Is it a one-year anomaly, the tip of the iceberg, or somewhere in between?
That’s the question NFL scouts and college football coaches are asking themselves in the wake of an NFL Draft that saw two players who had decided not to play in their college teams’ bowl games selected within the first eight picks. And not just players, mind you, but running backs Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey, who play a position that had been sparsely selected in the first round and hadn’t sniffed the top five much in recent years until Ezekiel Elliott came on the scene in 2016 and was drafted with the fourth overall pick.
Conversely, Michigan tight end Jake Butt was thought to be, at worst, a Day 2 pick, which means the second or third round of the draft on Friday night, until he tore his ACL in the Orange Bowl for the Wolverines against Florida State. Instead, he fell to the Denver Broncos in the fifth round.
Butt’s injury comes on the heels of an even more highly-publicized injury the year prior when Jaylon Smith, considered a lock as a top-10 pick coming out of Notre Dame, suffered a horrific injury in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, which led to him not being picked by the Cowboys until the top of the second round. His recovery and future prospects are very much still in doubt, although, thankfully, there have been some encouraging signs recently.
If you don’t think a lot of college players — and maybe more importantly, their future agents — saw that and are already thinking about the decisions their clients will have to make next winter, you are delusional.
So where does that leave us moving forward when it comes to prospects deciding whether or not to sit out bowl games — and perhaps even more — as they attempt to assess the cost-benefit analysis of whether or not it makes sense to play in these contests?
“Whatever it might be, there’s not a right and wrong answer,” NFLPA president and Bengals offensive lineman Eric Winston told the MMQB recently, “It’s a business decision that needs to be made and shouldn’t be made because ‘Oh they paid for my school’. It’s gotta be made because it’s the right decision for you going forward. And let’s face it, there’s another side to this. The schools could be giving out insurance policies to all these guys much bigger than they are right now.”
A strong argument can certainly be made that it is not a wise business decision for a college player who has already established himself as a first-round draft pick to play in a college bowl game at that point. In fact, it’s probably not real smart to play at all. Did Fournette and McCaffrey really help their causes in 2016 or had they already established their lofty draft status after their terrific 2015 campaigns? Along those same lines, does it even make sense for Penn State’s star running back Saquon Barkley, considered a likely top-five pick in the 2018 draft, to play at all this season?
“I think bowl games are the tip of the iceberg,” former NFL agent and Packers exec Andrew Brandt told me on the Ross Tucker Football Podcast. “Will it go into the season? Will guys skip their third year altogether? I don’t know about other positions but it certainly feels like those will be considerations for running backs for sure.”
The issue for a lot of these players, however, is that most of them are not yet comfortable looking at it from a strictly business standpoint because there is more to it than that. ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit made that point when I spoke to him recently on SiriusXM NFL Radio:
“I’ve talked to a lot of NFL guys about this, and I understand the injury concerns, but everybody I talked to wondered how you could do that to your boys that you’ve been with for so many years. Like, ‘Guys, I’m out.’? I don’t know how you do that.”
Herbstreit’s perspective is a good one. As a 38-year-old who has two daughters and played seven years in the NFL and broke bones, tore knee ligaments, had back surgery and herniated a disc in my neck that bruised my spinal cord and ended my career, I have a tendency to look at it almost exclusively through the business side of it. It’s hard not to.
But what about when I was 21 years old? The idea of feeling like I was ditching my college teammates in our last opportunity to play together would be extremely difficult to deal with, no matter how understanding they may be. Those are some of my best friends, and over four years you develop extremely close relationships.
“I would play,” former Alabama national championship quarterback Greg McElroy told me, “I would want to be with my teammates that I had been with the entire year. I understand why those guys did what they did, but I couldn’t do that.”
Only time will tell how prevalent this trend becomes. It feels like unless you have the excuse of an injury like Fournette, who missed four other games with an ankle injury, or a father with a terrific grasp of the business of football like McCaffrey, it will ultimately be a decision that players and their soon to be agents needs to make.
Will other positions start to follow suit? Will guys sit out more than just the bowl game?
I know what I’d do now as a 38-year-old, but I honestly don’t know what I would have done as a 21-year-old.
Deep down, I’m not sure a lot of them do either.