May 27, 2024
How the NFL views the NIL era: ‘This whole draft landscape has changed’

How the NFL views the NIL era: ‘This whole draft landscape has changed’

The bright lights and quarterback debates will be there as always when the NFL Draft starts Thursday night. But something’s different this year, which will become more evident as the rounds turn and we get into Day 3 on Saturday.

Only 58 underclassmen have declared for this week’s draft — down from 130 players in 2021 and the smallest number of underclassmen since 2011. For those in NFL circles, the introduction of NIL money is a clear factor.

“It’s crazy to fathom that some of these guys made more money in college than they will in the NFL,” Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur said.

Players started signing marketing deals after the Supreme Court’s 2021 ruling that collegiate athletes are entitled to payment for their “name, image and likeness.” The pandemic-shortened season in 2020 has also played a part in players staying in school, as they were granted an extra year of eligibility. And then the NCAA allowed players to transfer without sitting out a year.

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NIL payments are not public figures, but most players who will be selected in the top three rounds this week have money in the bank now. USC quarterback Caleb Williams, the projected top pick to the Chicago Bears, has been estimated to have earned around $10 million while in school. He may be an outlier, but NFL coaches are noticing a difference in their interactions with draft prospects in the NIL era.

“You look for the guys that have that look in their eye,” Las Vegas Raiders coach Antonio Pierce said. “You can really feel it, and you can also see the guys that are entitled, that have NIL money, which is an issue because they come in privileged. They have money in the bank.

“When I came in the league, I was broke. These guys already got goddamn jewelry on and the Louis Vuitton rocking already.”


Las Vegas Raiders coach Antonio Pierce wants to see players enter the NFL with the same type of competitive edge that he possessed. (Steve Marcus / Getty Images)

Pierce wants players with an edge, and he feels that already having money in the bank from college might affect how hard they are willing to work to crack a starting lineup in the NFL. Compounding that problem, Minnesota Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell said it’s harder to know how players respond to adversity when so many hit the transfer portal at the drop of a hat.

“They already have money in their pocket, so you see some guys not going as hard in the pre-draft process,” agent Ron Slavin said. “And no one is eating those packs of ramen noodles anymore.”

The NFL minimum salary for a rookie in 2024 is $795,000. Players who are drafted sign standard four-year deals — contracts for first-round picks also include a fifth-year option — that are scaled based on the draft slot. The slotted deal for the No. 1 pick — presumably Williams — is $38.5 million over four years. By the start of the second round, the four-year value dips to under $10 million. From about the fourth round on, players make an average of roughly $1 million per season on their rookie deals.

And that’s where there appears to be a huge drop-off in player quality in this year’s draft.

“Clubs are saying that this is a really good draft through 150 picks, and then after that it falls off a cliff,” agent Steve Caric said.

New York Giants general manager Joe Schoen said Thursday that, according to the team’s assistant director of player personnel, Dennis Hickey, 170 players with draftable grades returned to school this year.

“Because of COVID partly and NIL, this whole draft landscape has changed,” Baltimore Ravens GM Eric DeCosta said. “There’s less draftable players, less underclassmen.”

“All those guys stayed in school for NIL money,” Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said. “You’re going to see teams drafting players late that they usually sign as priority free agents.”

Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said players he has been scouting for years still are not in the draft.

“It’s a supply and demand issue,” he said. “Defensive line was apparently a big issue in college, and a lot of those guys got a lot of money to go back to college. And so that’s gonna affect our league and the depth of that position and different things.”

NFL teams will likely spend the run-up to the draft looking to package fifth-, sixth- and seventh-round picks and move up.

“We’ve talked about the idea of, (in) the later rounds of the draft, if there’s nobody there that you covet, potentially trading that pick for a better pick,” DeCosta said.


The feeling around the NFL is the quality of draft prospects drops after this year’s fourth round, in part because so many players elected to stay in school. (Michael Wade / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Jason Belzer, the CEO and co-founder of Student Athlete NIL (SANIL), manages more than 30 booster collectives for some of the bigger Power 5 schools.

“I think the NIL has affected the NFL considerably, but for the better,” Belzer said. “You have more and more players that are choosing to stay in college football and develop and get paid, rather than go into the draft. There are multiple quarterbacks that made over a million dollars that are not going to get that kind of money because they’re going to be late-round picks. The NIL is the best thing that ever happened to the NFL when it comes to development.”

