Elite college prospects skipping their team’s bowl games was once a slow trickle. The flow has become more steady. Eight picks into Thursday night’s NFL Draft, the floodgates burst wide open.
The Jacksonville Jaguars selected LSU battering ram Leonard Fournette with the fourth pick. Four spots later, the Carolina Panthers jumped at the chance to get Christian McCaffrey. Both players sat out their team’s bowl games in December. Both players’ draft stock did not suffer. In fact, each running back went higher than most mocks projected.
This, of course, is great news for two of the most electric Saturday backs in recent memory. It is not great news for fans of college football who must come to grips with reality.
Unless a top player is on a College Football Playoff team, the risk of playing in an extra game far outweighs the benefit. The Willis McGahee injury should have sent the dominos in motion sooner but happened in a national title game. The sport was able to benefit from a decade-plus of risky bowl participation until Jaylon Smith’s Fiesta Bowl injury snapped players back to attention.
Public perception on sitting out postseason games is shifting. The argument that a player should play out of duty to his teammates is shaky in the wake of supportive teammates and coaches. Those million-dollar insurance policies aren’t the safety net many believe them to be.
And if a prospect’s stock isn’t going to plummet, then the critics will be armed with even less ammunition.
There will always be elite college athletes who want to pay in lower-tier bowl games. Most football players enjoy playing football and view one extra game as an acceptable gamble, even if there’s no benefit to their stock. In the near future, participation will be seen as a personal choice and declining may become the norm, not the exception. We’ll look back at the criticism McCaffrey and Fournette received and it will feel like a relic of another time.
The dam has broken and it’s a victory for young stars wishing to make a responsible decision with their valuable futures. It’s a victory for the NFL which will benefit from a healthier crop of potential stars. It is, however, a defeat for fans of college football who want to see one last flash of brilliance at the amateur level.
But you know what? The sport will survive just fine. As the years pass, it will become even more acceptable for players to do what’s best for them. Should top running backs like Saquon Barkley, Nick Chubb, Bo Scarborough and Derrius Guice opt to pass on a bowl game next year, the takes will be less fiery. Should the movement spread to other, non-skilled positions, it will hopefully be seen as the logical outgrowth.
Critically thinking fans understand something changed last night. Fournette and McCaffrey going in the top eight was a strong signal that opting out of a bowl game won’t impact draft stock. That was one of the few arguments the “don’t skip” faction was clinging to.
And now, it’s profoundly hollow.