Jaylon Smith hasn’t been specifically mentioned by LSU’s Leonard Fournette or Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, but both those star running backs couldn’t have avoided the freak injury that the former Irish linebacker suffered in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl.
Smith’s injury — a torn ACL and LCL, and more importantly for his draft stock, nerve damage in his knee — came on a relatively routine play after which Ohio State offensive lineman Taylor Decker shoved Smith to the side. Smith, being the athletic freak that he was, tried to plant his left knee in the ground instead of rolling to the turf, as most players without the physical gifts possessed by Smith would’ve been forced to do.
It’s a gruesome injury to re-watch nearly a year after it occurred — Smith’s leg, from below his kneecap to his ankle, twisted in a sickening direction. These kind of freak injuries are a common occurrence in a sport as violent as football, though.
It just so happened that injury probably cost Smith upward of $15 million.
Say Jaylon Smith went 5th overall. He'd get a fully guaranteed 4-yr, $23.5M deal. Wound up with a 4-yr, $6.5M ($4.5M guar) deal instead.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) December 19, 2016
So that brings us back to Fournette and McCaffrey, both of whom announced this month that they will not play in their respective bowl games and will focus on preparing for the NFL Draft.
More significant to both than what happened to Smith, though, is just how much both Fournette and McCaffrey have been used in the last three years. Consider this:
McCaffrey touched the ball 672 times via rush/rec last 2 years. Only 2 other Power 5 players had 550. Doesn't even include his 76 returns.— Chris Fallica (@chrisfallica) December 19, 2016
As for Fournette, he touched the ball 682 times over his three years in Baton Rouge. That’s a lot of battering, too.
But given what happened to Smith, it’s hard to criticize either player for making a logical financial decision. Fournette appears destined to be a top-10 pick, while McCaffrey likely will come off the board late in the first round. Let’s say Fournette goes No. 3, where CBS Sports’ Rob Rang has him projected. Last year’s third overall pick — San Diego Charges defensive end Joey Bosa — signed a $25.8 million contract with a $17 million signing bonus (albeit after a lengthy, tumultuous process). If Fournette were to play in the Citrus Bowl against Louisville and suffer a significant injury, it could drop him out of the first round and cost him no less than $15 million and potentially more than $20 million. That’s generational wealth being taken away.
The same goes for McCaffrey, where dropping out of the first round due to a significant injury could cost him around $5 million. Why risk it to play in the Sun Bowl, a game that in the grand scheme of things won’t do much to affect Stanford’s trajectory?
That may not be good for college football, but whatever impact it has on the quality of bowl season falls well short of the financial impact an injury could have in one of these games. After all, the NFL Draft is the first chance for any of these players to make money on their football abilities, and they should be allowed to take full advantage of it in whatever way they choose.
It’s also worth noting that there was no consideration from Smith to not play in last year’s Fiesta Bowl, which certainly was a bigger game than the 2016 Sun Bowl or Citrus Bowl. And consider what Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who was with Smith in the University of Phoenix Stadium locker room after his injury, said after the game:
“This is such a special kid,” Swarbrick said. “His entire focus wasn’t a bunch of questions about consequences, it was, you gotta get me back out there so I can be with my teammates. That’s what we focused on, getting him showered, getting him braced and getting him back out there.”
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
There’s no wrong answer to the question posed to these highly regarded NFL prospects about participating in their team’s bowl game. Keep that in mind if this trend continues beyond Fournette and McCaffrey.