Over a three-day, 259-pick period, not a single football player representing an HBCU was selected during the 2021 NFL Draft.
It was the first time since 2009 that dubious distinction had occurred.
Immediately after the draft concluded Black college stakeholders expressed explicit and candid frustration over the process that was unable to find a player worthy enough to be taken.
In a social media post two days after the NFL Draft, Jackson State Coach Deion Sanders — who has been on a crusade to highlight the inherent disparities and challenges HBCU football programs face compared to their FBS counterparts — made it clear he was not happy with the outcome.
“I witnessed a multitude of kids we played against that were more than qualified to be drafted,” Sanders wrote on Instagram. “My prayers are that this won’t EVER happen again.”
Other HBCU coaches also were disappointed in the draft results, too.
Grambling State head coach Broderick Fobbs told The Washington Post that are “plenty of guys” who have the talent to get picked “and should have been drafted.”
Troy Vincent, the NFL’s head of Football Operations since 2014, tweeted that the league and its partners “must accelerate our efforts for HBCU players to make the transition to the NFL.”
Minutes after the draft ended, Grambling tackle David Moore, Florida A&M tackle Calvin Ashley, North Carolina A&T cornerback Mac McCain and Mills signed free agent contracts.
“It’s All Good, God got me,” Moore said in response to a report that claimed NFL teams could not validate why he wasn’t drafted. “The Story is still being Written.”
Moore was invited to the Reese’s Senior Bowl and named practice player-of-the-week at his position during the week.
The key question remained, however, why were HBCU players seemingly overlooked?
Pandemic created a setback
One explanation is that non-FBS programs suffered from the pandemic, which wiped out the fall season, upended pro-day workouts, and eliminated opportunities such as the NFL Combine, regional combine, and postseason all-star games.
These outlets, current and former pro scouts say, often provide small school athletes a chance to be seen.
“It is because there weren’t many eligible to start with and without all the all-star games, full pro days, and combine there was less opportunity,” one veteran scout told HBCU Sports.
More than 40 players attended the first HBCU combine in April in hopes that it would help draft-eligible players.
Despite the effort, Black college players simply couldn’t overcome that the 2020 fall season ended up being canceled as leagues decided it was best to protect the health and safety of athletes, students, coaches, and communities with coronavirus still raging.
“A lot of HBCUs didn’t play,” said CBS Sports analyst and Football Gameplan founder Emory Hunt. “And a lot of players didn’t declare for the draft.”
The SWAC, for example, struggled through a seven-game spring season that was greatly impacted by COVID-19-related pauses. The MEAC — the only other FCS conference featuring exclusively HBCUs — suspended its spring season after more than half of its football-playing members opted out over virus concerns.
Also working against HBCUs was the draft pool for overall eligible talent.
An SB Nation article published just before the draft summarized the impressions of NFL personnel members and talent evaluators who were concerned the talent pool was “the smallest pool in NFL history.” Just 657 draft-eligible players were considered for entry this year.
One unnamed executive put it like this:
“The draft is weak after the third round or fourth round,” the personnel executive said.
That likely signaled that teams would lean toward drafting known commodities from FBS programs in the later rounds rather than take a chance on a player from a smaller school.
As a result, 58 percent of all players drafted came from a combination of the SEC, Big Ten, and ACC. The other chunk was made up of the other Power Five conferences, Group of Five leagues, and just eight total players from the FCS, Division II, and Division III ranks.
But David Turner, a board member of the HBCU Combine and former NFL scout, said the “draft math” just didn’t justify Black college football players being shut out despite anxiety over talent not being deeper than most years.
“But this year, when you have long snappers and punters and kids who have injury histories and character concerns all getting drafted — who in the past would have slid down because of those reasons — they’re getting drafted because they went to a big school,” said Turner, who explained that the reduced number of non-FBS players being selected has been a noticeable trend dating back to the last three drafts. “This year made no sense that an HBCU kid didn’t get drafted.”
‘Caught up in the numbers game’
Dave Van Nett, a longtime pro scout who also writes for the website NFL Draft Diamonds that specializes in spotlighting non-FBS talent, suggested that teams who sign small school players to free-agent deals instead of drafting them out-right do so out of “appearances.”
“As a GM in the NFL, everything is about appearances,” said Van Nett, who has scouted HBCU players over the years for the CFL. “GMs are trying to save face because they’re trying to save their jobs. Their draft picks are very particular.”
Van Nett characterized the draft process — particularly inside the so-called “War Room” on draft day — as a place where candid and harsh assessments are made about players.
“You would be completely shocked if you got to sit in a room during the draft,” he said in a phone interview with HBCU Sports. “I mean, it’s completely brutal. They pass up a ton of players that are phenomenal, but they have their sights on one.”
Teams are in the business of drafting the best available players, Van Nett said. NFL scouts do have eyes on players at the HBCU level.
However, it’s sometimes easier to sell an investment in a player from a high-level Division I school than an FCS or lower-division athlete.
“They want to save face and go with the Power Five kids first which isn’t fair,” he said. “It’s just the way it happened.”
Hunt, who routinely does college player breakdowns and produces mock NFL Drafts, gives credence to that possibility.
“Sometimes players just get caught up in the numbers game,” said Hunt, who thought McCain had the best chance to get picked from among the HBCU players available but instead likely didn’t because of concerns over physical attributes or injury history.
“They (teams) find ways to eliminate you from their process. That’s how the whole draft process works.”
And some scouts, said Turner, often do not take into account that many HBCU players come from programs that do not have adequate training facilities to prepare them for the rigors of the draft process when evaluating them.
“What my brethren fail to understand, because they don’t go to campus, is the lack of facilities — training tables, food that these HBCUs have at their disposal,” he said. “You have a mold of clay in the right body who, if he would have went to an Alabama, could have molded into a better body player but he just didn’t have the access.”
While the explanations might sound reasonable, critics point to drafted players who didn’t play in 2020 as a reason to further examine draft practices.
The justification for that lies in the perceived reputation of the school and the player.
One player that fits such a description was Cincinnati Bengals’ first-round pick Ja’Marr Chase. Chase, a wide receiver, only played two full seasons at LSU before opting out in 2020 ahead of what would have been his junior year.
For a player of Chase’s caliber, it all came down to what scouts had last seen — a player who dominated in college football’s best conference en route to being named a consensus All-American and Fred Biletnikoff Award winner in 2019.
“If you run low-4.3 and the last time we saw you play, you were making light work of (Clemson cornerback) A.J. Terrell who was picked in the first round, I think it’s safe to say you stood out pretty well,” said Hunt. “If you’re someone like Mac McCain … I think it was a case of out of sight, out of mind.”
Looking ahead to 2022 and beyond
All things considered, the 2021 NFL Draft was probably an anomaly. And there seems to be hope that draft-eligible players such as Alabama A&M quarterback Aqeel Glass will have his name called in 2022.
But next year’s draft ominously presents a different challenge. The draft pool is expected to significantly expand with all leagues at all levels of college football primed to play in the fall. Also, an influx of players who took advantage of the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility provision will be included in the mix.
This could mean that HBCUs automatically will not receive a significant bump in players drafted right away despite all the consternation about what transpired in 2021.
“You’re going to have such a large class so you may see the same thing for FCS/HBCU schools,” said Hunt. “You have so many Power Five prospects that are going to push some small school guys down again and some cases out.
“…By 2023 and on, you will see a significant jump in numbers for HBCU prospects getting drafted.”