The only way Christian McCaffrey could impact his draft stock by playing in the Sun Bowl is if he were to suffer an injury. So, whether you believe Stanford's star running back is in the right or the wrong for sitting out the Cardinal's Dec. 30 matchup with North Carolina, consider this fair warning: You are witnessing the start of a trend.
McCaffrey announced Monday via Twitter that he would skip his final college game, before entering the 2017 NFL draft: "Very tough decision, but I have decided not to play in the Sun Bowl so I can begin my draft prep immediately. Thx to all my teammates for their 100% support—It means a lot to me. Go Cardinal!"
In doing so, McCaffrey joins LSU running back Leonard Fournette, who said last week that he would not play in the Dec. 31 Citrus Bowl vs. Louisville. Fournette is generally considered a Round 1 lock ahead of the coming draft; McCaffrey's exact stock is a bit tougher to pin down, but he has an excellent shot of being selected in Round 1.
Those hopes would go out the window, of course, were McCaffrey to suffer an injury between now and April 27. He no doubt is well aware of what happened to Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith last Jan. 1 in the Fiesta Bowl. Considered a potential top-10 pick, Smith shredded his knee against Ohio State, fell to No. 34 in the draft and his playing future remains very much up in the air as his rookie season winds down.
So, McCaffrey will sit. Fournette, too. And they certainly will not be the last high-profile NFL draft hopefuls to back out of their final college games, in hopes of being 100% healthy when events like the combine and private team workouts roll around.
This does threaten to cause myriad headaches for college football, as well as for the bowl system. What if players, currently not allowed to turn pro until they are three years removed from high school, opt to sit out entire seasons, as Fournette was encouraged by some to do this year? What if several players on a team bail on the bowl game? What if McCaffrey or Fournette had chosen this path with their respective teams in the playoff?
On the final question, let's take a step back. This is not meant to disrespect the Sun Bowl in any way, but in the grand scheme of college football it is not as important as the playoff games. Teams want to win their bowl games, obviously, but 39 of the 41 on the schedule this year are a small step above being glorified exhibitions.
They matter—to the people putting the bowls on, to the players, to the programs—but the stakes are comparatively low. For McCaffrey, the choice came down to whether he wanted to help his team beat North Carolina or to get into January healthy. He chose the latter.
Naturally, this opens him up to quick, fierce criticism. His tweet announcing his intentions on Twitter received a flood of replies, ranging from support to those calling for him to give back his scholarship. Even Cowboys rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott, whose final collegiate game was the one in which Smith suffered his injury, weighed in:
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
Elliott had a year of NCAA eligibility remaining when he entered the draft.
To some extent, this comes with the territory. It is well within the rights of fans, and even McCaffrey or Fournette's teammates, to be highly disappointed with their decisions—we all want to believe players are willing to put their team first. At least most of their teammates likely will understand, though. From Stanford wide receiver Trenton Irwin (albeit an unverified Twitter account):
The whole team supports @CMccaffrey5 in everything and anything. Hes been a leader to this team through the easy times and tough times.— Trenton Irwin (@trenton_4) December 19, 2016
At some point, amid all the yelling and screaming it's also important to try to see where McCaffrey and Fournette are coming from here.
They are both on full scholarship, yes, but they will not get paid for the bowl game. They have no guarantees from the NFL that they will be drafted or receive a contract if something goes wrong. Even if, as was the case with Smith, they have insurance policies to protect against injury, the financial relief would be negligible—Smith reportedly received $900K via insurance by slipping out of Round 1, hardly covering the multi-millions he probably lost with his injury. (And, as mentioned, there is no certainty Smith will be healthy enough or play well enough to receive a second contract/extension, which often comes with a significant salary increase.)
Frankly, it's a broken system. The only ways to defend against more players following McCaffrey and Fournette's lead are to compensate them financially or to lessen the restrictions preventing them from entering the draft earlier. Neither McCaffrey nor Fournette gained much by returning to school this year. Considering both struggled with injuries and saw their production drop, one could argue they did no better than break even compared to where their draft profiles would have been a year ago.
Do these players owe it to their teams, and their fans, to see out the season? Maybe. But they also deserve the right to consider what's best for their own futures. The NCAA isn't looking out for them. The NFL would be there if they fall.
This is going to happen more and more. McCaffrey and Fournette are only the beginning.