Clay, others are NFL outcasts

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Rick Gosselin
Thursday, May 5, 2011
— John Clay was the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in 2009 when he led the conference in rushing with 1,517 yards. He followed that up with a 1,012-yard season in 2010, helping power his Wisconsin Badgers to the Rose Bowl.

Clay decided he was ready for the NFL and elected to skip his senior season to enter his name in the 2011 NFL draft. But he won’t be turning pro any time soon.

The 6-0, 230-pound battering ram of a ball carrier went undrafted last week. The 32 NFL teams decided there were 254 better options than spending a draft pick on Clay. But he had company.

Of the 57 underclassmen who filed for early admission to the 2011 draft, 14 were not selected.

Because of the lockout, NFL teams were not allowed to sign any college players after the draft as free agents. So Clay and those 13 other underclassmen remain unattached. They can’t go back to school for their senior seasons, and no NFL teams want them, at least not for now.

Clay’s Wisconsin coach, Bret Bielema, was in New York attending the draft as a guest commentator on the NFL Network. Auburn coach Gene Chizik also was at the draft to witness the snub of one of his players.

Butch Davis of North Carolina and Brian Kelly of Notre Dame also made appearances at the draft, sitting on the NFL Network set, and Nick Saban of Alabama and Les Miles of LSU spent Thursday at the draft in support of their players.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had the chance to speak with all six of the college coaches.

“I ask them what their No. 1 issue is, and they say the agents, to a tee,” Goodell said. “They can’t control them, which scares the heck out of them.”

The college coaches think the NFL could be on the verge of addressing that problem with a rookie salary cap. which is one of the key elements in negotiations between the owners and players for a new collective bargaining agreement.

In theory, if the NFL limits the money teams can spend on unproven rookies, they’ll have more money to spend on proven veterans.

Last season, even though he had yet to play an NFL down, the St. Louis Rams gave quarterback Sam Bradford, the first overall pick of the 2010 draft, a $78 million contract with $50 million of it guaranteed.

Fewer millions earmarked for rookies could slow down the parade of underclassmen into the NFL. Less money means less incentive to jump. That translates into less control of the players by agents.

Most of the underclassmen who declare expect to be high draft picks. But only 15 of the 57 who declared in 2011 became first-rounders, and only 12 more became seconds.

That means about 30 players probably would have been better off returning to college in 2011, finishing out their eligibility and working to improve their draft stock for 2012.

Since the NFL opened its doors to underclassmen in 1990, there have been 932 players who have applied for early admission to a draft. Only 241 became first-round draft picks. That’s less than 26 percent of them.

In hindsight, plenty of players would have — or should have — elected to return to college rather than become a fourth- or fifth-round draft pick, or even go undrafted like Clay.

Mack Brown of Texas was the first college coach to attend the draft in 2010 and even announced the selection of his quarterback, Colt McCoy, by the Cleveland Browns in the third round.

Such an appearance at the draft became a recruiting tool. So six more coaches showed up in New York in 2011, and the NFL will continue to invite more college coaches from around the country to future drafts.

It’s a think tank Goodell will continue to tap.

“I firmly believe we’re all focused on the best interest of football,” Goodell said. “Everything that affects us affects them, and vice versa. If we do a better job together we can help one another.”

Last updated: 5:18 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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