Twitter was abuzz today after news broke of Christian McCaffrey’s decision to skip Stanford’s date at the Sun Bowl, where the Cardinal will face North Carolina on December 30. McCaffrey joins fellow top running back prospect Leonard Fournette as high-profile college stars who have decided to focus on their scouting combine and pro day training for the upcoming 2017 NFL draft instead of their respective teams’ post-season bowl games.
The decision to skip their final collegiate game stirred a mix of reactions on social media, ranging from those who agreed with the cautious approach to those who described the choice as selfish and off-putting. Last year’s first running back drafted and the odds-on favorite for the NFL’s Rookie of the Year, Ezekiel Elliott, offered his two cents:
“All these young guys deciding to skip their bowl games. I would do anything to play one time with my brothers in that scarlet and gray. One last time to honor your university and one last chance to play with your boys who will be your brothers for life.”
Elliott, who declared for the 2016 NFL draft with a season of eligibility remaining at Ohio State, comes off a bit disingenuous. In theory, he could have played another 12 games with his ‘brothers in scarlet and gray,’ but chose instead to make the leap to the NFL.
He clearly made the right call to turn pro.
To me, there’s really nothing controversial about the decision McCaffrey and Fournette have made. Both players appear locked in as top-50 picks, with Fournette having a chance to go in the top-10 or higher. They have absolutely nothing to gain by playing another game, especially one that amounts to little more than a preseason NFL contest. Aside from a plaque or forgettable trophy, there’s little even by way of bragging rights to be earned with a win.
Take into consideration the position they play, too. Every time they carry the ball on the collegiate level is one less carry they have left in the tank for the pros. In addition, running back is a violent position that involves a high rate of injury. Whether it’s a knee, ankle, shoulder or concussion, an injury in December could have lingering effects into April and beyond for both players.
The unfortunate and devastating injury suffered by current Dallas Cowboy and former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith is the most high-profile example of an elite draft prospect suffering an injury in college football’s post season. He was in the mix to be the first player chosen before his knee injury; five months after the injury, he was a second-round pick.
A more relevant example, though, dates back to 2003 when Willis McGahee, a star running back for the Miami Hurricanes, suffered a torn ACL, MCL and PCL in the National Championship game. While he still went in the first round of the 2003 draft — pick 23 — he lost millions of dollars from the original projection that had him going in the top-five.
The NFL prohibits prospects from entering the NFL draft until they are three years removed from their high school’s graduating class. Football players have to wait the longest of any of the major sports before they can get paid for what they do. When combined with the high rate of injury that naturally exists in the sport, there should be no criticism of a 21-year-old athlete who decides to protect his body from one more unnecessary game before he gets paid for the risk and sacrifice that he’s made for most of his life.
I’d be willing to bet the farm on the fact that NFL front offices are thrilled neither star will be playing in another college game. Their scouting reports are done. There’s nothing more to learn about Fournette or McCaffrey that isn’t already on tape. Teams in need of a running back in this year’s draft want both players to be healthy and without any medical concerns other than those which already exist. A sprain, strain, tweak or tear will do nothing but make everybody’s life more difficult moving forward.
While LSU and Stanford fans would certainly love to see Fournette and McCaffrey take the field one more time, they’ve done enough over the last three years to deserve nothing but respect and support from not only anyone associated with their programs, but from fans of college football in general.