When Brian Kelly introduced the Notre Dame recruiting class of 2014, he did not mince words when it came to recruiting players whose only priority is making it to the NFL as quickly as possible – they don’t fit the profile he and his staff are looking for.
On the heels on losing three juniors to the NFL – an unprecedented number of early departures for Notre Dame – Brian Kelly made it a point to mention that he is not looking to recruit players who do not make earning their degree from Notre Dame a priority.
“When we were having this opportunity to recruit a young man, they had to have a passion for wanting to get a degree from Notre Dame and winning a National Championship,” Kelly said. “If they want to come here just to hang their hat to play football and go to the NFL, we passed on some pretty good players, because I don’t want guys to come here and not finish their degree.”
What exactly is Brian Kelly looking for in the recruits he and his staff target? “I want guys to come to Notre Dame, get their degree, help us win a National Championship, and be the No.1 pick in the NFL Draft. That’s what I want, if that’s what they want.”
That profile sounds a heck of a lot like Zack Martin – a player that embodies those qualities to a tee. Even before Notre Dame’s disappointing showing in the 2013 BCS National Championship, Zack Martin announced that he would be returning for a 5th year at Notre Dame instead of heading to the NFL even though he had a chance to leave with a year of eligibility remaining if he wanted to.
Martin wouldn’t have been a first round pick in the 2013 Draft. He might not have been a 2nd rounder either, but he definitely would have been picked within the first three rounds and would have earned a NFL paycheck this past season instead of anchoring the Notre Dame offensive line during a disappointing 9-4 season.
The money Martin didn’t earn in 2013 though looks like it will be paid back to him and then some. After finishing his fourth season as the starting left tackle for Notre Dame, Martin has seen his draft stock skyrocket following an impressive week of practice at the Senior Bowl where no other prospect helped himself out more than Martin.
Martin is now projected as a first round pick in just about every mock draft you can find. In some cases, Martin has moved his way into the top 20 ahead of early departure defensive end Stephon Tuitt in many instances. That ascension up draft boards will be a prime example for Brian Kelly to use for years to come when juniors or even senior with eligibility remaining are mulling over early exits for the NFL – especially if current draft projections for Notre Dame’s three juniors who entered the draft hold true.
StephonTuitt was ranked as a top 10 pick in most mock drafts throughout the season, but has since been sliding down most mocks to the point that he is no longer considered a first round lock. Tory Niklas has been pegged as a likely third round pick by most draft experts. George Atkinson will be a late round pick, if he is selected at all.
Now, a lot can change between now and May starting later this month with the NFL Scouting Combine, but right now it is looking like all three could have significantly improved their draft stocks with another season in college – something Kelly said that he needs to do a better job of communicating that to his players last week. “The NFL is a different‑‑ that’s a different model in the sense that I just have to do a better job of educating our own players on the NFL and what it means to be a first‑round draft pick versus a second or a third. When an agent says let’s play for your second contract, how ridiculous that is.”
For those unfamiliar with the NFL game, the “play for your second contract” argument from agents is that players should leave early to start earning money and then cash in with their second contract. The problem with that argument now is that players are not able to renegotiate their rookie contracts until they have completed three years in the league.
Take Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson for instance. Wilson just led his team to a Super Bowl victory in his second season a year after leading them to the divisional round of the playoffs as a rookie. Ten years ago a former third round pick like Wilson would be cashing in right now with a huge, multi-year deal this off-season. Instead, Wilson will earn just over $660,000 as a starting quarterback in 2014 which is more than $8 million less than Mark Sanchez is scheduled to make.
Coming back for a 5th year at Notre Dame, however, has put Martin in a position where that shouldn’t be a problem for him three years from now. Should Martin get picked around #21 overall like former Notre Dame great tight end Tyler Eifert was in 2013 (an area in which he is currently projected in many mock drafts), his first NFL contract would be worth about 8.5 million over the first four years. The total value of Wilson’s rookie deal is $2.99 million over four years.
Up until this year, keeping underclassmen in school wasn’t an issue for Brian Kelly or Notre Dame. Michael Floyd, Manti Te’o, Louis Nix, and Martin all returned to Notre Dame despite having the opportunities to leave after their junior seasons. After losing three juniors to the NFL this year though, having an example like Martin to point to to future juniors and seniors who can return for 5th years should make it easier for Kelly and company to keep those players on campus for their senior seasons allowing them to complete their degrees on time increasing their earning potential both on and off the field in the process.