Babb: The Other Side Of Declaring Early

In a column few days ago, Charles Babb discussed why players leaving early for the NFL is not the best idea. As with every debate though, there are two sides to the story, and today Charles presents the other side -- that players should indeed leave early if the chance is there. Read on for more.

Why I've Changed My Mind

While I still maintain most juniors and underclassmen should remain in school, every year a select few emerge from the masses in college football. Their skills are so gravity defying and gratifying to witness that it is obvious one of these things is not like the others; one of these things doesn't fit in at all. They find themselves a man among boys; their talents demand that they pursue football at the next level. Another year in college simply won't benefit them; they are not considered a second round or even late first round selection. They are believed by scouts to be a can't-miss early first round pick. As a direct result these stars should retain an agent and announce their eligibility for the NFL draft.

It's a Young Man's Sport

The human frame isn't meant to take the kind of punishment modern sports demand. The speed of the collisions, the acceleration training, the weight lifting, and even the daily drills create wear and tear. Sure, the body can tolerate the pain and recover, but it will only do so for a relatively brief period of time. That window closes at about age 35 in football (unless one either very fortunate or a specialist).

Based on that knowledge, it can make little to no sense for a college megastar to stick around for their senior campaign. Why take another year of punishment, grow another year older, and risk a horrific injury? What is the benefit versus the risk? Quite simply, it isn't worth it. To stay might mean the loss of tens of millions of dollars.

Years Experience

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If the average individual's body begins to wear out after 3.5 years in the NFL but the collegiate star opts to leave early, this may help to add one more year on their career. In fact, it may add several:

(1) The team that drafts them in the high first round may recognize they are not fully polished but could not learn anything more in college. Thus, the player may find themselves not thrown into the mix as quickly but instead given the chance to learn at a more measured pace. The better prepared the player is before they step on the field, the better they will likely perform. The better they perform, the longer they will be asked to stick around. The longer they stick around…well, check the salary schedule above.

(2) This period of ‘polishing' not only gives a rookie the chance to be mentally sharp, it rests their body and may extend a career. If a young man has taken a pounding for the last seven years (high school and college), it takes a cumulative effect. A year of holding a clipboard or playing only select downs helps reverse that trend. Muscles and joints which had previously been strained and perhaps at their breaking point heal. Physically the younger player can spend more time in the weight room without classes, prepping his body for the faster, more physical game.

(3) One year on the bench or coming off the bench signals a deeper commitment on the part of the franchise. It all but shouts, "We have high hopes for this player and intend on getting the most from him over a long period of time." It means even with a serious injury or initial poor attitude, owners, coaches, and team administrators want to see the player on the field for the next 4-6 years minimum and may be hoping for 7-9 or more.

Along with the possibility of longevity goes dollars – quite a few dollars actually. Doing a little math, if a player exits the college ranks early and signs an initial contract at age 21, this means their first four seasons will net them at least $1.37 million. Assuming the collegiate player is a true star and is an early first round selection, they will likely garner a signing bonus in the area of $8,000,000 or more with mind boggling base salaries and incentives during a five or six year deal. If one of those seasons is spent on the bench and another is spent as a first year starter, the odds are fairly high that the former collegiate star will just be coming into their own during the latter part of their contract. What that means is a longer NFL shelf life, a new contract with a base salary of at least 540,000 per season, and a probable signing bonus of several million more.

The funny thing about dollars is that if invested and left alone, they tend to compound. Assuming the player is a high selection, they should have money for taxes, agents, and buying themselves and family/friends a few nice baubles and a home for mom even in a high end market. On top of those expenses, they will undoubtedly have additional funds to invest $1,000,000 in stocks and enough income for the next several years to leave it alone and let it build. If that nest egg makes just 10 percent a year, they will be sitting on a whopping $1,610,510 at the end of five years. At the end of 10 years it will morph into $2,608,383.36. The younger one invests, the more money they can make. Just imagine what this figure would look like for a retired NFL player of, say, age 50; they could buy a small country.

A Diploma Can be Earned Any Time

What is the purpose of college?

When it all boils down, why do Americans attend an institution of higher education? Is it for their health? Is it to party? Is it to better themselves and their families economically? Is it to expand their knowledge?

It probably should be argued the last option is the most laudable, but most would probably choose the third: to better themselves.

If this is indeed the end goal of the average collegian, then does it really matter if they opt to leave school and pursue their dream? Is the university going to magically vanish or close its doors in a span of 6-12 years during which the young man in question can earn millions of dollars to invest for him and his family in perpetuity?

The answer to these questions is of course, no. It doesn't matter if a junior or even redshirt sophomore leaves their college of choice to pursue a dream job in any field, let alone professional football. If an individual wants a diploma, there is no age, race, or sex limitation attached to it. NFL players can return to classes every off-season, picking up a credit hour here and a credit hour there until they have finished what they lacked. Then, when their career is over, they can pursue the field in which they earned a degree or perhaps something completely different – broadcasting, sales, motivational speaking; the open doors are often unlimited because of their star wattage.

In the interim, NFL players expand their horizons and keep their minds fresh learning the intricacies of their field (football) and recognize, college should always be viewed as a starting point; not the end goal.

The Select Few -- Avoiding the Dreaded Draft Day Slide

Though they are not found under every tree, there are a select few who are in fact ready for the NFL at age 21. I'm not talking about the bulk of those who declare for the draft; I'm referring to the Reggie Bush, Orlando Pace, Shawn Springs, Larry Fitzgerald, Julius Peppers, and Sean Taylors of this world. Their physical talents are so extreme that to play another year in college would be a higher risk for their draft position than leaving.

