Entering NFL Draft, Chiefs + other teams are learning it can pay to stay in school

This week’s NFL Draft marks a shift in the age of prospects. There are 58 early entrants, the fewest the league has seen since 2011.

From 2016-2022, more than 100 early entrants — players three years removed from their high school graduating class — had entered the draft.

Brett Veach knows why.

“This is just the NIL effect,” the Chiefs general manager said.

Colleges athletes can profit from their name, image and likeness. Those numbers aren’t public. The NFL minimum salary for a rookie in 2024 is $795,000. An NIL deal might not approach that figure, but it could be good enough for the player to remain in school and perhaps improve his draft stock.

This is making the 2024 draft “older” than previous editions over the past decade. To Veach, that will be especially evident in the middle to late rounds.

“Typically when you’re working through the fourth, fifth and six rounds,” he noted, “there’s always interesting prospects and small-school guys.”

But now the Chiefs and other NFL teams are seeing those candidates as older players.

“They have the opportunity to stay in school,” Veach said. “So we have to work a little bit harder to find some young guys with upside that you really like.”

NIL became policy with a Supreme Court ruling in 2021. In the ensuing NFL Draft, held in April 2022, 100 underclassmen entered the draft, 28 fewer than the previous year. The number dropped to 82 in 2023.

Among the underclassmen in this year’s draft, which begins on Thursday, are Missouri cornerback Ennis Rakestraw, Jr. and Kansas edge Austin Booker.

Also affecting the profile of this year’s draft is the extra year of eligibility granted to college players because of the COVID-shortened 2020 season. It’s paid, figuratively and literally, for athletes to stay in school.

The Chiefs have found great value in the later rounds of recent drafts, especially on defense. Cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, a standout who was assigned to the opponent’s top receiver, was taken in the fourth round of the 2019 draft out of Louisiana Tech. Sneed was traded to the Tennessee Titans last month for a third-round pick next season and a swap of seventh-round picks this year.

Joshua Williams was a 2022 fourth-round selection from Fayetteville State. In the same draft, the Chiefs selected Justin Watson in the seventh round from Washington State. Both were part of the Chiefs’ Super Bowl-champion defensive rotation the past two years.

They weren’t early entrants. But they were part of a deeper draft pool .... which, according to Veach, improved the overall quality of the draft class in which they each was selected.

“When you have a ton of underclassmen putting their name in and decide to (leave college) that makes every draft deeper,” Veach said. “When guys are staying in (college), it’s going to make the draft a little tougher to work with on the back end.”