was viewed as an idealized form of American manhood, while playing for money was unseemly and unpopular. “I’d be glad to see Grange do anything except play professional football,” said Michigan coach Fielding Yost; Grange’s Illinois head coach, Bob Zuppke, said that “Grange has no right to capitalize on his athletic fame. … His fame belongs to Illinois, not him.” So in 1926, the NFL passed a rule that banned players from joining the league before they had completed their college careers. Taking players away from their wildly popular college teams made the NFL seem seedy and greedy, which was a bad look for a business trying to establish its reputation.

One hundred years later, things have flipped. The NFL is the most popular sports league in America. The stigma around players going pro before graduating is long gone, like the NFL franchises in Dayton and Rochester. (Not the one in Green Bay, for some reason.) The people who profit from unpaid college athletes are now the ones who seem seedy and greedy, not the players who leave school to make money.

The NFL’s policy of barring players until they graduated held up until the late 1980s, in part because the league began to fear that its draft eligibility rules wouldn’t hold up in court. In 1989, the league issued waivers that would allow 25 juniors to enter the draft; the most notable player was Barry Sanders, whose Oklahoma State team was set to go under probation for his senior season. In 1990 the league officially adopted a policy allowing players to apply for entry to the draft after three years. At the time, the three-year rule seemed somewhat random. “It seems to me to be bowing to the inevitable,” said Doug Allen of the NFL Players Association. “But it doesn’t seem any more defensible. What is the difference between a junior and a sophomore?” Allen said the rule was “likely to be challenged and set aside by a player in the future.”

Instead, the rule essentially became law. In 2003, Ohio State’s Maurice Clarett sued the NFL, challenging the rule so that he could enter the league after being ruled ineligible to play for the Buckeyes for his junior year. He initially won the case on an antitrust basis. “The rule must be sacked,” wrote 2nd Circuit judge Shira Scheindlin. (Judges are completely incapable of avoiding sports puns when they get to rule on sports cases.) But the NFL appealed and won, with future Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor writing a decision awarding the NFL a special antitrust exemption. Clarett’s case had hinged on the fact that the three-year rule was not explicitly a part of the collective bargaining agreement agreed on by the NFLPA; the NFL and union have since added the rule to the CBA, making it unlikely that a future sophomore could win a similar court case.

A rule that once seemed flimsy (and in fact, seemed to be defeated in court) has become entrenched. Nobody can force the NFL and NFLPA to get rid of this rule; they’ll have to get rid of it themselves. But it seems strange for them to stand by a rule that was created arbitrarily—and that was created to govern college football.

The 33 years since the NFL moved to the three-year rule have seen a sea change in the developmental timeline of football players. The first sophomore won the Heisman Trophy in 2007; the first freshman won it in 2012. Twenty years ago, in 2002, 86 percent of players named unanimous All-Americans were seniors. Ten years ago, in 2012, 46 percent of unanimous All-Americans were seniors. This year, it was just 21 percent, with nearly as many sophomores (two) as seniors (three) earning unanimous honors. In the era of year-round youth football and better training programs, players are more football ready at earlier ages. And in the era of the transfer portal, college coaches know they have to play their stars immediately or risk watching them leave over playing time complaints.

As a result, it’s almost rare at this point that a top NFL prospect is a senior. The top nine prospects on The Ringer’s big board are either juniors or redshirt sophomores who are leaving college as soon as they’re allowed. And in many cases, those players were clearly at the pro level before they were draft eligible. Take Trevor Lawrence, who in January 2019 became the first pro-style QB to win a national championship as a true freshman. At the time, there was speculation that if he’d been eligible, Lawrence would have been the top pick in the 2019 draft, over Kyler Murray. (And four years later, we can say that would’ve been the right call.) But he wasn’t eligible in 2019 or 2020. Lawrence had to play at Clemson as a sophomore and junior, and other than a severe injury, basically nothing that he did in those two seasons would have affected his status as a prospect. Sure enough, he was the no. 1 pick in 2021, having missed out on tens of millions of dollars and years of pro-level development.