After a phenomenal year, NFL scouts and general managers, enamored by what they consider to be a budding talent with loads of ‘untapped potential,' are willing to not just draft a player but will do so higher than they might an equally productive and more polished senior. Why? Timing is everything.

Take Matt Leinart for example. Here is a young man who was considered a slam dunk as the top pick in the NFL draft in 2005. He had just led the USC Trojans to back-to-back AP National titles. A field general extraordinaire, he helped his team escape numerous close calls with his cool demeanor on the field. Humble and polite to the media when the camera's glare shone on him, he appeared to be Teflon Man. No dirt or criticism would stick to him.

One year later, the Teflon coating has worn thin. Without his offensive coordinator Norm Chow calling the shots, play selection suffered at USC. When play selection suffers, statistics do as well. With a season comparable to his Heisman campaign as a junior (which means he likely improved as a quarterback), critics nitpick and whisper, "Has Leinart peaked? Is he just one of those fantastic college players who will be a Todd Blackledge if selected in the first round?" Notre Dame, Texas, and even lowly Fresno State exposed a few chinks in the armor giving those who question his talent a few more rounds of ammunition. Worse, the best players in college football showed why they have more talent in the national title game – leaving Leinart only the second best quarterback and third or fourth best talent when his team lost.

What will this cost Leinart?

The decision to stick it out for his senior season will probably mean Leinart is not the first selection in this year's NFL draft. In terms of pure dollars and cents, that could amount to $5-10,000,000 – or more than the entire initial contract his collegiate head coach, Pete Carroll, signed when he agreed to coach at USC. If Norm Chow and Pete Carroll encouraged Leinart to stay, will they now offer to pay back the money their protégé lost by bowing to their wishes?

While Leinart undoubtedly enjoyed his senior season at USC with his pals (as he labeled them), you have to wonder if he will regret it come NFL Draft day.


Perhaps the most compelling argument for a collegiate star to turn professional before his eligibility has expired is that of injury. One injury can signal the end of a career. Adam Taliaferro was a highly considered recruit with enough athleticism to make the travel squad for Penn State as a freshman, but his career ended before it began when his head connected with the thigh of Ohio State tailback Jerry Westbrooks – injuring the cervical spine. He was nearly rendered a quadriplegic and will never play competitive football again. The frightening reality is a freak accident like this can happen to most anyone on any play of a game. A routine hit and tackle by Bengals linebacker Kevin Walker essentially ended the career of athletic phenom Bo Jackson when Jackson's hip was injured. He would have hip replacement surgery and after a couple of painful, torturous seasons in which he tried to make a comeback, ‘Bo knew' he had to hang up the cleats. Who can forget Willis McGahee's horrific knee blowout playing against Ohio State in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl; McGahee had just minutes remaining before becoming a certain top 5 pick but instead slid to late in the first round. He lost millions in one moment as his lower leg rotated nearly 270 degrees and flopped around like a fish on the deck of a boat.

The bottom line is football – while made fairly safe by a range of safety equipment, pads, and training regimens – is a dangerous sport for the human body. It wreaks havoc on joints, muscles, and bones. It contorts the body at angles that simply aren't natural on most every snap of the ball, and accidents and injuries are bound to occur. The only hope for fans, players, coaches, and even the medical staff is that the injuries will be ‘relatively' minor. A torn muscle or partially torn ligament is almost considered good news in light of the alternatives.

Returning simply to enjoy another year of football or win a championship with friends and teammates won't pay the bills. A college degree and a desk job will ring hollow if the overriding dream of a player was to get a shot at the NFL, but an injury in their senior year ended it all in a flurry of flying bodies. Being a trivia question (like Taliaferro) is no consolation when he might otherwise have been a star.

To be clear, these types of injuries are not commonplace. That so many can be listed from memory by even the most casual of fans is indicative of their rarity. Hundreds and even thousands of players return for a fourth year of eligibility each season and manage to play through the year without mishap. A.J. Hawk, Nick Mangold, Santonio Holmes, Nate Salley, Anthony Schlegel, and Rob Sims are just a handful of names from the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2006. They played all season without serious mishap and even Bobby Carpenter's broken leg isn't serious; it won't change his draft position. Mike Doss, Eddie George, Braylon Edwards, Ricky Williams, Ron Dayne, Peyton Manning and a litany of others returned to lead their teams to explosive and exciting seasons; none of these suffered ill effects or injuries.

The problem is the sheer unpredictability of the game means – nobody knows who or when or if an injury will strike. Thus, for the bona fide collegiate star, the smart money would be on their taking an early exit. They will make far more by becoming a top 15-20 first round selection than they can from a hospital bed or physical therapy facility while rehabbing a wide range of injuries.

Summing Up

In closing, leaving early isn't always a wise decision but it isn't always a poor one either. If a player is projected in the early to middle portion of the first round; they probably have almost an obligation to leave school. Opportunity waits on no man. If however their projection leaves something to be desired and can be improved upon by even just half a round, they might earn themselves millions of dollars by returning for just one more year. Which is the right choice? That is up for each player to decide. Nobody can make it for them since they (and not the fans, writers, or coaches) are going to have to live with the consequences of their actions for the rest of their lives.

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