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It is hardly coincidence. The 2014 NFL draft class that is considered the most promising in at least a decade includes a record 98 underclassman who received special eligibility, plus another four prospects skipping their final college season after earning degrees.

You would leave early, too, if you were Jadeveon Clowney, Johnny Manziel, Greg Robinson, Sammy Watkins or some other surefire first-round pick.

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With an unavoidable rookie salary cap awaiting, the countdown to free agency and the really big money of a second contract begins sooner by coming out early — a point undoubtedly driven home by agents during those I-sure-would-love-to-rep-you chats.

The collective bargaining agreement struck in 2011, which funneled more cash toward veterans at the expense of rookies, has ensured the increasing wave of juniors will continue, whether they are ready or not.

"It's disappointing," Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, chairman of the league's competition committee, told USA TODAY Sports this week.

In five years, the number of underclassmen in the draft has more than doubled. There were 46 such entries in 2009.

And even with a college advisory board that provides not-always-sterling feedback to prospects about their draft stock, the trend isn't going away.

"I've heard the argument about the CBA, but I don't buy it," McKay said. "There's a big change for (the pay scale of) the first five picks, but for players picked after the first round, there's really no change."

What surely hasn't changed is the allure of pro football, which can be balanced by the reality that careers can be very short. For some, waiting might be detrimental to their draft status.

Take the case of Blake Bortles, a strapping, 6-4, 230-pound quarterback from Central Florida whom some compare to Pittsburgh Steelers star Ben Roethlisberger. High-profile draft analysts rank him as a top-10 pick, though like many young quarterbacks he is a classic project. Yet instead of remaining under coach George O'Leary for a year of refining, he leaped.

It's tough to blame him. Two colleges recruited him as a tight end, and now he might be the first quarterback selected. Had he returned to Central Florida and regressed, they would not be talking about Bortles next year as a top-10 pick.

Then there are guys like Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri. He tore an anterior cruciate ligament in October and projects as a mid-round pick. Why is he in the draft as an early entrant?

"It was a tough decision," Sunseri told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday. "I just felt like now that I've been able to progress so well with my knee, this would be the perfect opportunity."

Sunseri, who visited the Seattle Seahawks this week, is headed to Indianapolis today for the medical recheck of prospects. He thinks the most significant questions about his knee were answered at his pro day workout.

Still, he might have improved his stock for next year by staying at Alabama.

"For me, it's never been about the money," he said. "It's about the love of the game."

No doubt, that is a widespread chorus. But for the record-breaking number of underclassmen — last year's record of 73 was shattered this year — the number of early entrants who are not drafted keeps rising, too.

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In each of the past two drafts, 21 of the early entrants were not selected. It's a matter of supply and demand.

"I'll bet there will be 20 or more players this year who will be late-round picks or free agents, without a degree in their hand or a heavy investment by the team that signs them," Phil Savage, an ESPN analyst and former Cleveland Browns general manager, told USA TODAY Sports. "What happens to those players when they cycle out of the league after a year or two?"

The hope is they would have a degree to fall back on.

The reality is that too many college players shut it down academically while anticipating an early entry in the draft.

Savage also serves as executive director of the Senior Bowl. He is projecting that the most recent all-star showcase in Mobile, Ala., included perhaps four to six seniors who will wind up as first-round picks.

A few years ago, that number might have been a dozen. It's another sign of the times.

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