What Is the NFL 3-Year Rule?

The NFL implements a three-year rule that governs eligibility for the NFL draft. What is the three-year rule, and how does it work?

The path to the NFL is a grueling one for college football players. Not only do the best of the best at the collegiate level need to train at near-professional levels, but they must do so and perform at the height of their game for several years before even being draft-eligible.

What is the rule that governs how long players need to wait before being eligible to enter the NFL draft, and how does it work?

What Is the NFL 3-Year Rule?

The three-year rule establishes that all NFL prospects must be three years removed from high school and have used up their collegiate eligibility to enter the NFL draft.

According to NFL Operations, “underclassmen and players who have graduated before using all their college eligibility may request the league’s approval to enter the draft early.”

Ensuring that this rule is complied with is not a routine task that is to be taken for granted. “Before the draft, NFL Player Personnel staff members confirm the eligibility of draft prospects; that means researching the college backgrounds of approximately 3,000 college players each year.”

This procedure involves hundreds of people across the nation’s top football programs and their NCAA compliance departments. The league also ensures that only draft-eligible players who meet the necessary requirements are allowed to participate in pre-draft all-star games such as the East-West Shrine Bowl and the Senior Bowl.

MORE: Why Does Roger Goodell Get Booed at the NFL Draft?

The same NFL Player Personnel staff is also responsible for reviewing the applications of underclassmen who submit to enter the draft early. “Underclassmen have until seven days following the NCAA National Championship Game to declare their intentions to do so,” according to the league.

For example, in 2017, 119 players had applications approved to enter the NFL draft either as underclassmen or as players who hadn’t yet used up their collegiate eligibility.

The NFL’s three-year rule received some increased media attention in 2015 when Les Miles, then the head coach at LSU, said that some college football players are ready for the NFL after just one season.

Take former Ohio State star wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba as a recent example. Did Smith-Njibga, who erupted for 1,606 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in his second season with the Buckeyes but barely played in his third due to injury, really benefit from remaining at the collegiate level for a third campaign? In many circles, he was considered a surefire first-round prospect after Year 2.

Despite this reality, there are a number of reasons the NFL might consider in refusing to alter its current policies, including potential pressure from collegiate programs that generate huge profits from their star athletes and the benefits NFL teams earn from obtaining increased information as college athletes put more reps on film.

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