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Underdogs And Longshots, Get Ready: This May Be The NFL Draft For You

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In sports, everybody loves a long shot, an underdog. This year's NFL draft, underway tonight, might just be full of them. Way fewer college players have entered this year's draft than usual. And guys who might not have been household names or the hot prospects in previous years are now front and center - older players, ones who played at smaller colleges. So what gives? Kalyn Kahler writes about the NFL for Defector. She's here to explain. Welcome to the program.

KALYN KAHLER: Hi, Audie. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So you have a great quote in this story where an NFL scout says that they're going to be - and their words are - lots of absolute slaps this year. I'd never heard this term. First, what is a slap, and why are we going to see more of them this year?

KAHLER: A slap is a reject player. This was a scout's term to sort of describe a guy who probably wouldn't get drafted next year who is probably going to get drafted this year. The reason we're seeing this is because the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility because of the coronavirus's effect on college seasons this past year. Every player can come back for an extra season, and a lot of them chose to do so. Most teams have a front board, where they list all their draftable players. And they also have a back board, where they list who might be the priority free agents who are going to sign in undrafted free agency. And these scouts are telling me that backboard group is 20 to 30% smaller. And they're having conversations about 150 fewer players, which is pretty significant.

CORNISH: Let's talk about why because coronavirus really upended things in college, I mean, just for, like, regular students. So what did this season look like? And why would players decide to take that risk - right? - to go back to school rather than to try to go pro?

KAHLER: The effect of coronavirus on the college season was multifold. Some seasons were shortened. Some were even postponed to the spring. But I think for a lot of players, just the uncertainty, that is what kind of sold them on coming back. And I talked to one agent who was recruiting. He mentioned he was recruiting four players who he thought for sure would be top-100 picks. And he said all four of them decided to go back to school. And when I asked him why, he said, well, the college coaches really out-recruited me this year. I really think they were selling them on the prospect of we're going to have a normal college season, and you can improve your draft stock.

CORNISH: You write about someone who you call the poster child for this tiny class, Kenny Randall.

KAHLER: Yeah. So Kenny is 25 years old. He's a defensive tackle. He played at University of Charleston, which is in West Virginia, Division II. He normally would be too old to be drafted because...

CORNISH: At 25. Let's just underscore this for the audience.

KAHLER: At 25. I know. I know. He's very young for the regular world, but for NFL world, that is like the age most players are getting to their second contract. This guy in a normal year is probably not going to be drafted because he's elderly in the NFL. In this year's draft, it's especially weak at defensive tackle to begin with. So he already has that going for him. And his age is going to be less of a factor because there's just less guys to be competing against.

CORNISH: Going forward, what does this mean? If you were that kid who decided I want to go back to college for an extra year, try my luck next year, what does that mean for your prospects then?

KAHLER: I think it's not going to be as easy as coming out in this draft. A lot of the agents I spoke to said, when they were recruiting players, they were actually trying to make that point to them. But I think the numbers just weren't available for these guys to really see the big picture because I checked with the NFLPA at the beginning of April to see how many players had signed a contract with an agent. And that's a pretty good representation of who is entering this draft class. And there were only 657 as of the first week of April. Typically, there's 1,800 or 1,900 players who are signing with agents every year. So it's a big drop-off. And I just think the players, at the time that they were making this decision, which for a lot of them was probably January, early February, they just didn't have the grand scope of information that we have now of seeing how much smaller this class really is.

CORNISH: That's Kalyn Kahler. She covers the NFL for defector. Thanks so much.

KAHLER: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Casey Morell (he/him) is an associate producer/director of All Things Considered.

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