As bowl season rolls around in college football, draft-eligible juniors have to make a pretty big decision: to stay for their senior season or declare for the NFL draft.
With that decision comes another, apparently: whether or not to play in your team’s bowl game.
This year, we’ve already seen a couple of players with high draft stocks opt out of the bowl games that their teams are set to play in. On Friday, LSU running back Leonard Fournette announced that he would not play in the Citrus Bowl against Louisville. A couple of days later, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey announced he would be leaving Stanford before the Cardinal’s game against North Carolina.
Given these two announcements coming pretty close to one another, it would appear that this could become a trend. As expected, there are some mixed reactions with this decision.
On the one hand, some believe that these players should finish the season out with their teams before preparing for the NFL draft. On the other, there is the belief that the decision is smart, due to the risk of injury that could alter the players’ draft stock.
Football is a dangerous sport.
Last year, Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith was expected to be a top-10 NFL draft pick — until about halfway through the first quarter of the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Smith suffered a gruesome knee injury, tearing both his ACL and LCL.
The injury greatly affected his draft stock. Instead of having his name called within the first hour of the NFL Draft, he fell to the second day, and was taken at No. 34 overall by the Dallas Cowboys.
Smith ended up signing a four-year deal with the Cowboys, one with a $2.9 million signing bonus that is worth roughly $6.1 million. It’s still a solid amount of money, but had he been taken, say, third, his contract in total would be close to $26 million, per Pro Football Talk. Smith was fortunate enough to get insurance money, which will pay $900,000. All in all, this money is nowhere near what he would’ve made if he would’ve sat out of the Fiesta Bowl.
Fournette and McCaffrey presumably saw what happened to Smith last year.
Both have dealt with injuries this season.
Fournette’s ankle injury caused him to miss five games, and almost six, had he not been motivated to suit up against Florida after some pregame chippiness. Fournette registered just 12 carries for 40 yards that game and did not travel for the Tigers’ season finale against Texas A&M.
McCaffrey, who finished second in last year’s Heisman Trophy voting, missed Stanford’s game against Notre Dame in the middle of this season after suffering an undisclosed injury vs. Washington State. Head coach David Shaw described him as “banged-up.”
Their teammates aren’t mad:
The whole team supports @CMccaffrey5 in everything and anything. Hes been a leader to this team through the easy times and tough times.— Trenton Irwin (@trenton_4) December 19, 2016
So, if an already injured player at a position like running back, where players rapidly lose value by taking hits, wants to protect himself from injury and not risk losing millions of dollars, can you really blame him?
This is an especially competitive draft class for running backs.
Potential first-rounders like Fournette and McCaffrey face intense competition, including each other, with millions of dollars at stake.
Another sign this is a deep class of backs: Georgia’s Nick Chubb is returning to school for 2017 despite entering 2016 as a potential Heisman Trophy contender.
Another running back with a projected high draft stock is Florida State’s Dalvin Cook. The Noles will take on Michigan in this year’s Orange Bowl, one of the six biggest bowls. Cook is expected to play against the Wolverines despite suffering injuries in his career and projecting as a high pick, were he to declare early. If Cook were to sit out, the chances of Florida State beating Michigan would go down significantly.
Some GMs will think it’s smart for players to manage their health. However, perhaps some who might not like the idea of players sitting out will approve if a player like Cook or Pitt’s James Conner has an impressive bowl game.
How much do these bowl games really matter, anyway?
For Stanford and LSU, really not all that much. LSU has already announced it is sticking with Ed Orgeron as its next head coach, so it’s not like this Citrus Bowl game vs. Louisville is a must win. Orgeron also said he supports Fournette’s decision. Given Fournette didn’t play in LSU’s previous game, there’s a chance Fournette may not have even been able to play.
Stanford’s Sun Bowl game against UNC isn’t all that important either — the Cardinal finished the season with nine wins, so getting to 10 wins would just be the cherry on top. Plus, there isn’t much a single game could do for McCaffrey in terms of raising or lowering his draft stock, unless he were to get injured.
Got a text from a coach. "If some coaches can skip bowls to get ready for their next job, how can anyone fault Fournette or McCaffrey??"— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) December 19, 2016
We’ve already seen the likes of Matt Rhule, Tom Herman, and Willie Taggart depart for new jobs prior to their teams’ bowl games. Why should it be any different for players who want to prepare for their next job a game early?
But what if these were New Year’s Six bowl games or even Playoff games?
These games actually matter. If a player ever sits out a chance at a national championship or a Rose Bowl title in order to protect his draft stock, then we’ll know this trend has really ramped up.
We see assistant coaches staying on with their old jobs to coach their teams in a Playoff game, even after accepting a new job. Herman did so at Ohio State, and Kirby Smart did so with Alabama last year, as Lane Kiffin is doing this year.
The bottom line is this: There are some games that simply matter more than others, which comes into play for both coaches and players who are moving on with their careers. If a player wants to forgo a single exhibition game to avoid risking his NFL career, where’s the harm in that?