It’s a tradition unlike any other, especially since it’s a tradition that could end in any given year.
Via Max Olson of TheAthletic.com, 49 of 144 players who left college with remaining eligibility went undrafted in 2019.
As noted last night, for some of the players who quickly signed as undrafted free agents (like Bills quarterback Tyree Jackson), not being drafted is arguably better than being picked late in the process. Still, more than a few of the guys who could have kept playing college football decided to stop playing college football in order to play pro football, and now they may never will.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that more college football would have made them any better. (For some reason, it’s typically assumed that more college football makes a player into a better pro prospect; there’s a chance he’s as good as he’s ever going to be.) But it does mean that it’s too late for them to return to playing for no pay, even though they’ve officially gotten no pay to play.
So why wouldn’t college football let players test the waters and then return to college football if they aren’t drafted, or if they don’t like where or how low they went? First, that approach would cause more players with remaining eligibility to roll the dice and possibly leave, thinning the ranks of college football. Second, it would make NFL teams potentially squander draft picks on guys who then say “no thanks” to playing under a low-round contract for a low-rent team, and return to school in the hopes of landing in a higher slot and/or with a better team a year later.
The current system works for college football and pro football because it forces players to make an “all-in” decision, prompting plenty of them to choose to stay put. Then, each year, the NCAA and the NFL can point to the guys who made the James Holzhauer Daily Double move and lost in order to scare future players with remaining college eligibility to continue to bust their asses — and risk their necks (and the rest of their bodies) — by playing football for free.