Eli Lucero, The Herald Journal via Associated Press
Utah State tight end Dax Raymond, left, catches a pass as New Mexico State defensive back Ray Buford Jr. (1) defends during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP)

SALT LAKE CITY — The day before the NFL draft began, Dax Raymond, a tight end from Utah State who surrendered his senior year to declare for the NFL draft, was optimistic about his prospects. “Sixth round worst case,” he said. “If I went in the seventh, I’d be surprised. If I went undrafted I‘d really be surprised.”

He went undrafted.

Raymond had good reason to believe he would be drafted, which is why he moved to California for two months this winter to work with professional trainers. He was ranked as high as sixth and seventh among tight ends by CBS and USA Today, respectively.

He had seen dozens of mock drafts on the internet that predicted he would be drafted. Agents told him he would be drafted anywhere from the third to the sixth round. He had been invited to the Senior Bowl and the NFL combine, signs that he was considered worthy of being drafted. Based on all of the above, Raymond gave up his senior year to declare early for the draft.

Even as the three-day draft was underway, he received calls from teams telling him that they were going to choose him in a certain round. The Ravens and Saints called him, among others. Still, his name wasn’t called.

Players who weren’t invited to postseason all-star games or the combine were drafted; 15 tight ends were taken in the draft. But not Raymond.

He was one of the record 144 underclassmen who left school early to declare for the draft, and one of 49 who went undrafted. This phenomenon repeats itself every year, yet every year more and more underclassmen declare for the draft.

It really wouldn’t matter if they were allowed to return to the college game, where they could raise their draft stock and/or finish their free education. But NCAA rules mandate that once an underclassman declares for the draft past a certain deadline, his eligibility ends.

There are plenty of reasons to think this is unfair. NCAA officials justify some of their rules by saying they don’t want student-athletes to receive treatment not available to other students (therefore, coaches can’t buy a pizza for their athlete). And yet, if a regular student left school to prepare and apply for a job, he could return to school in his course of studies if he didn’t get the job.

The NCAA boasts that it is all about “student-athletes” earning their degrees, yet it won’t allow them to reclaim their scholarship and return to school if they are undrafted.

You might think that coaches are outraged by this situation. They’re not. Gary Andersen, the Utah State head coach, says that if undrafted underclassmen were allowed to return to the college game it would cause problems. As he explains it, “That would make it impossible to correctly and fairly manage the following for (players) in the program: The 85-scholarship count, the current year’s initial recruits, and the current year’s walk-on slots. Also, the number of student-athletes who would test the (draft) would rise dramatically if they were given the opportunity to return when not getting drafted, which would inflate the issues stated above.”

It is revealing when Utah coach Kyle Whittingham says, “I really have no opinion on whether or not they should look at the (underclassmen) rule. Pros and cons on both sides of it. It has never been a point of discussion in any of the coaches meetings that I have been involved with (and that’s a lot of meetings).”

Yet it has been an issue in college basketball. After 41 of 80 underclassmen were passed up by the NBA draft last year, the NCAA decided to allow underclass basketball players to return to the college game. Why the different treatment for basketball and football players?

“It’s a good question, and I don’t have a good answer for you,” says Whittingham. “Maybe the timing of the respective seasons and their respective drafts. Maybe because a basketball player can come out after one year, compared to three years in football.”

Similarly, Andersen says, “No idea on that one. It might have to do with the timing in regards to basketball signing periods.”

Even aside from the NCAA’s ban on their return, leaving school early for the draft is risky and unpredictable for players. Even players taken in the later rounds of the draft face a tenuous situation. They receive little or no guaranteed money and they can be cut any day. For players on the bubble, it’s a guessing game.

The NFL has tried to remedy the situation by creating a college advisory committee to evaluate draft prospects for underclassmen. Apparently, it does not work — not when 34 percent of the underclassmen who officially declare for the draft go undrafted. The advisory board consists of NFL general managers and personnel directors. Even they don’t know who will be drafted.

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It leaves players in a difficult position. Raymond, who signed a three-year free-agent contract with the Chicago Bears this week, says he would not return to school even if he were allowed, but it is likely most players would choose to return so they could at least build their draft stock with another college season. Every year about one-third of the underclassmen are undrafted. The best they can hope for is a free-agent tryout, but the odds are against them making the team and when that happens their careers are finished, with no hope of returning to the college game.

It’s a big gamble, one more and more players are willing to take.