Is Staying In School Longer the Secret to a Great NFL Career?

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More college football players than ever are leaving school early to test their mettle in the NFL, but at least a few pro teams are starting to think that experience and intelligence is just as important as, if not more than, freakish athletic ability.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Philadelphia Eagles are one of several NFL teams that are explicitly targeting players who have already graduated or are on track to graduate from college when gathering rookies for their roster. Those that skip their final years of school to enter the NFL get a slight downgrade, even though players who come out early are generally considered the most talented among their peers.

Six of the Eagles' seven picks at the NFL Draft this year are on track to graduate, reflecting a clear goal of head coach Chip Kelly, who was himself a long-time college coach. "Number one, I think it shows you the intelligence factor, and number two, it shows that they’re committed to establishing goals and following through on their goals," Kelly said on ESPN, according to ProFootballTalk. "It shows you what we’re looking for here, that combination of mental toughness and that high football intelligence." Commitment, intelligence, and also athletic skill, of course.

Seahawks Richard Sherman, college grad. (AP/Elaine Thompson)

While the focus on picking seasoned college graduates makes some logical sense, the data defending that conclusion is decidedly slim. Former coach Tony Dungy, for one, cites the dominant Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots teams of the early 2000s, which were heavy on college graduates. Of course, they also had Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, two of the best quarterbacks in NFL history (and both four-year players.) Dungy also claims that college graduate are more likely to earn a second NFL contract, suggesting that maturity leads to longer careers. Kelly said he was influenced in his thinking by conversations with Dungy.

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Eagles general manager Howie Roseman reached the same conclusion by studying players on the final four teams remaining in the NFL playoffs each year. In that limited sample size, he found that those teams had higher rates of college graduates on their roster. (Reminder: correlation ≠ causation.) Thus he and Kelly began their vendetta against non-graduates.

As Grantland's Chris Brown points out, the emphasis on education likely has more to do with learning methods than graduation rates. The Journal specifically cites the experience of Eagles' 7th-round pick Beau Allen, who is expected to graduate from Wisconsin. During pre-draft interviews with various NFL teams, only the Eagles peppered him with questions about his toughest classes, learning methods, and academic passions. Allen revealed that he learns better when he writes things down on pen and paper. When he arrived at Philadelphia last week, coaches provided him with a paper notebook in addition to the standard tablet computer, to help facilitate quick learning of the playbook.

There are plenty of confounding variables at play here that could make a college graduate more successful than a drop-out. (Fourth and fifth-year seniors are also likely to get more playing time in college.) But it's a generally good life lesson: ignore Peter Thiel, and stay in school.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.