Was Witten a Victim of Bad Advice?

Most of us mere mortals and over-the-hill sports enthusiasts can't relate to what it's like to score a game-winning touchdown before 108,000 screaming fans and millions of viewers on national television.

That's an experience Jason Witten had last season when he caught a TD to end the six overtime affair against Arkansas. It was a catch that also enabled Tennessee to avoid a three-game losing streak and post a winning record in the SEC.

Few can know the euphoria that follows such an experience as Witten enjoyed on that long October evening last season when he hauled in Casey Clausen's pass to the post, rambled 25 yards to pay dirt and brought an end to the agony Big Orange fans were going through during 113 minutes of action in the second longest game in NCAA history.

However many of us know what Witten must have felt on Saturday afternoon during the NFL Draft as pick after pick passed without his name being called. It's much like the experience of choosing sides for teams in a pickup game and having the captains look right passed you for someone else, anyone else. In essence, the message is that you're simply not as good as the other players available. It's not the type of experience that does anything to boost one's self-esteem, but it can reinforce one's resolve to prove the pickers wrong.

That is now Witten's motivation and while it's good to have added incentive, it's not what he had in mind when he decided to leave Tennessee a year early and make himself available to the NFL.

Witten, supposedly, made his decision based on information from NFL scouts that rated him the top tight end available in the draft. Such a ranking would translate to first-round status, bonus bucks and a multimillion dollar salary.

Right up until the day before the Draft, Witten was certain he had made the right choice when it looked like Indianapolis would take him with its first round pick. That choice would be No. 24 overall which isn't nearly as good financially in a process where the dollars drop exponentially after the first 10 picks, but it would mean a chance to play for a team that employs two tight ends and for a quarterback, Peyton Manning, who is one of the league's best and a Vol legend.

But a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to Indy, as the Colts opted for Iowa tight end Dallas Clark who has speed equal to Witten's but isn't nearly as big or as effective a blocker. A trend was established as Witten watched the first round end without being taken. He also saw three other tight ends taken in the second round without his name being called. The agony finally ended when the Dallas Cowboys took him with the 69th pick in the third round.

No doubt, Witten will make the best of the situation, but in retrospect there is no way he helped himself financially by leaving Tennessee early. In truth, he wasn't able to effectively showcase his skills last season because he was the Vols top target and almost also saw double coverage. Another year on the Hill with wide receiver talent to open the middle, better protection and a healthier QB could have made a big difference in Witten's draft status.

Regrettably, that reality comes too late to help Witten, much as it came too late to help Cosey Coleman who left UT a year early in 2000 thinking he'd be a first round choice only to be taken by Tampa Bay late in the second round. Sure Coleman is now a starter and has a Super Bowl ring to his credit, but it will be a while before he can cash in given the contract he signed as a second round talent where bonus money is almost nonexistent.

Some may argue that it's not all about money and that may be true in some cases. However, it's mostly about money and agents aren't going to encourage any athlete to stay in school when there's opportunity to cash in immediately.

Given the nature of the game with career ending injuries lurking behind every snap of the ball, it's understandable that some football players leave college early. Eight of the 45 juniors who took the plunge this year were taken in the first round. However the vast majority would benefit from an extra year of experience, and if you're not getting a guaranteed contract the risks are greater by coming out early. It's unlikely Witten or Kelley Washington will get any substantial guaranteed dollars, but both are better off than the 14 college players who came out early and weren't selected at all last weekend, or the 17 who came out early in 2002 and were ignored all together. On that long list of the gone and all but forgotten are Alabama back Santonio Beard, Georgia linebacker Chris Simmons, Alabama offensive tackle Dante Ellington and Auburn tight end Robert Johnson.

Obviously, many players are being sold a bill of goods when they're told that the road to the NFL is paved with gold. But that's just two cents from someone who is incensed to see it happen so often.

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