Andre Ellington was sitting in his dorm room trying to forget about what had happened the previous night against West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
The Clemson running back, still stinging from the Tigers’ 70-33 loss, had just finished unpacking and was thinking about grabbing a quick nap when his phone buzzed. It was Jeff Davis, Clemson’s assistant athletic director for player relations and external affairs.
A month earlier, the former Berkeley High School star had sent his paperwork to the NFL’s Draft Advisory Board, and Davis had the results.
“I was a little nervous, I wasn’t sure what grade I was going to get,” Ellington said.
Ellington, a junior, was mulling over his decision to return to Clemson for his senior season or leave to enter the NFL draft. The board’s grade would have a significant impact on his future.
“I didn’t have a specific grade I was looking for,” Ellington said. “If I was going to be a first-round pick or a seven-round pick, I was still going to talk things over with my family and my coaches. I wasn’t going to rush into a decision.”
Davis told Ellington, who had a history of injuries throughout his career at Clemson, that he was projected to be a third-round pick.
“I was a little disappointed, but it did make my decision a little easier,” Ellington said. “If I had been projected to go in the first round, it would have been tougher for me not to go to the NFL”
The NFL began to let underclassmen apply for the draft in 1989, but quickly discovered that agents, college coaches and the media were often wildly off base about the draft potential of players. On draft day, most underclassmen quickly learned that they were not the first-round picks they were told they would be, and almost half went undrafted. According to the NFL, 76 of the first 165 underclassmen to enter the draft were never even selected.
As a result, in 1994 the league created the NFL Draft Advisory Board to evaluate college underclassmen and give them an unbiased opinion of their draft potential. The board is made up of player personnel directors and general managers from around the league.
Greg Gabriel, who worked in the NFL for nearly three decades, served on the board for six years while he was the director of college scouting for the Chicago Bears.
“The league as well as the colleges wanted to get the players proper information so that the player could make an intelligent decision as to either leave school early and enter the draft or go back to school for another year,” Gabriel told the NationalFootballPost.com.
In the beginning, just a half-dozen NFL teams took part in the process. However, as more and more players sent in their paperwork, the board expanded to include every team in the NFL, plus two combine services — National and Blesto.
On average, about 140 to 160 underclassmen file their paperwork and about 50 to 60 end up entering the NFL draft.
A record 65 underclassmen declared for this week’s NFL draft, breaking the old mark of 62 set in 2006. Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck and Baylor’s Robert Griffin III, both juniors, are expected to be the first two players selected. A year ago, eight of the first 10 players, including top-pick Cam Newton, were underclassmen.
From the beginning, the NFL has encouraged colleges to be involved when players submit their paperwork to the board.
“The league wants the schools to be involved so that the school has an idea of who may be planning on leaving early,” Gabriel said.
Most of the time the school’s director of football operations files the paperwork on the player’s behalf.
At South Carolina, that falls to Jamie Speronis.
“There’s really not much to it,” Speronis said. “It’s one sheet. It’s a form letter that just asks for general biographical information, plus they ask for some game film. Your resume is really your game film.”
Ellington picked film from five games, including his 200-yard performance against Maryland and the ACC championship game against Virginia Tech.
When Ellington’s paperwork was received, the league assigned four teams plus the two scouting services to do the evaluation. In theory, four teams got together to come up with a consensus opinion and not an average grade.
“If the league does not feel they have a valid consensus, then they will have more clubs evaluate the player,” Gabriel said. “The league wants to give the player the most honest opinion they can.”
The results, which normally take about a month to get back, come in a form letter from the league and a player can get only five different grades:
1. You have the ability to be drafted as high as the 1st round.
2. You have the ability to be drafted as high as the 2nd round.
3. You have the ability to be drafted as high as the 3rd round.
4. You probably won’t be drafted in the first three rounds but you may be drafted in rounds 4 through 7.
5. You probably won’t be drafted.
“If player tells you that he’d be drafted in the second half of the first round or they’d be a high second-round pick, then they didn’t get evaluated,” Gabriel said.
Colleges are reluctant to give out specific information like height, weight, speed, medical issues and character on underclassmen. That kind of information won’t come until the NFL Scouting Combine, which is almost two months after the Jan. 15 deadline for when an underclassmen must declare for the draft.
“The process is a little backwards,” Gabriel said.
In 2006, USC cornerback Johnathan Joseph received a third-round grade from the board. But after a strong showing at the combine and at the school’s pro day workout, Joseph was eventually taken with the 24th overall pick by Houston.
“In general, I think the board does a very good job of predicting where a player might get drafted,” Speronis said. “But they can get it wrong, too. After the combine, the buzz around Johnathan just went through the roof and he ended up going in the first round. I think the board does the best job they can with the information they have at the time.”
Since 2000, 414 of the 593 underclassmen that entered the NFL draft were selected. A year ago, 43 of 56 underclassmen were picked, including eight of the first 10.
“We encourage our guys to file their paperwork,” Speronis said. “If a player is projected as a first rounder, we encourage them to go into the draft.”