He estimates that 40 college players made more than the 2023 minimum NFL salary of $750,000, with a lot more making $500,000, including a tackle projected to go in the sixth round this week. Belzer said that roughly five players per Power 5 roster make more than $100,000.

For late-round picks who aren’t guaranteed to make the roster, the decision to return to school can be quite easy.

“Getting drafted is a significant honor no matter where you go — even the sixth or seventh round — but if you’re a seventh-round pick, you’re getting, like, a $90,000 signing bonus, and that’s the only guaranteed part of your contract,” agent Eugene Lee said. “Compare that to a school where you have a front-line starter at a P4 school and you say, ‘Hey, come back! We’ll give you $350,000.’ It’s just like, ‘OK.’ You take out a loss-of-value policy and there you go.”

The later-round prospects simply are taking advantage of a chance to have their cake and eat it too.

“A fourth-round pick, for example, has a chance to go back to school and get better, move his draft status up and then make more money next year,” Caric said. “And as insurance, he can make what he would make with a Day 3 signing bonus thanks to NIL and coming back to school.”

More collegiate experience can be a good thing, especially at the quarterback position. Jayden Daniels played in 55 games at Arizona State and LSU, almost double the number of games North Carolina’s Drake Maye played in (28).

“We don’t have a minor league, and those extra years is maybe a couple of minor-league years,” Adofo-Mensah said. “And that also depends on where they’re playing and the system, how relatable that is to our game.”

The Vikings, who hold picks Nos. 11 and 23 in the first round, could trade up to fill their quarterback need or just stay put and use their first pick on the best player available and the latter pick on someone like Oregon QB Bo Nix. Nix played a whopping 61 games at Auburn and Oregon and thinks his experience gives him an edge over the other potential first-round quarterbacks.

“Repetition is the mother of all skill, so the more you can do something, the better you become at it,” Nix said at the combine. “I was able to prove that as the years went on, getting better and better, learning new things, playing in different systems — five in five years is a lot, but that’s a lot of fun. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Nix is 24 years old, which could impact his perceived upside.


Bo Nix’s age (24) could work against him in the draft process, but he thinks his experience is a benefit. (Zac BonDurant / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing if you come out a little bit older — and maybe even a better thing,” Raiders GM Tom Telesco said. “You’ve got more experience under your belt, more maturity at that position. Other positions, it may or may not matter.

“Typically as a scouting staff, we always say we’d like a younger player because the guy has a chance to develop, maybe has a little bit more ceiling. Is that true or not? I’m not really sure. But I do know that we’re going to have some players coming in the league that have good experience and may be ready to play a little bit earlier than maybe in times past.”

Nix could have entered the draft last year but stayed for a chance to win a national championship and had the cushion NIL allows.

That experience edge might only hold for quarterbacks, though.

“I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had in the last couple of weeks where I ask a club about Player A or Player B; the older age is always a minus,” Caric said. “They obviously want to draft someone they’re going to have for more than one contract. When you come into the league at 24 years old with these super-senior years, that’s not as attractive as the 21-year-old.”

Alabama offensive tackle JC Latham was able to enjoy a different college lifestyle than previous players but said the extra money also helped him prepare for the NFL.

“It definitely has you grow up,” Latham said at the combine. “You gotta understand that you’re getting more money now, so there’s gonna be a bigger target on your back.”

It can also help players learn to manage their money before their first NFL rookie camp.

“If you want to create more wealth for yourself and your family, you gotta really understand how to maneuver it and manage it,” Latham said. “Definitely puts you in the mindset to really understand what’s going on around you and how (you can) create your wealth early.”


All these players staying in school have to come out at some point, so the number of draftable players will grow again next year.

And GMs and coaches still need to draft good players to keep their jobs — owners don’t want to hear an excuse about the NIL impact after another losing season.

“I do think — especially in the early rounds — it’s a very good draft,” Denver Broncos GM George Paton said.

And though the NFL can wring its hands a bit about NIL, it doesn’t change how it watches a player’s game tape and decides who to invest in.

“It hasn’t changed our preparation that much,” said first-year Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Macdonald, a former defensive coordinator at Michigan. “I was ready for it since we had it down back at Michigan.

“The only thing is that some of these players are going to have to take a pay cut to play in the league.”

— Staff writer Tashan Reed contributed to this report.

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(Top illustration: Dan Golfarb / The Athletic; top photos of Roger Goodell and Caleb Williams: Rich Graessle / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images and Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

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