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College Considerations

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Whether hoping to avoid injury or getting an early start on the pre-draft timeline, players who opt out of bowl games do so with a professional purpose.

More players are deciding to opt out of bowl games in preparation for a chance at the next level, announcements which have quickly become part of the national narrative. It's a process that everyone should understand, support and respect.

Obviously, every opportunity to play college football is a special one. This is a sport that means so much to so many, most specifically those who have actually put in a lifetime of work to make such a dream a reality. Before any player even considers the mere possibility of skipping any bowl game, they do so after years of commitment to the program they play for; blood, sweat, tears and time. Many potential draftees have been star players for those schools, leading contributors who have helped elevate the profiles of their coaches, teams and institutions.  

To question how much these players care about their current teams is to completely ignore the totality of their entire careers.

Each student-athlete being considered for the professional ranks has tirelessly earned the extremely rare opportunities before them. Only an estimated 1.6% of all college football players get drafted into the NFL. Correspondingly, it's a process that should be treated reverently and considered meticulously. The pros have been doing that on their end for years. Giving what they have already given, the few preparing for those evaluations should get to do so with the momentum of widespread appreciation and encouragement.

It goes without saying that draft prospects have put themselves in position to be on the verge of earning generational wealth, joining one of the most elite fraternities in sports and becoming local, regional or even national names. This is competing at football's highest level on football's biggest stage. The return is something most can only fathom. The NFL, for anyone, is a game-changer. 

In the 2021 NFL Draft, every first round pick had a multi-million dollar season-one salary, a signing bonus of at least $5 million and a four-year total salary of a minimum of $11 million. Every top ten selection had first-contract totals of $20 million or more, with signing bonuses of $12 million or more. Number one overall pick Trevor Lawrence had a signing bonus of over $24 million and a total contract of nearly $37 million. Next season, the minimum one-season salary for an active league player will be $705,000.     

The harsh reality is that where you get drafted matters and matters a lot. It's why we obsess over a half-an-inch or a tenth-of-a-second, watch thousands of hours of film and pro teams have entire departments focused on scouting amateurs. How much you get paid depends on where you get picked. Other factors like historical legacies, potential marketing offers and, yes, depth chart slotting can be impacted by where you get selected or if you do at all. The draft is the front door to fame and fortune. 

Even for players not yet in the league, the NFL isn't just a business, it's big business and decisions must be made accordingly.    

Unfortunately, there are examples of prospects getting hurt in bowl games. And the injuries don't have to be major, either. While the consequences of something like a torn ACL would be quite obvious, a serious twisted ankle or muscle pull could also have negative ramifications. Though those injuries wouldn't prevent players from participating in rookie mini-camps, they could dramatically impact any pre-draft itinerary. All-star games run from late-January through mid-February. The combine then follows.

Missing out or not being fully healthy in those events could cost players momentum and, ultimately, money. 

Training begins as soon as the college season ends. It's a rigorous, intensive process. Not only do prospects train for the NFL, they train for mere access to the NFL, specifically working to improve readings for metrics like the 40-yard dash, bench press and 3-cone drill. Many also directly prepare for the interview and testing portions of interactions with future teams. Players regularly form staffs of agents, consultants and trainers to help them be as prepared as possible for the draft. Understandably so. All of this, key maneuvering ahead of any at chance the pros, takes time, resources and effort.        

Whether hoping to avoid injury or getting an early start on the pre-draft timeline, players who opt out of bowl games do so with a professional purpose.

Considering all that is on the line, criticizing a student-athlete for not playing one more game kind of defeats the purpose of pulling for them at all.

In many instances, the bowls they are skipping are somewhat inconsequential in the grand scheme. The postseason is an incredible part of college football's rich history and tradition. Bowl games are fun. They are meaningful trips for hard-working student-athletes and often holiday vacations for fans. They, without question, help make the sport what it is. Outside of the playoff, however, they don't impact the national championship race. Some matchups simply lack the urgency of contests in the fall. Others don't come with much media attention. They are, quite literally, "extra" games.  

The overwhelming majority of players suit up and play -- and for good reason. It's another chance to take the field with your brothers and another opportunity to go out and compete. Many are eager for one more game in the uniform. All of that, all the way around, is great. Furthermore, a number of prospects have used notable bowl game performances to boost their draft profiles. Should a select few weigh their options and decide that after three or four years of giving a team their all, that it's in their interest to leave early, it's a decision that, quite frankly, makes sense.

And yes, it's a business decision. Given what could be on the horizon, it should be. It has to be. Almost everyone else in any program, coaches to staff of all types, make professional choices all the time. They do what is best for them. They make tough calls when rare chances arise. Why is a student-athlete, one who isn't being paid, making a similar move once after dozens of games played treated so differently? Negative feedback here isn't fair. 

It's also a personal decision, one that any player has to make regardless of what the initial response might be. Players, in every instance, should do what is best for them and their families. Everyone does. Behind the helmets and shoulder pads, these, too, are people. People with hopes and dreams, goals and aspirations and roles and responsibilities. To criticize a young man for trying to better himself, especially for something so fleeting, misses the whole point.   

A prospect doesn't walk away from his team if he leaves before a bowl game, he takes his team with him. Any prospect preparing for the draft becomes an ambassador for, an extension of, the program and the people he represents. When any NFL lineup is introduced, the school is announced right after the player. The whole idea of going to college is to try and ready oneself for whatever opportunity comes next. For a select few, that best timing is now. 

Players moving to football's highest level are incredible achievements, after years of hard work, to be celebrated; they shouldn't have to play one more game to earn that applause.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports