How NIL Will Impact Future NFL Drafts: A Primer

You’ve probably heard all about NIL (name, image, and likeness) recently. The concept has greatly benefitted college players, who can now profit off their use in commercials, endorsements, etc. One thing you might not have been told is how the NFL Draft comes into play here. In this article, we’re going to take stock of the current draft landscape. Then, we’ll examine how NIL will impact future NFL drafts. Are draft classes going to get better or worse? How will the compositions of these classes change? Will teams have an easier or harder time picking good players? Read on for the answers to all these questions!

Current Draft Landscape

Experts have described the recent 2024 NFL Draft class as “top-heavy“. It was known to have plenty of talent at the top, but it was also incredibly deep. This past year was unique in that we saw a glut of players who were granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In essence, a bunch of 6th-year seniors and other players who started school after that year was granted all ran out of eligibility simultaneously. Therefore, we had an overflow of talent, leading to a class with both elite players at the top and values to be had over the course of all three draft days.

That was atypical even before COVID. Most classes usually have one or the other: stars at the top or depth. This is mostly a result of randomness. Certain players break out and declare for the draft simultaneously in many years. Other times, you have a lot of guys who are solid starters but not generational talents. As we’ll soon see, that first scenario (a very top-heavy draft) is likely to become the norm, perhaps in an even more extreme form.

What Does NIL Have to do with Players Declaring for the Draft?

Let’s illustrate this idea with an example. Suppose we have a player at a random position (say CB to make this concrete) who is a college junior with a 5th-round grade from evaluators. In past years, this player might have jumped to the NFL for several reasons, with the main motivator being money. Many players need the money provided by a rookie contract, so instead of going back to school, they go pro. With NIL deals available, that calculus completely changes.

Now consider the idea of that example player having one or two NIL agreements that handle his immediate financial needs. The player would be far more likely to stay in school to develop further and finish his degree. On a nationwide scale, what would the effect of that be? By my estimation, you’d see more 5th-year seniors in the draft pool. That would in turn lead to older draft classes with players who are more polished than those in years past. However, as more finished products, they probably wouldn’t have as much upside as their younger counterparts.

How Will NIL Affect the Early Rounds of the Draft?

This is one aspect of the draft that is unlikely to change. Elite talent is still going to be elite. Players who satisfy the NFL’s age requirement will still leave school early if they become projected first- or second-round picks. NIL pays a lot, but probably not enough to forsake a $16.1M guarantee (I’m just basing that on the 16th pick, i.e., the middle of the first round). The earlier you get into the league, the more earning potential you have because of an extra year on the back end of your deal.

The early rounds have already been trending toward younger players as teams chase high ceilings. That may accelerate further because of the dynamic we discussed above. However, some older players will still be taken as always. Think about QB Bo Nix, who had a stellar 6th season and rose all the way to #12 this April. At the most premium positions (think QB, DE, and OT in particular), age will not be a deterrent; the best prospects are still getting drafted early.

How Will NIL Affect the Late Rounds of the Draft?

Here’s where we will likely find the most dramatic impact. I’m afraid that “top-heavy” description I keep mentioning is something we all need to get used to. Elite talent is already scarce, but that becomes even more true if players hold back on declaring for the draft in hopes of becoming one of those highly coveted prospects. That suggests a trend toward to distinct groups of players. In the first group, you’ll have the top tier of players like we’ve always seen. Starting somewhere in the mid-rounds, we’ll switch to group 2, which is expected to include inferior prospects to those you’d acquire on day 3 today.

Unfortunately, even though a bunch of players will stay in school to improve, that doesn’t mean even the majority of them will actually become better prospects. Providing teams with more tape can be a double-edged sword: they love to see what you can do, but they can also examine your flaws. Instead of a gradual declining trend in prospect quality over the course of the draft, we’re likely to encounter what I call a “talent floor” somewhere in the mid-rounds. I define the talent floor as the point at which the last of the first group of prospects come off the board and we experience a steep drop-off.

From a practical perspective, teams may find it prudent to pool picks and obtain earlier selections. For instance, swapping two 6th-round picks for a 5th-rounder might be a good idea if the talent level in the class is projected to plummet after the 5th round. Forward-thinking teams can win this trade by moving up into a completely different prospect tier, taking advantage of stubborn teams in the process. On a related note, we’ll definitely need to update our draft charts to account for this strategy.

Draft Chart Example

In this example, we assume that after the 150th pick, there is a tenfold drop in draft value. The plot on the left shows the draft values for picks 120-210 according to the Chase Stuart chart. The plot on the right shows the same range of picks but includes our adjustment.

This is a VERY oversimplified scenario. Much research will need to be done to determine where we expect that talent level to drop and how much that drop is likely to be. I only hope that this visual representation will be helpful for conveying the main idea.

Is it Going to be Easier for Teams to Pick Good Players?

This isn’t an easy question to answer because general managers are humans, and human behavior is tough to predict. What we can do though is think about this theoretically. If we operate under the assumption that in most cases we’ll know more about the average player entering the draft, then it should indeed be easier to evaluate them. The larger your sample size is, the more confident you can be in your conclusions. Just based on what we know now, evaluations of 5th-year seniors are typically more accurate than those of underclassmen.

Importantly, the idea of an easier player selection process is not guaranteed. We have plenty of older prospects already, some of whom have started 50+ college games. Selections still go awry. Players who checked every box in college might not translate to the pros. Team fit matters too, as a prospect’s situation can have as much of an impact on his career as his own ability. Therefore, while it should be easier to pick good players, I don’t know that it will be easier in practice.

Bottom Line: Is This All Good or Bad?

I think we can safely say that this new paradigm should be mostly good. Players definitely win, as they can make money while staying in school. That means we’ll see more players finish their degrees while also entering the NFL with more experience and skill. Teams should also benefit, as they’ll see larger bodies of work for the players they scout. In turn, GMs will be able to make more informed decisions before handing in their draft cards.

The one thing we know for certain though is that this is completely uncharted territory. College football is forever changed, and the sport is morphing further still. Players can guide their futures in ways they never could before, and it’s on teams to adapt to this new landscape. Whether someone thinks this is good or bad depends greatly on their position. It’s definitely different, and the one way to truly know how NIL will impact future NFL drafts is to see what unfolds in the years ahead.

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