The NFL Network's cameras caught the tears rolling down Stephon Tuitt's face. And while Tuitt's emotions were overwhelming joy after being selected 46th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers, the slide into the middle of the second round was proof positive that the former Notre Dame defensive end should've stayed for his senior season in South Bend.
Sure, it's easy for the guy behind the keyboard to tell the kid who just became an instant millionaire that he's making a mistake. But Tuitt's slide cost him millions of dollars in earnings over the next four years.
How much money did falling into the middle of the second round cost Tuitt? That's tough to measure. The last 48 hours have been a nice reminder that most draft experts are simply throwing darts.
Assuming Tuitt was a first-round pick next year is no given. But for the sake of the exercise, let's project a strong senior season moves Tuitt into the top 15. (After all, look what it did for Zack Martin, Tyler Eifert and Michael Floyd.)
The money difference is huge. Even with the NFL's rookie slotting system, Tuitt's slide cost him a ton of cash. According to OverTheCap.com, the projected rookie contract for the Steelers' second-round pick is a signing bonus of approximately $1.8 million and a four-year contract worth just over $4.8 million.
To be sure, that's life changing money. But it's not even half of the money that the Steelers will pay first-rounder Ryan Shazier, who will get over $10 million.
The stay-or-go decision wasn't one that Tuitt made alone. In a year where a record 98 underclassmen declared for the draft, only 15 of them were taken in the first round. Fellow junior Troy Niklas decided to test the NFL waters as well and was selected just a few picks after Tuitt by the Arizona Cardinals.
That both would turn down an opportunity to earn their degree, or work their way into being a first-round pick, was disconcerting for Brian Kelly, via Eric Henson of the South Bend Tribune:
I just have to do a better job of educating our own players on the NFL and what it means to be a first-round draft pick versus a second or a third. When an agent says, ‘Let’s play for your second contract,’ how ridiculous that is.
My point is in the recruiting process, we do not want to go out there and say, ‘Come to Notre Dame for these reasons: Hey, come to Notre Dame, we’ll get you an apartment off campus; come to Notre Dame and we’ll help you go pro early.’
I just wanted to be clear that these are our distinctions, and you’re shopping down a different aisle. We’re not better than anybody else, but this is what you’re going to get if you shop down this aisle.
Even Alabama coach Nick Saban—no stranger to early NFL departures— has talked about the challenge of having his players make the right decision before deciding to declare early for the draft. A bad decision could cost you millions.
Saban said on his radio show, via AL.com's Andrew Gibble:
If you stay three years and you're going to be a first-round draft pick, that guy should probably go because it's a significant amount of money and a business decision," Saban told AL.com. "All these other guys that are second-day ... 53 percent of the guys that get second-round grades don't even get drafted. It's all about what kind of career you have.
Even the second-round pick or third-round pick, your average signing bonus is $700,000. If you can go from being a third-round pick to a guy that's the 25th pick, you make $7 million. That's 10 times more.
That Tuitt wrestled with the decision is not news. It was far from an easy choice for Tuitt, who long held firm that he planned on spending four years in South Bend, earning a degree that his mother made a priority. He nearly announced his return for his senior season in October, telling student-run newspaper The Observer that (via NBC Sports) before backing away from the statement.
Entering the 2013 season, it was natural to wonder if Tuitt would stay or go. A preseason All-American, Tuitt was coming off one of the more impressive seasons in Notre Dame history, with his 12 sacks second in school history. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. had him No. 11 on his big board (subscription required).
Look at the defenders who Tuitt nearly topped for the sack title in 2012, all while playing as a 3-4 defensive end. Jarvis Jones was Pittsburgh's first-round pick last year. Bjoern Werner, another first-rounder. Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 pick this season. Anthony Barr, came off the board ninth to Minnesota.
But Tuitt's 2013 didn't go according to plan. Plagued by an offseason hernia surgery that made it difficult for Tuitt to keep his weight down, a defensive end that played just below 300 pounds in 2012 was playing at closer to 330, robbing him of the explosiveness that helped him wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks.
Tuitt's sack total dropped to 7.5, a modest number considering the expectations. And while he showed moments of dominance, he produced an awful lot of head-scratching tape, looking lethargic and out of shape as he was forced to play a ton of snaps for a defensive line that was plagued by injuries.
Tuitt tried to remedy his disappointing season by whipping himself into top shape for the NFL Scouting Combine. And while he came in at a chiseled 304 pounds, a medical checkup revealed a minor fracture in his foot, a piece of bad luck that forced him out of competition at the combine, a place where a physically dominant performance would've put him back on the map.
In the end, it's all water under the bridge. Tuitt's story isn't a tragedy. He's vowed to return for his degree and will step into an aging defense that's been among the best at identifying and developing talent. When asked about his slide down the draft board, Tuitt wasn't sure what the main culprit was.
"I don’t know," Tuitt told Steelers.com. "All I know is I believe that everything happens for a reason. It was meant for me to come to the Steelers."
Today is a celebration for Stephon Tuitt. An NFL dream realized. But it's also a reminder that a year from now he could've been a first-round pick and celebrating an even bigger rookie contract.
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