Babb: Leaving Early Not The Best Choice

The first couple of weeks of January is when draft-eligible underclassmen football players have to make a choice -- stay or go? This year, three Buckeye players decided to make the choice to leave: Santonio Holmes, Donte Whitner and Ashton Youboty. But is leaving early always the best choice? Charles Babb gives some opinionso on the subject.

Why I Haven't Changed My Mind

I used to believe no player should ever leave college football for the NFL before his senior season. Whenever one would exit, I would inwardly (and occasionally outwardly) rail at the situation and ask, "What in the world are they thinking?" While I have backed away from that stance, turning professional just three years from high school isn't always the slam dunk it may appear to be from the outside; every year more than a few regret their decision.

Draft Projections

Every year underclassmen and redshirt juniors from around the country request the NFL offer a projection for where they might go if they entered the draft. Answers in hand, many make their decisions with this as their basis. The problem is draft projections assume all things will remain equal…but this is almost never the case. The NFL draft is actually remains in flux, factoring in all sorts of extraneous data for months.

· When a higher number of talented players jump, players risk dropping like a rock. This is especially true if some of those early entries are at the same position. With the majority of teams drafting first based on needs and then overall talent; if a franchise fills their need with another then players may not hear their name for another round or more beyond their initial projection.

· If an athlete's 40 times are not as high as expected due to an off day or tweaked hamstring, groin, ankle, etc. they can drop yet another round (or more). Chris Gamble, arguably a pro bowl corner, was considered as a high first round selection the day he declared. He nearly dropped out of the first round because of slow 40 times when he ran just 4.5 instead of the projected 4.4; the NFL can't afford a defender who is a step slower than hoped.

· What if a player doesn't do as well on the Wonderlick as another player with similar measurables? The answer is – the first player tends to drop. Given the choice between two players with almost identical abilities – the smarter one with greater football acumen will win.

· Draft projections are offered around the turn of the New Year. A team in the playoffs might suffer a terrible injury to one of their starters, completely changing their draft board and strategy. Or, a team the projection assumed would draft a young player may opt to go the free agency route instead of trying to prepare a rookie. They may even simply decide to shore up depth elsewhere.

· If all of the above were not enough, the NFL coaching carousel begins spinning in high gear only after it is clear who will and will not make the playoffs. New coaches normally mean a new direction. This can benefit a would be draftee, but it can also work to their detriment.

In other words, the entire foundation for these projections could be (and often is) askew. There is no such thing as a "we can't see you falling below X round." NFL projections are based off of incomplete information not only on the individual collegiate player in question but also the rest of those who are graduating or leaving school early. Picture dropping a stone off the ledge into the Grand Canyon and recognize this might just be that ‘can't miss prospect' from a major college program. As many drop like a rock as move up in the NFL draft.

What a Difference a Round can Make

While it may not seem like that big of a deal when spoken or written on a sheet of paper, there is a tremendous difference between salaries depending on where a player is selected. That difference equates to dollars.

Take a gander at the 2005 draftees:



Overall Selection

Signing bonus (guaranteed $)


Average per year

Alex Smith






Travis Johnson






Logan Mankins






Odell Thurman






Matt McCoy






Dustin Fox






Sean Considine






Consider Alex Smith, as the first overall pick, is set to make nearly 18 times what Sean Considine, the first selection in the fourth round, makes per year. Consider Travis Johnson signed for nearly double the bonus of Logan Mankins – despite their both being first round draftees.

This is a helpful link in determining the pecking order for first round selections;

If an athlete stays in college one more year and by doing so is able to move from a late first or early second round selection to a top 10 pick, they will pull in more with their signing bonus than they would have made in their first contract. That amount, invested, could be a fortune for generations by the time the player is 60. He could literally set up his entire extended family for a comfortable life. A.J. Hawk probably would have been a middle to late first round selection in 2005, but by staying he probably earned himself another $25,000,000 to $30,000,000. That's not too shabby.

The more aggressive and confident collegiate athlete might of course say, "Well, I can always sign for a low amount early, start earning money, and work toward my next contract – which will undoubtedly be a large one." The problem with this philosophy is that the NFL is a brutal league where a single injury can end a career before a player is ready to quit. Ask Chris Spielman. Better yet, ask Andy Katzenmoyer and Kijana Carter. Both stars in college, each was a highly touted pick that suffered an injury during their first contract. They never had the chance to sign another. Were Smith or Johnson to endure this kind of misfortune they could live comfortably for the rest of their lives on the signing bonus alone. Mankins would do well if he invested well and did not try to live above his means, but Thurman would be lucky to live a middle class lifestyle for 10 years after paying taxes, his agent, and purchasing a few nice items. McCoy, Fox, Considine, etc. would have to hope their college diploma and the good will of their school's alumni aided them in finding work.

First = Second and Third Chances. Third or Fourth = One Chance

There is a general rule of thumb in the NFL; the higher the draft pick, the more chances they will receive. This isn't just about talent since the more gifted normally are drafted earlier. It's about ego and dollars.