And when the way too early mocks drop in the next two weeks, they’ll have a pretty solid idea of some aspects of the 2024 NFL draft. USC’s Williams just won the Heisman as a sophomore, and there’s not a whole lot left for him to prove in college. We’re already starting to get the stories about how NFL teams should skip this year’s draft class and wait for Superman. (Being nicknamed “Superman” is a pretty good sign you’re pro ready.) And Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. was arguably the best receiver in college football in 2022, earning unanimous All-American honors. He ran routes for Stroud at Ohio State’s pro day and stole the show, leaving a slew of NFL scouts likely yelling, “WHY WOULD YOU SHOW ME SOMETHING IF I CAN’T HAVE IT like Kevin Garnett in Uncut Gems. I feel pretty confident that you could bookmark this post and come back in a year and Williams and Harrison would be close to the top of the draft, if not the actual 1-2 combo. It’ll be great for college football that we’ll be able to watch both Williams and Harrison play next year. But it’s hard to make the case that it’s better for either of them individually.

The best argument for the NFL’s age requirements is that younger prospects aren’t physically ready for the league. I can buy that for fresh-out-of-high-school prospects who haven’t had time in a college training program yet. But in December, I saw Carter lift up LSU’s quarterback with one hand like he was a stuffed teddy bear. Carter was absolutely ready to play professionally this past year. He was probably ready to play professionally the year before, too. Harrison is ready to play professionally now—just ask the scouts at his pro day. And even if these players weren’t 100 percent ready, why does the NFL entrust elite prospect development to college football?

After all, it’s not clear that playing additional seasons of college football does much to develop top talent. We got a test case for this in 2020, when players like Ja’Marr Chase and Micah Parsons opted out of the entire college football season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although both played just two years of college football and voluntarily ditched competitive football for their final year before reaching the pros, their draft stock remained high and they quickly emerged as two of the best players in the NFL.

Of course, all of this is mainly applicable to a sliver of players at the very top of college football. Most are not pro ready after one or two years of college football, and leaving school would be both a bad decision for them and tough on NFL evaluators. But the same has always been true with the three-year rule in place —yet tens of thousands of players stay in school for four or five years. The Athletic’s Kalyn Kahler wrote this week about the effect another massive change in college football is having on the NFL: Many draft-eligible quarterbacks are staying in school thanks to NIL deals that allow them to make amounts of money similar to what they would have received as end-of-roster or practice squad players. But this is about giving options to players who are ready to be first-round picks.

And, sure, NFL teams would likely screw some things up if more players were to become draft eligible earlier. As my colleague Ben Solak wrote yesterday, scouts often misjudge some QB prospects before they’re draft eligible; he cites players like Jake Fromm and Zach Mettenberger, who were hyped as elite prospects before becoming NFL afterthoughts. He’s got a point. NFL teams would screw this up sometimes. My question is: If they could draft elite players earlier in their college careers, would teams be that much worse at drafting than they are now? We’ve seen plenty of quarterbacks rise as draft prospects in their third and fourth seasons in college and bust in the pros. Don’t forget that the way too early mock drafts had Justin Fields as the no. 2 prospect behind Lawrence in the class of 2020. In 2021, after an extra year of evaluation, scouts incorrectly jumped Zach Wilson and Trey Lance over Fields.

But this shouldn’t just be about NFL teams. We know how quickly football wears down the bodies of its players. Every hit, every broken bone, every concussion suffered by players brings them closer to the end of their football careers. We know that a running back has only a certain number of carries his body can handle in his entire football career. Why did Robinson have to take 258 of those at Texas this year, when his draft stock was essentially decided? How was that good for the NFL if the league benefits from stars having long, productive careers? How was that good for the NFL team that drafts him if playing an additional year of college football didn’t make him a better player? And how was it good for Robinson? How was it good for anybody besides the University of Texas?

Under the long-standing NCAA amateurism model, the argument for having players turn pro ASAP is an ethical one as well. Although NIL money does exist and can be quite lucrative for a handful of college athletes, it’s nowhere on par with the cash first-round picks get paid. The NFL’s rule keeps players from maximizing the amount of money they can make before the game catches up to their bodies.

But college football has changed a lot—and it will continue to change. The NCAA keeps racking up legal losses like it’s a team tanking for the no. 1 pick. And even if we imagine a world where college football is forced to treat players as employees, what would be the benefit of forcing pro-ready players to stay in school? College football would just be a pro league that is worse at developing players and gives them lower salaries. `

Of course, the NFL’s current CBA runs through 2030, and the league and the NFLPA are unlikely to take any action before then. So we’ll wait. We’ll spend years knowing what the correct outcome should be, but we can’t do anything about it yet. Just like we ask the best football prospects alive to do every single year.