The Fiesta Bowl, New Year’s Day 2016, was going to be junior linebacker Jaylon Smith’s final collegiate game. It wasn’t part of the College Football Playoff, but Notre Dame vs. Ohio State was a marquee matchup, and Smith was one of the game’s biggest stars.
Midway through the first quarter he tore his ACL and MCL, a devastating injury that included nerve damage. The moment caught the attention of many other highly-touted college players with NFL plans, who felt Smith’s ill-timed injury personally. Before his injury, Smith was a projected high-first-round in the upcoming draft. With teams concerned he might never return to form, he slipped into the second round, the Cowboys stopping his freefall with the 34th pick. “I was going to be a top-three pick, and having that severe injury, dropping out of the first round and losing double digit millions of dollars because of that, it forced guys to think about [skipping bowl games],” he says now.
A year later, top draft prospects Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey sat out their team’s non-playoff bowl games, headline-grabbing decisions to preserve their health for when they’d actually be paid to play. Fournette and McCaffrey were both drafted in the top 10, definitive proof that NFL teams didn’t downgrade them for their decision to sit out. A handful of players skipped bowl games last season, and as of publish time, nine draft-eligible college players have decided to skip their team’s bowl games to prepare for the NFL this bowl season: Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver, Michigan defensive lineman Rashan Gary, LSU cornerback Greedy Williams, Iowa tight end Noah Fant, Arizona State wide receiver N’Keal Harry, NC State receiver Kelvin Harmon and linebacker Germaine Pratt, South Carolina receiver Deebo Samuel and Oklahoma State running back Justice Hill.
“My situation has affected college football forever,” Smith says. “I’m going in the history books.”
One veteran scout said that he’s evaluated many great linebackers over a 15-year career in scouting, and before Smith was injured, he ranked him in the top two or three of all them. Ezekiel Elliott, then Smith’s Fiesta Bowl opponent and now Smith’s Dallas teammate, was the fourth overall pick of the 2016 draft, a potential landing spot for Smith before the injury. Elliott’s rookie contract is worth just under $25 million for four seasons (with a fifth-year option that would pay him just under $24.4 million). Smith’s rookie deal will pay him a shade less than $6.5 million over four seasons. He was inactive for his the 2016 season as he healed from his injury—which included damage to the peroneal nerve. 2018 has been the first season he’s looked like the player many thought he would be before the injury, as Smith is enjoying a breakout season as the Cowboys’ middle linebacker.
Still, even though he lost out on significant money, his rookie season, and risked the longevity of his career with such a serious injury, Smith says he doesn’t regret playing in the Fiesta Bowl. “Being a competitor and a captain of my Notre Dame team, it was important for me to go out the right way,” he says. “It was premiere game, the Fiesta Bowl vs. Ohio State. There was a lot of talent in that game. We all wanted to compete. So the decision I made to play in that game, I would make the same decision.”
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One year after Smith’s injury, Jake Butt also became something of a bowl season cautionary tale. A senior tight end for Michigan, he tore his ACL (his second ACL tear in the same leg) during the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day 2017, a non-playoff game between his Wolverines and Florida State. Butt had been a projected Day-2 pick, but fell to the fifth round because of his injury and missed his entire rookie season while he rehabbed. Butt knew of Smith’s story, but says he hadn’t considered sitting out from the Orange Bowl until some of his teammates asked him about it after they saw the news that Fournette and McCaffrey would not be playing in their bowl games. Butt figured the reason he’d committed to Michigan in the first place was to play in big, nationally televised games like the Orange Bowl. “I know it sounds a little bit crazy,” he says, “but I would make the same exact choice again. That was one of the biggest games I was going to play in in Michigan my career.”
Butt is currently on IR again after tearing the ACL in his opposite leg during a walkthrough in late September. He realizes that he’s as much a part of the trend of players skipping bowl games as Smith, and while he doesn’t regret his decision to play, he’s glad players are considering their stories when making that decision. “There are a lot of people who question these kids and say, Hey you are getting a free education, you need to go out there and take the field for your school,” he says. “But you can look at stories like me and Jaylon and realize that is not the case. You have to do what is best for you. A lot of the kids sitting out are in a position to change their lives, their family’s lives, and their future family’s lives. In college you are playing for free, for the love of the game and for your teammate. What happened to Jaylon and me, it brings to light some of the decisions these college players go through. this is going to be their first big life decision. Am I playing in this bowl game or not? Because that can really affect your future.”
When Fournette and McCaffrey announced their intentions to skip their team’s bowl games, they received their share of criticism.
Then-Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians was asked about what he’d think if a player they were considering drafting had skipped a bowl game. “That would concern me,” he said. “Depending on what their situation is as a team, because this is a team sport. But you’ve had a couple of guys get injured in the last couple years. Agents have a lot to say about it. Parents have a lot to say about it. But, it would concern me.”
Former running back Marshall Faulk tweeted, “If a RB can't play in a bowl game vs college competition without getting hurt. How in the hell is he going to play 16+ games in the NFL?”
Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott tweeted about Fournette and McCaffrey’s decision, “All these young guys deciding to skip their bowl games. I would do anything to play one more time with my brothers in that scarlet and gray.”
This year, the news that nine players are skipping bowl games hardly even registers as noteworthy. By the time bowl season arrives, most scouts have submitted their player reports and grades to their teams; an individual player’s performance in a bowl game doesn’t carry much weight in terms of swinging an evaluation in one direction or another. The players who can benefit from bowl game exposure are the small-school prospects who haven’t consistently faced high-level competition.
One scout said he can’t even remember the topic of skipping a bowl game coming up in conversations about prospects. If the player’s teammates and coaches are O.K. with it, then teams don’t spend any time on it.
Another scout says, “At the end of the day, it’s not going to affect these kids. They may get some flack form coaches, NFL personnel at the combine or something when they interview with them, but it’s not going to do much really.”
I polled a handful of scouts from different teams, and all agreed that skipping a bowl game would not impact their evaluation of a prospect. One veteran scout says there is still some pushback on the trend. “It’s the old-school mentality,” he says, “the ‘way we’ve always done it before’ guys. The guys that are too rigid to be NFL scouts in today’s game, with today’s player.”
It’s also worth noting that no prospect has skipped a College Football Playoff game, including the nine this year. Butt sees the bowl-skipping trend as an opportunity for positive movement in the areas of both playoff expansion and player compensation.
“I’m excited to see where this thing goes in the next couple years,” he says. “I am seeing talk of bigger playoffs, and I think the more teams in the playoffs the most kids play. They want kids to play in these games because the bowl games are clearly missing out if they aren’t having some of these [star players] in it. And I’ve always been an advocate for trying to compensate college athletes a little more than what they are getting, and I think with more and more kids sitting out they can help pioneer that.”
Smith knows that the movement he inadvertently inspired isn’t going anywhere. “Every year my situation will come up because of how high-caliber I was and how high I was going to be drafted, and the effect that it had,” he says. “People just look at the facts of what happened to me and the severity of my injury and from there they have to make a decision on whether it is worth the risk.”
His advice to a player faced with that tough decision? “As long as you make the decision that is best for you, that’s really what matters.”
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