Should I stay or should I go? Every year between early December and now, it isn’t just The Clash asking this question.
In a week is the deadline for any underclassmen, or players who have been in school at least three years and haven’t run out of college eligibility yet, to declare for April’s NFL draft. Some guys leaving, choosing to leave school early, are obvious decisions — next year, for example, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is the likely No. 1 overall pick barring an injury or catastrophic drop in performance, and he’s almost certain to enter the draft.
Others have a bit more complicated circumstances surrounding their decision to leave or stay in school, and probably the decision that brought about the most debate this year is Alabama junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Entering this year, Tagovailoa was almost certainly a top-five pick in the draft, but an injury during the Crimson Tide’s game against Mississippi State cut his season short, and suddenly, his best option wasn’t so crystal clear.
Even after his injury, I spent most of December emphatically believing that Tagovailoa should still declare for the draft after the season. The closer it got for him to decide, though, the more I began to reconsider. Tagovailoa ultimately decided to leave school, and if he’s a top-15 pick who gets to spend a year rehabbing while he’s getting paid, then Tagovailoa absolutely made the correct decision. The question is, after the injury, is he still at top-15 pick?
If you go strictly by his skills, the answer is yes. But for the second year in a row, Tagovailoa has missed time during the season due to an injury. This latest injury probably means he can’t participate in the NFL combine. Does this scare off teams that will be expecting a franchise quarterback if they draft one in the first round? Would going back to school and having a healthy season in 2020 have solidified Tagovailoa as the top-five pick he likely was entering 2019?
It’s not an easy answer. Suppose he comes back to school and gets hurt yet again, lowering his stock out of the first round entirely. If it were me, I probably would have made the same decision Tagovailoa did and declare, though I do think there were good arguments to be made to go back to school. If the grade he got was a late-first-round grade, then it’s possible he drops out of the first round entirely, and suddenly the money isn’t nearly as much as he could have made.
Are there instances where players should declare for the draft despite not getting first-round grades? Yes. I would argue most running backs fit this description. The shelf life for running backs in the NFL isn’t long, and from the second a running back steps foot on a college campus, the clock is already running. How many hits can he sustain before he goes pro, and how many hits can he subsequently sustain once he gets to the pros before he’s no longer physically capable of performing?
Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill declared for the draft following this past season, and one mock draft I read had him going in rounds two or three. Normally I would tell a guy like that to go back to school, but how much could Hill realistically improve his stock for a league that rarely takes running backs in the first round anyway? At that point, all you’re doing is going through another year of getting hit a bunch of times without getting paid to do so. Hill made the correct call, as do most junior or redshirt sophomore running backs when they declare without a first-round grade.
Is there anyone I think should have come back that didn’t? Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm is someone I think could have benefitted from one more college season. Entering this past fall, Fromm was considered almost a lock to be taken in the first round, but his stock slipped this past season, and I felt like it would have been beneficial for Fromm to return and try to bring his stock back up to what it was before. Fromm instead declared for the draft, and it’ll be interesting to see where he’s taken. I could see some team who believes in the Fromm from 2017-18 being the real Fromm and using a first-round pick on him.
Ultimately, I hope all of these guys get paid well and have long, productive careers. These decisions are never easy. Even if they’re not earning a paycheck doing so, a lot of guys enjoy the college life and playing football at that level, so it’s difficult to make a draft decision purely based on money. Still, this is their future livelihood we’re discussing, so money is almost always what it boils down to — and that’s how it should be, since they’re the ones putting their bodies on the line for our entertainment.
Drew Kerekes is the sports editor at The Meridian Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.