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NIL opportunities leave smaller pool of late-round NFL draft prospects

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — Most of the focus leading up to the NFL draft will be on the potential franchise quarterbacks and other first-round talent, but some NFL teams may find slimmer pickings when it comes to the later rounds.

Now, players with less lofty draft stock can still return and collect name, image and likeness money for another season -- basically a guaranteed paycheck -- sometimes using their extra COVID year. And that's a big reason why a modest 58 underclassmen declared for the draft, the fewest since 2011 (56).

It was evident to Jim Nagy when he was building out the Senior Bowl roster. There’s plenty of talent at the top, especially with three-year juniors eligible for all-star games like Saturday's Senior Bowl for the first time, but fewer strong options down the line.

“It was really unique. Rounds five through seven on our board got wiped out in the month of December,” said Nagy, a former NFL scout and current Senior Bowl executive director. “We’ll see what it looks like in April. NIL is a great thing for the players, an awesome thing, but it does have an effect on the draft, whatever that may be.”

He expects plenty of movement with NFL teams trading late-round picks to stock up for next year, or trying to move up into the first four rounds.

NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah agrees that NIL will impact the depth of prospects for the April draft. He thinks that’s a positive in many ways for players, their college teams and maybe for NFL teams who get more fully developed prospects, just a year later.

“They can go back and help themselves financially, get better, get more development,” Jeremiah said. “So it works for them, it works for the colleges. Obviously they keep their better players on campus.

“For the NFL, eventually you get an easier evaluation because there is more tape to go off of, there is a longer career, there is a bigger track record. I think in the long term, everybody wins.”

The NIL impact is here to stay. The extra COVID year is phasing out.

Tennessee Titans general manager Ran Carthon thinks the ripple effect of fewer juniors could be a boon for seniors who might otherwise have gone undrafted.

“In the past, we have usually a high number of early entry juniors that get drafted, which kind of pushes the senior talent down,” said Carthon, whose team has the No. 7 pick. "I think this now brings senior talent back into the pool because there are some guys that are quote-unquote undrafted free agents that are worthy of these later round picks. "

“But just because of the sheer number of people that are in there, they just get pushed out. So I think no matter what, you're going to always be able to find value in all those rounds.”

He also thinks getting those seniors adds both an element of experience, and that the NIL gives incoming prospects more financial literacy.

“We're not getting guys that are coming to our level that are being exposed to money for the first time,” Carthon said.

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AP Pro Football Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.

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AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football