College football players and NFL draft picks of the future, learn from your predecessors. If your draft window is open and you’re all but assured to hear your name called early, jump right through it and declare.
Don’t think twice about getting your degree, at least not right now. Don’t try to suck the last bit of that magnificent collegiate leisure before life gets real. Don’t hesitate, wondering whether you believe you’re truly ready for the next level. If the information you receive is promising enough, and a big signing bonus is only a few months away, take it and run as fast as you can.
And hope you run really, really fast, because that will undoubtedly help your draft status and also bump up that lovely signing bonus.
As we see each and every draft, players struggle with the decision. Stay or go? Leave as a junior, or try to improve—or in some cases maintain—your draft stock?
The answer is quite simple, at least for those with incredible wealth on the table. You have to capitalize when your stock is high, or your checking account—and yes, your retirement account—could suffer dearly.
USC quarterback Matt Barkley is the latest (but certainly not the last) to learn this lesson. Barkley turned down the NFL in 2012 to return for his senior season, likely giving up a spot in the first round—perhaps even the top 10—in the process.
Heading into last fall, he appeared to be a lock for the first round. Various sports books even offered prop bets on whether or not he would be the first pick overall. Barkley returned to the Trojans, and the results are well known by now. He was far from awful, but his play didn’t come close to matching what we saw in 2011.
A dislocated throwing shoulder late in the year capped off an underwhelming season. It forced him to miss his team’s final regular-season game as well as its bowl game more than a month later.
After skipping the NFL combine, Barkley threw at his pro day in late March, and the scouting process played out. It culminated in an unexpected drop in the draft—at least one far deeper than we could have imagined—and the Philadelphia Eagles took him at the top of fourth round. He was chosen No. 98 overall.
The fit here could end up working in Barkley’s favor. Getting paired with Chip Kelly is fascinating. Kelly has certainly seen Barkley excel while he attempted to slow him down at Oregon.
The key word here would be “attempted,” as shown by Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel, although Barkley and Kelly split their final two matchups.
Barkley vs. Chip/Oregon the past two years: 69.3 percent, 804 yards, 9 TDs, 3 INTs— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) April 27, 2013
Barkley could turn out to be the Eagles’ QB of the future, and the draft plummet could prove to be insignificant in the long run. For now, however, his fall comes at a steep price.
Last year’s No. 98 overall pick (it was Delaware’s Gino Gradkowski, but you already knew that) received a signing bonus of $484,424. In comparison, the No. 16 overall pick—smack-dab in the center of the first round—pocketed $4,842,036.
These numbers will shift slightly in 2013, but not by much. The more you drop, the less you get. You don’t need to be a contract wiz to understand the basics.
As ESPN’s Adam Schefter pointed out on the broadcast, and as Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch relayed via Twitter, however, the second contract is where the monster money comes. This is true.
Adam Schefter delivering the smart context on Matt Barkley: "In the NFL, it's always about the second contract anyway."— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) April 27, 2013
The problem with this: The discussion of a “second” contract well before he signs his first is premature to say the least. If his talents translate to the NFL, this initial drop will mean little. If they don’t, it’ll prove to be far more significant.
An assumption of big money on the horizon is, well, an assumption, especially at this stage. It doesn’t change what we know now, and the general message is clear.
Get the guaranteed money when you can.
If you’re a redshirt sophomore or a junior with a payday in front of you, and the rigid system allows you to leave, leave, and don’t think twice about it.
There is another side to this equation, of course, a cautionary tale for those overly anxious to follow such advice. The draft once again teaches many lessons.
Another quarterback, former Tennessee flamethrower Tyler Bray, skipped out on his final season for eligibility and went undrafted. Former Notre Dame running back Cierre Wood also fell victim to this early departure disappointment. Both have since signed with teams as free agents.
Neither was in the same class as Barkley as a college player, and thus the decision should have been viewed differently. The hope is that the information provided for Bray and Wood was sound enough, that they received an honest idea about where they might land. Regardless, they now serve as another lesson to players deciding on leaving early.
The scouting process can indeed take its toll, but typically there’s a sense of both the ceiling and the floor well ahead of time.
If that information is positive enough, it shouldn’t require much thought.
As a college football fanatic, it pains me to say this. I was selfishly thrilled when Barkley announced he would return to USC more than a year ago because his return elevated the quality and excitement of the sport.
College football is better with the Barkleys of the world staying around as long as they are allowed.
But I’m also a realist, one who recognizes the fragile lifespan of a football player. Since the NCAA refuses to acknowledge the true worth of its players, and it won’t allow its elite players to capitalize on their own value, such decisions should be viewed as a business proposition for them.
Les Miles has tiptoed around this issue recently after watching 11 underclassmen leave for the draft in one season. He made sure to continue to stress the importance of getting an education, yes, but he’s also one of the first to embrace the idea of the "three-year plan," according to CBS Sports:
I hear that as I go through the home—"Coach, tell me about three-and-out. Is that a goal of yours?" I say yes, we want to talk about it at the right time as long as it's through the lens of getting a degree and being in the right position not only to being drafted early but staying in the league.
It doesn’t apply to everyone. In fact, it fits only a percentage of a percentage. But the term “student-athlete” is a farce for some. For those gifted and talented enough to be in this position, the decision should be rather simple.
Barkley’s fall in this year’s draft will likely serve as yet another disclaimer for those who will find themselves in this position soon enough. There’s also the possibility of injury, which can jeopardize your career, let alone draft status.
You just don’t know what will happen, and that’s exactly the point.
As much as we’d love for you to stay around as long as you can—and we really won’t complain if you do—the risk is far too great.
Go on, take the money and run.