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.
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.