The Alabama Crimson Tide outlasted the Clemson Tigers in Monday’s national championship game, 45-40, and may have been more focused on the outcome of the contest than they were during last year’s College Football Playoff.
Joe Schad of ESPN.com reported Saturday that Alabama tight end O.J. Howard said “the team took a vote to withhold NFL draft grade feedback until after the championship game.”
That decision came after Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban made headlines last year after his team lost to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinal matchup. Mark Schlabach of ESPN.com noted in July that “Saban isn’t happy that NFL draft grades were delivered to juniors on Dec. 15. Said players played not to get hurt, ran out of bounds.”
While it seemed like sour grapes at the time considering the Crimson Tide watched the No. 4 seed Buckeyes win that game and eventually take home the national title, seven Alabama players were taken in the 2015 draft, per NFL.com’s draft tracker. Among them were critical contributors, such as wide receiver Amari Cooper, running back T.J. Yeldon and safety Landon Collins.
It could have theoretically impacted the game if even one of them had one foot out the door with eyes on the NFL.
That overlooks the team on the other sideline, though, as Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk pointed out, “Ohio State had plenty of NFL hopefuls of their own, of course, so there’s a chance that Saban’s just looking for a convenient excuse for why his team lost.” (Five Buckeyes were taken in the draft, a number that figures to be much higher this year after nine underclassmen declared.)
Saban did offer his program’s take on the draft on Tuesday after his team won the national title this season, per Dan Parr of NFL.com: “We try to emphasize with our players that if you're a first-round draft pick, the business decision is you should go out for the draft. If you're in a position in the draft where you can enhance your value by staying in college, then maybe you shouldn't go out for the draft.”
Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk did not seem pleased with Saban’s explanation and system:
That’s an unrealistic assessment, given the current state of player compensation in the NFL. Before the rookie wage scale was implemented in 2011, a player could make a lot of money by spending another year in college and working his way from a second- or third-round pick into round one. Indeed, a player prior to 2011 could make a lot of money simply from going from the bottom of round one to the top of it.
The current rookie wage scale places less of a premium on playing another year for free in the hopes of making more later. It’s actually better, if the player is destined to become a good-to-great NFL player, to start putting in years now toward the potentially far more lucrative second NFL contract.
Moreover, it’s always better to be a high second-round pick than a low first-round pick, because teams control the rights to first-round picks for five years. Second-round picks are eligible for free agency after four.
That’s why Saban’s rule of thumb doesn’t work for the players. But it definitely works for Saban, who benefits from the players choosing to continue to work for him at no cost to Alabama. And the ensuing Jedi Mind Trick also works well for Alabama, which can continue to justify paying millions that otherwise would go to the players to the coach who has convinced them to keep working for free.
It worked enough to earn Alabama a national title this year, largely because of the contributions of Howard.
However, Howard probably helped his own status as well with his performance Monday. He earned Offensive Player of the Game honors after he tallied 208 receiving yards and two touchdowns on five catches. His final score that broke a fourth-quarter tie proved to be the game-winner, and his speed in the open field at 6’6” and 242 pounds surely turned heads in the NFL.
Howard’s actual position in the draft—should he choose to leave school—will likely be higher than his draft grade he elected not to look at before the game.