Early NFL calls show strength of LSU’s talent

Scott Kennedy has heard it.

While recruiting, some college coaches make a pitch to prospects pledging to lead them to the Promised Land — the NFL — as soon as possible: after three years.

The pitch, Kennedy said, goes something like this: “If you’re not gone in three years, we’ve failed you.”

“I’ve heard coaches tell players that,” said Kennedy, Scout.com’s national director of scouting.

This time of year, their message is far different.

Across the nation, college coaches are spending hours of their time trying to convince draft-eligible underclassmen to return for their redshirt junior or senior seasons.

For many highly ranked prospects, college has become a brief stopover en route to something far more grand. Professional football is overflowing with more riches, perks and freedom.

More players are making the early leap to the NFL than ever before. For the fourth straight year, the draft will include a record number of underclassmen, according to early entrant reports from national outlets.

At least in the past half-decade, LSU leads the pack. The program has had more underclassmen enter the draft in the previous five years than any other Southeastern Conference team. And at least four more players are leaving early this year.

Receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are expected to join defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson as official early entrants. They would add to a growing list.

Excluding this year’s crop, a combined 17 LSU underclassmen declared for the 2009-13 drafts. The next closest SEC team is Alabama with 13.

“It says a lot about the riches they have,” said Bucky Brooks, an analyst for NFL Network.

LSU’s number is somewhat skewed. Of the 17, a national-record 10 left early last year in a movement known in Baton Rouge simply as “the mass exodus.”

Still, LSU had seven underclassmen depart from 2009-12. That’s more than the five-year total of eight SEC teams.

Why is this becoming such a trend at LSU?

And will it continue?

If it doesn’t, analysts say, that won’t bode well for the Tigers.

Proof is in numbers. The most successful programs have had the most underclassmen leave early — at least in the SEC.

Over the past five years, LSU (17 underclassmen), Alabama (13), Florida (11), Georgia (11) and South Carolina (eight) lead the list. At the bottom, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Mississippi State each had just one underclassmen leave early since ’09.

But why is LSU at the top? That’s simple, said Kennedy and Rob Rang, a draft analyst for CBSSports.com.

“Louisiana is a hotbed of talent,” Rang said.

“You’re recruiting NFL-level talent,” Kennedy added.

Kennedy said Louisiana, Georgia and Ohio are the most fertile recruiting states in the nation when factoring in the ratio of Division I signees to Football Bowl Subdivision teams. LSU is the only major-conference Division I school in the state.

Louisiana’s ratio of Division I signees to Division I schools is about 80-to-1. That neared 100-to-1 before Hurricane Katrina forced families to out-of-state places like Houston.

“A lot of these guys are finished products, so (you) just don’t mess them up,” Kennedy said.

“The state of Louisiana just produces an extraordinary amount of talent,” Rang said.

Being the lone major program in a talent-rich state is far from the only reason the Tigers seem to lose a host of underclassmen each year. This is happening everywhere.

About 80 underclassmen have declared for the NFL draft so far this year. That is nearly twice the number of players who declared early just five years ago.

Gil Brandt of NFL.com expects 100 underclassmen to declare by Wednesday’s deadline.

LSU’s total of four early entrants is tied for the second-most with South Carolina, Clemson and Florida. Southern California has five early entrants.

According to a story from The Post and Courier of South Carolina, 70 percent of underclassmen who have entered the draft since 2000 were selected.

The first six picks of last year’s draft and the first 19 of 32 selections were underclassmen.

Lately, a somewhat disturbing trend is beginning, analysts say: Third-year sophomores are entering the draft.

NFL rules state that a player must be out of high school for three full NFL seasons to enter the draft. Those who redshirted their true freshman season — like LSU right guard Trai Turner — are eligible.

Turner is weighing his options. He joined a company that trains players for the NFL Combine.

Six sophomores have entered the draft in the past two years.

“It used to be that, if you’re a redshirt sophomore, it was pretty rare that you’d come out,” Rang said.

“I don’t know if it’s a good thing for the NFL,” Brooks said. “You’re getting a lot of underdeveloped players.”

Another factor for the wave of early entrants: the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement, which restricted the amount of money on rookie contracts. That was a way for the NFL to encourage college players to remain in school “to preserve the delicate relationship with the folks who run the NFL’s free farm system,” Mike Florio wrote in a recent post on profootballtalk.com.

The new rookie wage scale, though, has had the opposite effect. To get larger contracts, a player must have at least three years in the NFL.

“And so it now makes sense to get to the NFL (as soon as possible) and to put in the time necessary to get the second contract,” Florio wrote.

Identifying the reasons for so many early departures, specifically at LSU, is easier than spotting solutions for the issue. Brooks said LSU already knows the solution and is doing it: continue to recruit NFL-worthy talent.

“I think coaches understand the climate of today’s kids, the climate of the NFL landscape,” he said. “They are recruiting knowing, after three years, they’ll (leave). That’s why they go after four- and five-star guys to keep the cupboard full.”

That’s evident in the Tigers’ hard push for guys like St. Augustine running back Leonard Fournette, the nation’s No. 1 recruit — and an LSU commitment.

Just don’t expect him to stick around long.

“If Leonard Fournette is playing in his fourth year,” Kennedy said, “something went wrong.”