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Kyler Murray, the NFL Is Expecting You

He and his baseball agent say Murray is committed to the Oakland A’s, who took him in the first round of last year’s MLB draft. But many in the NFL are convinced that, once the smoke clears, the Heisman winner will be entering this spring’s NFL draft.

Around this time of year, college football programs submit names of underclassmen to the College Advisory Committee, a panel of senior personnel evaluators from NFL teams and directors from the league’s two scouting organizations. The CAC provides feedback for players considering leaving school early for the draft, giving each player one of three grades: Potential first rounder, potential second rounder or a suggestion to go back to school. Recently, one evaluator was scanning the CAC’s list for the 2019 draft when a name caught his eye: Kyler Murray.

An appearance on the CAC list does not prove Murray is committed to the NFL draft—it is merely a part of the fact-finding process for prospects. But his inclusion is surprising because he is contractually committed to another sport. Murray was drafted ninth overall by the Oakland Athletics in the 2018 MLB draft to play centerfield, and signed a contract that included a $4.6 million signing bonus and an agreement that allowed him to play one more season of college football before reporting to spring training in 2019. At least that was the plan. Then Murray’s electrifying play as a quarterback led Oklahoma to the College Football Playoff and earned him the Heisman Trophy. The majority of sources interviewed for this story are under the same impression: Kyler Murray is going to choose football.

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“There’s been a lot of smoke the past few weeks,” says one NFL scout.

During Heisman media availability last week, Murray was bombarded with questions about a potential NFL future. He laughed and tried to shrug off as many questions as possible, pivoting the focus to the college season he’s still playing. But he appeased reporters by saying he’d like to play both baseball and football professionally, if possible. (It’s probably not, especially given his position.)

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Last week, Murray’s baseball agent, Scott Boras, seemed to shut down speculation that Murray might be rethinking his baseball commitment, telling NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, “Kyler has agreed and the A’s agreed to a baseball contract that gave him permission to play college football through the end of the collegiate season. After that, he is under contract to play baseball. That is not a determination to make. It's already done.”

But meeting with the media at baseball’s winter meetings on Wednesday, Boras’s claims were less direct: “When you win the Heisman Trophy, you’re going to have a lot of information come to you and be looked at. All I know is that Kyler has a tremendous opportunity to be a great baseball player and he knows that. I think, certainly, that opportunity is already in place, and he has every intention to be in spring training and advance that interest.”

In a statement to The MMQB, Boras added: “Kyler Murray signed a contract to play baseball and within that contract there was a historic provision that has never been granted before, where a major league franchise gave a player the right to fulfill his college dreams. We are so happy that dream was executed to its fullest and that Kyler had that opportunity and I'm sure he is very, very grateful to the Oakland A's to allow him the benefits of his bonus, contract and yet also fulfill his college dreams in football and his major league dreams by playing for the Oakland A's organization.” (An Oklahoma spokesperson declined a request for a one-on-one interview on Murray’s behalf.)

Most major college programs submit their top underclassmen to the College Advisory Council for evaluation at the request of the player. One scout familiar with Oklahoma’s program says that the school usually only submits the names of players they really think will come out for the draft. Through an Oklahoma spokesperson, Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley declined to comment on how OU compiles the list it submits to the CAC.

According to NFL operations, programs can submit up to five players to be evaluated each year; requests to submit more than five are determined on a case-by-case basis. This year, Oklahoma submitted four players for evaluation.

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Murray has nothing to lose by Oklahoma throwing his name in the mix to receive an evaluation from the CAC. It’s not a commitment to the NFL, just a way to get an idea of where he could expect to be taken in the draft. If he receives a first-round grade, he’d be forced to take the NFL more seriously.

From a financial standpoint, If Murray is a first-round pick, he’d be better off choosing football. If he stays with baseball, his $4.6 million signing bonus is the only significant payday he’ll receive for the next five to seven seasons. Even though he’s 21, Murray has fewer at-bats than the majority of his peers; he’s realistically two to three seasons away from reaching the majors, and then another three seasons away from arbitration. Whereas, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, the last pick of the 2018 first round, got $8 million guaranteed in his rookie contract (a four-year deal, excluding the team’s fifth-year option). If he plays well, he could be in for a big payday after three seasons.

Projections on Murray are all over the board. Some believe the CAC could give him a “return to school grade” (Murray has said he will not play another season at Oklahoma) while others feel he’s a Day 2 pick with a chance to go in the first round thanks to raw talent and the lack of top-flight QBs in the 2019 draft class. It only takes one team to push him into the first night, and at least one scout thinks that scenario will play out: “With his arm and talent, he’s a first round pick.”

Several scouts who visited Oklahoma this season came away with the impression that Murray was going to enter the NFL draft, and were surprised by Boras’s comments that Murray would fulfill his contract with the A’s. “They [Oklahoma football staff] were pretty sure that he was going to play football, that he was going to finish this year out and that he was going to be ready for the draft,” says one scout who visited Norman late this season. “I’m sure every scout that went through there wrote him up, because that's what they were telling you by the end of the season.”

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The deadline for underclassmen to apply for early entry to the NFL draft is Jan. 14. Because he has a year of NCAA football eligibility remaining Murray would have to apply for the draft as an early entrant. That’s the case even if he withdraws from school to play baseball professionally this spring.

In the event Murray declares for the draft but informs teams that he’ll be playing minor-league baseball in 2019, one scout says he wouldn’t be surprised to see a team draft him anyways and hold on to his rights until after the 2019 season. “With the scarcity of top-level QBs in this draft, teams will be inclined to take a risk on him,” the scout says.

According to the CBA, if a team drafts Murray and doesn’t sign him to a contract, he will move to the Reserve/Draft; Unsigned List and count against the 90-man roster. The club will own his rights for a year until the following draft, at which point Murray would re-enter the draft pool.

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That scenario would be similar to former two-sport athlete Drew Henson. Henson played quarterback at Michigan while pursuing a baseball career, eventually foregoing his senior football season when the Yankees signed him to a six-year, $17 million contract in 2001. He toiled as a third baseman in the Yankees farm system for three seasons. In 2003, Henson became eligible for the NFL draft—at the time, the requirement was that five seasons must have passed since the prospect first enrolled in college (which Henson did in 1998). The Texans—who, at the time, believed they had their franchise QB in David Carr—decided to take a chance on drafting Henson, with the idea of trading his rights later to a team with a quarterback need. Houston used a sixth-round pick on Henson; when he finished out his baseball season and did not play the 2003 NFL season, Houston still held his rights. In February 2004, Henson was freed from his Yankees contract and made his return to football. He signed with the Texans in March and was immediately traded to Dallas, where he played for the next two seasons.

While Oklahoma declined a one-on-one interview request for Murray, he held a press conference on Wednesday, during which he was again asked about the possibility of a future in professional football. He looked down and smiled. “Well, I mean, I’ve already kinda—as of right now, I’m going to play baseball,” he answered. “That’s about it.”

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