After Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey did it last year, more college players are skipping bowl games to prepare for NFL draft.

By Albert Breer
December 07, 2017
Tim Warner/Getty Images

As LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey chose last December to skip their respective bowl games to protect themselves and prepare for the NFL draft, a larger question emerged: Would this soon become standard operating procedure the following April?

Our lesson this week: More guys are following the Fournette/McCaffrey model, and so it’s fair to say that things are heading that way.

Prospective first-round tackle Connor Williams, who missed most of 2017 with a knee injury, announced last week that he was leaving Texas early, and would skip the bowl game. Fellow Longhorns DeShon Elliott, a safety, and Holton Hill, a corner, soon followed suit.

And then, on Tuesday, Florida State blue-chip safety Derwin James, who suffered a catastrophic knee injury as a sophomore in 2016, wrote on Players Tribune that he’d enter the draft and start prep now, rather than playing in the Independence Bowl under an interim coach. (Jimbo Fisher left FSU for Texas A&M over the weekend.) As you might imagine, active players are watching this trend with interest.

“I think this is the first business decision they have to make as a professional in a lot of ways,” said NFLPA president/Bengals tackle Eric Winston. “A lot of people wanted to say that scouts were going to downgrade Fournette, they’re gonna downgrade Christian, and obviously that didn’t happen.

“But I do think this is something where they’ve gotta say: Is this last game worth it? How much can I improve, and where would I drop to with an injury? And they gotta make that decision and go with it.”

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Fournette was the fourth pick, McCaffrey the eighth pick, and both have been productive in Year 1.

We mentioned last year how unique Winston’s perspective is on this topic. He was a true freshman on the 2002 Miami Hurricanes, a team whose star, Willis McGahee, blew out his knee playing for a national title in the Fiesta Bowl. Previously seen as a Top 5 prospect, McGahee slid to the 23rd pick. “It definitely opened guys’ eyes, that’s for sure,” Winston says.

Conversely, Winston played in his final college game, the 2005 Peach Bowl against LSU, without a second thought, because that’s just what players did then. And that was even though he played as a senior with his health on his mind, after his junior year was cut short by a dislocated knee, three torn ligaments and a torn muscle.

“It was a really good opponent that had some really good players on their front line,” Winston says. “So it was game I could show, against an SEC opponent, what I could do. Now, that’s all looking back, hindsight’s 20/20, right? Fortunately, I got out of it healthy. Like I said, I think every guy has to have that discussion with himself, and has to really look at pros and cons, and what they’re going to get out of it.

“And some guys, I think there is a lot they can get out of it, playing against a really good opponent, showing that you can ball against a guy that’s perceived to be really good. And then for other guys, maybe there isn’t that.”

The level of bowl game, beyond just playoff/non-playoff, does seem to matter here. Consider that Fournette was missing the Citrus Bowl, McCaffrey missed the Sun Bowl, the Texas guys will miss the Texas Bowl, and James is passing on the Independence Bowl.

What if it’s an upper-tier non-playoff bowl like, this year, the Orange Bowl (Wisconsin/Miami), the Cotton Bowl (USC/Ohio State) or the Fiesta Bowl (Penn State/Washington)? There are potential Top 10 picks like USC’s Sam Darnold, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and Ohio State’s Denzel Ward in those games. So what do they do?

Well, Barkley said he won’t skip, Ohio State players have said they don’t expect anyone on their loaded roster to do it, and there seems to be zero chance that Darnold—whose decision on whether to enter the draft at all has been the subject of much speculation—would leave the Pac-12 champions now. So this may not be the year it happens on a bigger stage.

But as Winston sees it, that this is even a thought now is good for players in general. And if one of those guys asked Winston, he says he wouldn’t try and sway them one way or the other.

“I definitely would not tell him yes or no,” he said. “I would try to explain in a logical way, ‘Look at how you can benefit from this. Who’s your matchup? Is that something that could be good for you? And what could you lose for this?’ I would say that’s sort of where I would try to have that conversation. But I would never tell a guy that he should or shouldn’t play. That’s a decision that he has to make.”

But that it’s considered a decision at all? That’s a credit to Fournette and McCaffrey.

 

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