Willis McGahee suffered a catastrophic knee injury in the BCS National Championship Game following the 2002 season. McGahee tore his ACL, MCL and PCL in his left knee after getting hit low on a screen pass from Ken Dorsey. Considered a top-five pick before the injury, the redshirt sophomore still declared for the 2003 NFL Draft and wound up falling to the Bills with the 23rd overall pick.
While McGahee missed his entire NFL rookie season rehabbing, his injury didn't prompt future top NFL prospects to cut their college seasons short by sitting out bowl games. He successfully overcame his injury to achieve NFL success, rushing for over 1,000 yards four times in 10 NFL seasons.
But times have changed almost a decade and a half later. LSU running back Leonard Fournette announced late last week that he was skipping the Citrus Bowl to start preparing for the 2017 NFL Draft. Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey followed suit on Monday with his announcement that he is missing the Sun Bowl to also begin his NFL Draft preparation. Both players had previously declared they were turning pro after their junior seasons.
An impetus for these decisions is Jaylon Smith. The former Notre Dame linebacker is a cautionary tale for highly-regarded draft prospects. He was projected as a top pick in last year's draft before tearing the ACL and LCL in his left knee and sustaining nerve damage during the Fiesta Bowl. That led to a fall on draft day. The Cowboys took Smith in the second round with the 34th overall pick and the linebacker signed a four-year contract worth approximately $6.5 million with slightly more than $4.5 million fully guaranteed.
The injury potentially cost as much as $18 million. Had a healthy Smith been selected fifth overall by the Jaguars instead of cornerback Jalen Ramsey, he would have signed a fully-guaranteed four-year, $23.35 million contract.
Smith isn't playing this season while he recovers from his knee injury. Since Smith was hurt prior to entering the NFL, the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement dictated that the Cowboys put him on the Non-Football Injury list (NFI) where he remains. Smith isn't receiving a year of service toward free agency for spending the season on NFI. Assuming Smith can successfully return from his injury, he will be a restricted free agent in 2020 instead of an unrestricted free agent. The Cowboys will have the right to match any offer sheet he signs with another team and receive at least a second-round pick as compensation with an unmatched one.
Why bowls aren't worth the risk
As a former sports agent, it's clear that Fournette and McCaffrey made smart business decisions. It's too much of a risk to gamble with their high draft status to play in what is essentially an exhibition game. It's the same reason why players that have solidified their draft status, whether it's underclassmen that are expected to declare for the 2017 draft or seniors such as Texas A&M junior defensive end Myles Garrett and Alabama senior defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, should make a similar cost/benefit analysis regarding their postseason games. The end goal for these players is a long, lucrative NFL career.
There are distinctions between the controversial decisions by Fournette and McCaffrey. Fournette isn't completely healthy after being limited to seven games this season because of a nagging ankle injury, which should make his choice more acceptable to the masses. He is projected as the third and seventh overall picks in the latest CBS Sports' mock drafts by Rob Rang and Dane Brugler.
McCaffrey seemingly is healthy. He returned to the same form that made him the 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up down the stretch of Stanford's regular season after missing the Notre Dame game in October because of injury. McCaffrey's NFL Combine and pro day performances are more crucial because Rang and Brugler project him as a late first-round pick. It isn't just a serious injury like Smith's that likely concerns McCaffrey but a lesser injury in the Sun Bowl that would require rehab and prevent him from properly training for the 40-yard dash and could hinder his chances of ensuring he's taken in the first round or prevent him from improving his draft status.
Fournette didn't make his choice in a vacuum. Because of my experiences as an agent, I suspect that Roc Nation Sports, the agency Fournette chose to represent him, played a role in the decision-making process. Players typically solicit or are given advice about professional career decisions by those agents under serious consideration for representation prior to making a selection.
McCaffrey is in a unique position with his decision because his father, Ed, had a 13-year NFL career as a wide receiver and won two Super Bowls with John Elway, who is now the Broncos general manager and executive vice-president of football operations. The elder McCaffrey surely consulted his host of NFL contacts to get a consensus on whether his son skipping Stanford's bowl game would hurt him draft-wise.
Who you calling selfish?
While it's smart business, the decisions of both running backs have received plenty of criticism. Sports fans, especially Stanford and LSU fans, other athletes and some in the media have called out McCaffrey and Fournette for being selfish and turning their backs on teammates and setting a bad example for the younger generation.
