Go pro, young man: Why entering draft early is best move for players
From business standpoint, the decision is an easy one
No matter how talented a player is, their time in the game is finite
Maturity and hanging out on campus aren't good reasons to stay
The deadline for underclassmen to enter the 2009 NFL Draft is tomorrow, Jan. 15, and I have one piece of advice to probable first-day selections who may still be weighing their options: Go pro and never look back.
I understand it is an intensely personal decision that is contingent on a number of factors. From a business standpoint, however, the decision is fairly easy. Receive compensation for your physical gifts as soon as you can because there is no telling how long you will have them.
My opinion has nothing to do with the impending Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, though I consider it very likely that a rookie salary structure will be part of any new CBA. The possibility that it will take six years to get to free agency if the league ever enters an environment in which there is no salary cap is a realistic consideration as well, but played no part in shaping my opinion either.
Football is a collision sport that takes a toll on one's body, whether it be in the NFL or in college. Therefore, every player's time in the game is finite, no matter how genetically gifted they may be. At some point the body is going to break down. When that time comes, each player will have the opportunity to reflect on his career and decide whether or not he maximized his earning potential. Any top prospect who returns to school, especially those who would have been taken in the first two rounds, is playing an entire season for which they could have been getting paid. That list currently includes Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy, USC's Taylor Mays and a few others projected as first-day picks if they had entered the draft.
The best counter argument to my thesis is the idea that a player projected out of the top 10 or outside the first round could play themselves into a better draft position their senior season and secure more guaranteed money in their first contract. Florida's Tim Tebow is likely returning, in part, because he wants to improve his standing by showing better passing mechanics. I can buy that, but there are other factors to be aware of as well. For instance, a player could just as easily hurt his stock and drop from his projected slot in the NFL pecking order. Heck, even if you don't have a drop in performance you can fall. Just ask Matt Leinart or Brian Brohm. The player is also sacrificing an entire year of tenure, putting him one year further from his second contract, but more on that later.
One of the other discussions this time of year revolves around the maturity of the player, with some believing that another year in college can make a player better prepared for the responsibilities inherent in being a professional football player. Two recent quarterbacks appear to bear that out as Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco played out their eligibility before taking the league by storm as rookies. But how much more mature does a player really get in one year? Leinart stayed for his senior year at USC and that didn't appear to make any profound difference in his professionalism when he entered the league.
Speaking of Leinart, another year of maturity was not really the stated reason for his return to USC in the first place. His love and enjoyment of the college experience was the biggest factor. Look, I understand that college is a fantastic time and I'm sure being the big man on campus is a dream come true, but that is an awfully big risk to take. And being an NFL player is not exactly a boring lifestyle.
The other rebuttal to my premise concerns education. A player who leaves school early likely leaves without his degree. I thought this was a grave tragedy when I was a youngster. Man, was I naïve. To be clear, I am a huge proponent of education. I chose to attend Princeton because I recognized it was a unique learning opportunity. I would recommend that any player find a way to get his degree so he has something to fall back on when his playing days are over. But you can always go back to school. Besides, most of those who stay for their final year of eligibility drop out of school before the second semester, either to prepare for the Combine or individual workouts or both.
Former high school teammates Alex Smith and Reggie Bush have been underachievers and injury-prone in the NFL after leaving school early, yet I think they clearly made the right move. Both have achieved financial security before their bodies began to betray them. They are only in their early to mid-20s. The bottom line is that most successful careers start to wind down by age 30, even for those players truly blessed athletically. Why waste one of your greatest revenue-producing years by staying in college?
Much of the compensation for NFL players, especially those not fortunate enough to be drafted in the first round, is based upon tenure. A player's league minimum goes up virtually every season. More importantly, the benefits players receive are based entirely upon years of service. Beginning with a player's fourth season, every year entitles that player to another contribution into his annuity, 401k, severance and pension. Every year makes a significant difference.
As an example, I went to school for only four years and did not red-shirt. I then played for seven years in the NFL, earning six credited seasons towards my benefits before injuring my neck and retiring. If I had red-shirted, I may have only gotten five credited seasons. The financial repercussions would have been notable.
I am fully aware that there is no definitive way to know how things would have played out, but the point remains: Every football player only has so many tackles, carries or blocks in his body. Using up another season's worth of them on a college campus is not a smart way to maximize one's revenue potential. More often than not, once sentimentality and emotions are removed from the process, the decision is easy. Go pro.