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Why are so many college football players sitting out bowls? Just look at the numbers

It’s no longer new for players to skip bowl games. Now there’s contract data to back up a point that was already simple.

West Virginia v Oklahoma State Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

The trend of players skipping their teams’ bowl games to prepare for the NFL draft has continued into 2018 and arguably strengthened. Big names like Houston’s Ed Oliver, West Virginia’s Will Grier, South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel, and Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry announced before their teams’ bowls that their college careers were over.

Players in New Year’s Six bowls are doing the same, with at least three Michigan Wolverines not playing in the Peach Bowl. It’s not even just a bowl game thing at this point. Ohio State’s Nick Bosa announced midseason that he wouldn’t attempt to battle back from injury just to play in college games again.

Since LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey sat out bowls after the 2016 season and made a lot of people feel a lot of ways, the topic’s lingered. Both of them wound up as top-10 picks the following April, and more and more players have followed suit in not playing these postseason games.

Football is a business, even though players aren’t paid until the NFL. Sitting out a bowl game is about protecting millions of dollars.

The trend-setters in 2016 still got lots of money. These were their deals after sitting out bowls, despite whatever worries people voiced about those decisions:

  • Fournette: $27.1 million, including a $17.1 million signing bonus
  • McCaffrey: $17.2 million, including a $10.7 million signing bonus

You could argue playing a bowl game (or any number of other games) is a bad idea with that money on the line. It’s especially risky if a player’s dealing with an injury, like Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers was when he made the late move in 2016 not to play in the Orange Bowl before the Browns made him a first-rounder.

In 2017, more players sat out bowls. The NFL proved more than willing to pay them a lot of money, again:

  • Ohio State first-rounder Denzel Ward: $29.2 million, including a $19.3 million signing bonus
  • NC State first-rounder Bradley Chubb: $27.3 million, including a $17.9 million signing bonus
  • UCLA first-rounder Josh Rosen: $17.84 million, including an $11 million signing bonus
  • FSU first-rounder Derwin James: $12.4 million, including a $7.1 million signing bonus
  • Louisville first-rounder Jaire Alexander: $12.1 million, including a $6.8 million signing bonus
  • Texas second-rounder Connor Williams: $5.5 million, including a $2 million signing bonus
  • Oregon third-rounder Royce Freeman: $4 million, including a $997,000 signing bonus
  • LSU third-rounder Arden Key: $3.57 million, including a $834,000 signing bonus
  • Texas third-rounder Malik Jefferson: $3.6 million, including a $923,728 signing bonus
  • Texas’ sixth-rounder DeShon Elliott: $2.6 million, including a $157,800 signing bonus

The simplest way to understand these decisions might just be to look at the deals. Rosen, Key, Elliott, and James were among the players who’d had public, recurring medical issues during their time in college. All of them made sure they were positioned to get paid.

It makes sense that getting hurt in a bowl could cost a player lots. Again, it helps to just look at some numbers.

Former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith tore his ACL and LCL in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, and it cost him several million dollars:

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.

Smith had no regrets in public ...

... but a lot of players might.

And in the 2017 draft, former Michigan tight end Jake Butt had to wait until the No. 145 pick by the Broncos, in the fifth round. Butt tore his ACL in the Orange Bowl, which surely affected his stock:

Butt would be potentially the second or third tight end in these rankings. He had to sit out the combine and Senior Bowl while a player like Howard dominated both events. Because of his knee injury Butt may not make an immediate impact in 2017.

The fourth tight end picked that year, South Alabama’s Gerald Everett by the Rams, signed a deal worth just more than $6 million, which included more than $2.5 million to sign, per Spotrac. Butt signed for about $301,000 out of a deal worth up to about $2.7 million.

He’d just won the Mackey Award as college football’s top tight end, but seven TEs got picked before him.

“There are a lot of people who question these kids and say, Hey you are getting a free education, you need to go out there and take the field for your school,” Butt told Sports Illustrated in a recent interview. He added:

“But you can look at stories like me and Jaylon and realize that is not the case. You have to do what is best for you. A lot of the kids sitting out are in a position to change their lives, their family’s lives, and their future family’s lives. In college you are playing for free, for the love of the game and for your teammate. What happened to Jaylon and me, it brings to light some of the decisions these college players go through. this is going to be their first big life decision. Am I playing in this bowl game or not? Because that can really affect your future.”

At the end of the day, it’s pretty clear that NFL teams will still pay players plenty of money if they sit out of bowl games, injured or not.

If they play and get hurt, though, that money can vanish instantly. Would you risk it?