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2024 NFL Draft: Fewest underclassmen declare in over a decade

The economics of college football explain the trend, but only 58 underclass players were early entrants in the NFL’s 2024 draft class.

UCLA v USC Photo by Ryan Kang/Getty Images

According to Andrew Groover, a producer for the NFL Network, only 58 players have declared early for the 2024 NFL draft class. This shouldn’t be a shocking surprise, as this number has been dropping over recent seasons, but it is a stark difference when compared to the volume of early entrants even four years ago.

58 early entrants is the fewest number of underclass declarations since 2011, the first season in which the league implemented the rookie wage scale — which limited how much money top draft picks could ask for from franchises. From 2011 to 2021, the number of early entrants steadily rose to 130 in 2021. Then, the numbers came crashing down.

Why? First of all, there was a backlog of players who continued their eligibility in college football due to the NCAA’s ruling that the 2020 “Covid season” would not count against student-athletes’ career clocks. Secondly, name, imagine and likeness (NIL) was approved by the NCAA in July of 2021, allowing student-athletes to profit from their performance on the field — even if it’s vaguely masked as simply the ability to market themselves.

The bar chart above shows the year-by-year volume of early entrants into the NFL draft. As you can see, the numbers were fairly flat from 2004 to 2010 before a steady increase in declarations from 2011-2021. In the mind of athletes, and agents, what’s the point of staying in school if the NFL limits your earning opportunity over the first four years of your professional contract? The goal then changed to second contracts in the league.

There was a dramatic drop between 2021 (130 entrants) to 2022 (73), though, largely due to NIL. Ever since, that number has decreased to the 58-player pool that was announced today.

Below is a full list of the early entrants into the 2024 NFL draft class, including where underclass players are currently ranked on the consensus draft board.

2024 Early Entrants

Rank Player Pos. School
Rank Player Pos. School
1 Caleb Williams QB USC
2 Marvin Harrison WR Ohio State
3 Drake Maye QB North Carolina
4 Malik Nabers WR LSU
6 Brock Bowers TE Georgia
7 Joe Alt T Notre Dame
10 Dallas Turner LB Alabama
12 Kool-Aid McKinstry DB Alabama
15 Nate Wiggins DB Clemson
16 J.C. Latham T Alabama
17 Keon Coleman WR Florida State
18 Amarius Mims T Georgia
19 Cooper DeJean DB Iowa
21 Chop Robinson DE Penn State
22 Terrion Arnold DB Alabama
23 Brian Thomas WR LSU
29 Kamari Lassiter DB Georgia
31 J.J. McCarthy QB Michigan
32 Kamren Kinchens DB Miami (FL)
34 Troy Franklin WR Oregon
35 Adonai Mitchell WR Texas
36 Leonard Taylor DT Miami (FL)
38 Xavier Worthy WR Texas
39 Kalen King DB Penn State
40 Kingsley Suamataia T BYU
45 Byron Murphy DT Texas
49 Jackson Powers-Johnson C Oregon
51 Ja'Tavion Sanders TE Texas
52 Jeremiah Trotter LB Clemson
54 Ennis Rakestraw DB Missouri
56 Calen Bullock DB USC
58 Ja'Lynn Polk WR Washington
60 Javon Bullard DB Georgia
65 Jonah Elliss DE Utah
68 Jonathon Brooks RB Texas
71 Michael Hall DT Ohio State
72 Maason Smith DT LSU
75 Kiran Amegadjie T Yale
87 Mekhi Wingo DT LSU
88 Bucky Irving RB Oregon
91 Braelon Allen RB Wisconsin
93 Junior Colson LB Michigan
94 Blake Fisher T Notre Dame
95 Audric Estime RB Notre Dame
97 Will Shipley RB Clemson
98 Cole Bishop DB Utah
110 James Williams DB Miami (FL)
112 Jaden Hicks DB Washington State
123 Sione Vaki DB Utah
126 Roger Rosengarten T Washington
180 Trevin Wallace LB Kentucky
200 Austin Booker DE Kansas
285 Jaylen Wright RB Tennessee
366 Carson Steele RB UCLA
515 Cam Little K Arkansas
593 Ajou Ajou WR Garden City C.C.
895 Jaden Shirden RB Monmouth (NJ)
- Arland Bruce WR Oklahoma State

Out of the 58 players to declare “early”, 50 of them are ranked among the top 126 players on the consensus draft boards’ rankings. Long gone are the days when players were told to declare if they had any chance of being drafted by the NFL, simply for the sake of a signing bonus. Now, the vast majority of underclassmen to declare are expected to be drafted within the first four rounds of the draft — the same standard as it was around a decade ago.

Does that mean that these draft classes are weaker, though? Not in the mind of Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst, who has stated on multiple occasions that these post-”Covid year” draft classes provide value to teams in the later rounds. As he’s explained, the backlog of players with remaining eligibility in college football allows the team to pick through even more talent per draft class, be it an underclassman or not. For example, young players like cornerback Carrington Valentine — a junior declaration who was picked in the seventh round by the Packers in 2023 — can still be found as diamonds in the rough.

Over the last two years, Gutekunst has drafted 24 players via the draft system, and the Packers are expected to have 11 draft choices in 2024 — following the trade of cornerback Rasul Douglas to the Buffalo Bills. The post-”Covid year” era should hold steady until the 2026 draft, by which point sixth-year redshirt seniors should be the last class, in mass, to have received an extra season of eligibility by the NCAA.

If you want an example of how odd the eligibility rules have been lately, just look at receiver Ajou Ajou, an “early” declaration in this draft class out of Garden City Community College. Ajou originally signed with the Clemson Tigers in 2020, spending two years with the program before transferring first to South Florida in 2022 and then to Garden City in 2023. He’s a fourth-year player but is treated like a redshirt sophomore in the eyes of the NCAA.