Ezekiel Elliott, the leading candidate for NFL Rookie of the Year, doesn't agree with either RB sitting out.
He tweeted the following:
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— Ezekiel Elliott (@EzekielElliott) December 19, 2016
One last time to honor your university and one last chance to play with your boys who will be your brothers for life.— Ezekiel Elliott (@EzekielElliott) December 19, 2016
Smith doesn't have any regrets despite the adversity.
Honestly. With Everything I've been through, If I could go back to Jan. 1st I'd play again. #ClearEyeView— Jaylon Smith (@thejaylonsmith) December 20, 2016
His team-first attitude is being applauded by those who disagree with the choices of Fournette and McCaffrey.
Not the new normal -- yet
The running backs could be the tip of iceberg for other players to do the same, but the floodgates haven't opened yet. Only Baylor running back Shock Linwood has joined Fournette and McCaffrey by opting out of the Cactus Bowl. He isn't regarded as the same type of NFL prospect as the other two running backs, making his decision much more questionable. Players making mistakes about voluntarily sitting out bowl games will come with the territory. An average of 30 underclassmen that declared for the last three drafts weren't selected.
Garrett, the potential first overall pick, felt it was necessary to state his intentions to play in next week's Texas Bowl after the announcements of Fournette and McCaffrey. He has battled his own injury problems and missed two games this season with a lower leg injury.
Allen doesn't seem to be inclined to sit out of Alabama's championship run in the college playoffs, even though he appears to be a sure-fire top-five pick.
But a top prospect opting to sit out the postseason rather than help his team win a national title is probably going to happen sooner rather than later.
And there would likely be a bigger uproar in the NFL community, especially among the older generation of general managers and front office executives. There would be greater potential to downgrade a player. The explanation or answers given in interviews with teams at the NFL Combine would have a lot more importance than Fournette's or McCaffrey's will. It would probably raise some questions about the player's competitiveness, selfishness, toughness and desire, since winning a championship is ultimate goal of any team sport. The decision might also create trust issues where teams might wonder whether the player would "quit" on them at some point in a crucial situation because he already did it in college. It's unlikely Allen would fall out of the first round with such a choice.
These same negative characteristics may also be attributed to a quarterback that sits out a regular bowl game because of the leadership aspects and importance of the position. North Carolina redshirt junior Mitch Trubisky, who received a first-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Committee and hasn't publicly disclosed his intentions about the draft, is playing in the Sun Bowl that McCaffrey is skipping. The NFL prefers that quarterbacks with limited track records, like Trubisky, get as many game reps as possible before turning pro.
One group that shouldn't have an issue with college players making a decision they feel is best for the future is college head coaches. They regularly leave schools for better-paying jobs at other colleges or the NFL without finishing their present commitments. Just look at this year alone. Tom Herman left early for Texas instead of staying to coach Houston in the Las Vegas Bowl. Willie Taggart didn't stick around for South Florida's appearance in the Birmingham Bowl. He's already at Oregon. Temple is playing in the Military Bowl without Matt Rhule's guidance because he is Baylor's new coach.
Taking out insurance
There really isn't much schools can do now that the genie is out of the bottle, outside of paying players, which probably won't happen anytime soon. A scholarship isn't the same as an employment contract. Florida State junior running back Dalvin Cook being the first running back taken instead of Fournette or McCaffrey going in the second round might make some players more reluctant to sit out bowl games in the future. One enticement could be buying disability and loss of value policies before the season for all of players that qualify for this type of insurance since schools are allowed to use their NCAA Student Assistance Funds for these purposes.
The policies still may not matter because of the payout. Smith collected $900,000 from his loss of value policy for being the third pick in the second round of the draft. Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomo, a potential 2015 first-round pick, tore his ACL and dislocated his left kneecap in a December 2014 practice leading up to Oregon's playoff game against Florida State. He collected $3 million from his policy after his selection by the Browns in the seventh round of the 2015 draft.
Since Ekpre-Olomo has yet to play in an NFL game because of the knee injury, the odds of him ever signing a lucrative second contract are remote. There isn't any type of policy that can be bought to account for the loss of the lucrative second contract, which may not come anyway if healthy, with a significant enough injury because the limits of a disability and loss value polices for draft prospects are roughly $10 million.