Carolina Panthers

2015 Senior Bowl: How many are ready to make the leap to the NFL?

Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage believes last year served as a cautionary tale for underclassmen considering leaving college early in hopes of making it big in the NFL.

Thirty-seven of the 102 underclassmen who declared early last year were not selected in the 2014 NFL draft. The total declaring this year was sliced to 84, marking the first time in seven years that fewer underclassmen declared for the draft than in the previous year.

“I think there were some second thoughts for players who were on the fence that decided to go back to school,” Savage said Monday at the Senior Bowl’s introductory news conference.

Last year, 98 underclassmen and four players who graduated early opted to leave college for the NFL, more than double the 46 underclassmen who left school early in 2009.

This year there are 74 underclassmen and 10 early graduates.

While some will be well prepared for the NFL and taken in the first or second rounds of the draft, others will go to the league ill-equipped for the professional level.

Savage pointed to the limitations in college football practices that have decreased players’ opportunities: The 20-hour rule by the NCAA means players can practice no more than 20 hours a week, and spring practices have been cut back to just 15 days – and there rarely are any more two-a-day practices in college.

“The playing-experience resume is about that thick,” said Savage, holding two fingers just inches apart, “compared to someone 15 or 20 years ago. There are so many more limitations now on the number of repetitions and the idea of improving at your craft.

“I think the talent – the height, weight, speed of these players – is good or better than it’s ever been, but the actual technique of playing football might be as bad as it’s ever been.

“That’s the balance in terms of when are you ready to make that jump into the NFL.”

The proliferation of underclassmen entering the draft coincides with more athletes leaving high school a semester early to get on a college campus sooner. Savage called it “punching the clock” earlier, meaning players can get started sooner on their mandated three-year window between high school and the NFL draft.

Because of that, the Senior Bowl began allowing early graduates to attend the all-star event despite having another year of eligibility.

Of the 10 early graduates entering the draft, three are in Mobile. Auburn wide receiver Sammie Coates is one, and he hopes to show teams he’s a smooth route-runner who can be more than just a vertical threat, as he looks to raise his draft stock from a second-round selection.

“Any time I get a chance to compete against some of the top players in the country, I’m going to do that,” Coates said. “I’m the type of guy where, if you think you’re one of the best in the country, I want to go against you.”

But Coates will need his quarterbacks to trust that he can catch passes in tight windows – something NFL scouts will be watching for closely this week.

As colleges run spread offenses that rely on shotgun formations and quick releases, the NFL is still dominated by traditional offenses that operate mostly from under center and go against various defensive coverages.

“It’s easier to read and the cut the ball loose in college than in the NFL, where they might do a play fake, turn their back to the line of scrimmage and now picking up the coverage that might have changed,” Savage said.

“A covered receiver in college is actually an open receiver in the NFL. That’s the biggest adjustment.”

Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty came to the Senior Bowl in hopes of becoming the No. 3 quarterback in the draft behind Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.

But Petty has to show he’s more than just a system quarterback that thrived in Baylor’s high-tempo spread offense.

With the Titans’ coaching staff leading the North squad, Petty will spend the week playing under center to show his versatility for scouts.

“As far as knocks on our system go, it’s that I can’t drop back and I can’t play under center with five-step or seven-steps, that I can’t read defenses or go through progressions,” Petty said. “All the things that I might not have had to do at Baylor. Unfortunately, it is a knock, but at the same time that’s what I was told to do and I tried to do it to the best of my ability, which is exactly what I want to do in the NFL.”