A first round selection can be a first class loser and still hang around the franchise for multiple seasons, essentially collecting a yearly multimillion dollar paycheck riding the pine. The signing bonus alone guarantees that an organization is not going to want to give up easily. Injuries, arrests, and even tantrums will be excused. Why? The entire organization hopes the player can be recovered and put back on the field to gain some time of return on investment. Scouts, general managers, and coaches don't want to be mocked in the media. They don't want to have their names up there for sport with those who might never have even played football laughing at their incompetence in spotting talent.

Second and third round selections are not given this same level of treatment. Maurice Clarett, a third round draft selection for the Denver Broncos in 2005 was happily cut by the organization. Rumors of a faked injury and locker room antics led to his early demise. He actually helped the organization hand him a pink slip by signing a ludicrous contract that guaranteed him not a single penny. Sure it was a blow to the organization's ego and invited criticism (and it did), but it didn't cost them any money.

In essence, the later the individual is drafted, the fewer chances they get. If a player opts to leave too early and does a draft day dive that would make even Greg Louganis proud, they can expect not just a smaller paycheck but also a much shorter leash. One injury or arrest or even a few bad days in camp might be the end of their career and leave them unemployed.

The Memory of an Elephant

It's often pretty clear when a junior is NFL ready even to the most amateur of eyes. The player begins dominating not just their own area of responsibility but an increasingly wider portion of the field; they appear to be an unstoppable force and the proverbial ‘man among boys.' Opposing coaches admit to designing schemes specifically to limit the damage that one player can do to their team. Inevitably these plans end up in the trash heap as a Mike Doss lays a wicked hit on their tailback or intercepts the football, or Ricky Williams hits the hole like a boulder crashing downhill, slams into the safety, and then rumbles for 35 yards and a touchdown.

Fans rarely forget players that stay for one more season. Mike Doss, Peyton Manning, Ricky Williams, Matt Leinart, Mike Jenkins, and Will Smith are just a few of a litany of players whose names will be remembered for decades by the fan bases of not just their own teams but also other teams.

When one of these players returns for his final season of eligibility, the alumni base at a large school makes a mental note; this guy loves the university and he loves to compete. He is coming back one more year to try and give back to the university community, coaches, and even the fans who have already given him so much. As a direct result these players will probably never want for anything; they simply have to avoid blowing up the new 6 lane bridge they have built to prosperity. After their NFL career has ended (and the average career is less than 4 years), job offers will be thrown in their direction. Corporations will actually hope the player comes their direction, considering it a coup to land such a high profile name. Media outlets will even compete for these young men to work for their broadcast, knowing by name alone they will gain viewers.

The world is their oyster.

Does this mean fans and alumni do not love the true junior who departs early? No. It simply means they view him differently. They appreciate the young man, but they view him more as a person who came to Ohio State to be a part of a business transaction. He played for the necessary amount of time to get to the next level and left as soon as he could; he is like the temporary worker who does wonders in their short stint but then spurns the offer to stick around in a full time position. Everyone admires their ethic and abilities, but the question mark is their loyalty.

I doubt anyone will ever question the loyalty and love for Ohio State of a Mike Doss or Eddie George – who by the way continue to show their appreciation for the university to this day. Doss continues to bleed Scarlet and Gray, walking behind the sidelines at the Fiesta Bowl telling the defense, "Stay poised!" after the Irish's first score.

Putting the Student in Student-Athlete

Finally, the player who finishes their eligibility on the field is most likely to complete their degree and even possibly finish a masters program. If athletes truly understand their projected shelf life in the NFL is 3.5 years, then the law of averages says for every Emmit Smith there is a Kijana Carter. For every Chris Spielman there is an Andy Katzenmoyer. For every Tom Tupa there is an Andy Groom. The vast majority of players will need their degree and will have to work a 9-5 job to pay their rent and put food on the table.

A degree can never be taken away by an injury or capricious owner. No argument with a coach or media firestorm can remove that diploma from a player's wall. It is theirs forever and represents what most contracts don't these days – insurance. A degree is insurance for their future; it's their ‘golden ticket' gaining them entrance through the once closed gates of opportunity.

Not only that but finishing a degree means something; it says the person is not a quitter. It tells the rest of the world that even with all the challenges life can throw at that individual; they are going to finish what they set out to accomplish. They can be counted on not to deviate from their intended course; perhaps they will be knocked the ground a few times, but they will rise and start walking toward their goal as often as it takes. They have moxie and the necessary intelligence to succeed.

A minimum salary of $230,000 and a signing bonus of $500,000 will be whittled to less than $350,000 after taxes, agent fees, and associated costs. Purchasing a home for a parent or loved one will run another $100,000. If the player buys a car, a nice wardrobe, and a house for themselves – they are now sitting on a nest egg of less than $125,000. This won't last an average American more than 3 years unless they are incredibly frugal, and were they to be cut or injured; they could quickly be in financial trouble. The player who has finished their degree doesn't have to worry about paying tuition or a shrinking savings account at that moment; they can simply go get a job and earn more than enough to live a very comfortable life. The remaining funds from their brief stint in the NFL can be invested so that retirement by the age of 45 isn't just an option; it's a certainty. While everyone else travels the 30 miles to and from work in the daily commute; they can travel 30 countries in style.

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