Follow the Money: Projected First-Round Picks Should Hightail it to the NFL

Ivan Pierre Aguirre-US PRESSWIRE

Many promising NFL prospects have taken a big tumble on draft day as team after team passes them by, but few players have fallen as far and as fast, with as much of a rough landing, as former USC Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley.

We saw West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith sit backstage at this year’s draft, awkwardly waiting for the first-round phone call that never came. We remember how uncomfortable it was to watch former Notre Dame star Brady Quinn in the green room as he slipped from potential No. 1 overall pick to No. 22.

Thank goodness Barkley declined an invitation to Radio City Music Hall this year. A probable top ten pick if he’d come out as a junior, he fell all the way to the fourth round before being selected by the Philadelphia Eagles with the first pick of that round. He held on to his sense of humor though; Sports Illustrated‘s Peter King tweeted that Barkley asked him, “Peter, does this count as the number one pick?”

USC fans and draft experts alike thought it was bad when Matt Leinart dropped to the No. 10 overall pick when he decided to return for his senior season, but the difference between No. 1 and No. 10 is much smaller than that between top ten and round four, especially when it comes to signing that first contract.

For years, Barkley was an example of what a college football player should be — well-rounded and well-spoken, loyal to his team, a hard worker, and a role model. Younger players should represent themselves and their universities as well as he did in four years, but if they have the opportunity like he did to make big money in the pros after just three, they should absolutely take it.

Staying in school for an extra year didn’t seem like too much of a risk for a quarterback like Barkley. He’s a pocket passer, so he doesn’t (theoretically) face the same wear and tear as a mobile quarterback or a running back. Barkley did end up getting injured, but then again, Sam Bradford missed most of his final year at Oklahoma with a shoulder injury, and he still signed the highest rookie contract in NFL history as the St. Louis Rams‘ No. 1 pick.

Unlike Bradford and Leinart when they decided to forego the draft, Barkley still had a bowl game and a Heisman to play for so it seemed like he might have just as much to gain by staying. It didn’t work out that way. He didn’t accomplish any of the things he came back to USC to do, and he missed out on millions of first-round money.

College football players in similar situations should learn from Barkley’s multimillion dollar mistake and put themselves first. Leave school. Get paid.

(Note: This is only applies to those who are weighing a potential first or second-round selection. Late-rounders — ahem, Nickell Robey — might as well go back and try to boost that draft stock so they, too, can move up in the draft and the tax brackets.)

Education is incredibly important, and yes, it’s harder to go back to school once you leave, but it’s really hard to figure out other legal ways of getting that much money at such a young age and, unfortunately, a college degree isn’t worth what is used to be in today’s job market. Enter the draft, hire good representation, get paid, and then be smart with the money (easier said than done) and put some of it away to finish school in the offseason.

If you want to take an extra year to get your degree / be a college kid / try for a Heisman or a national championship, fine, just don’t assume that the money will be there waiting for you next time around. NFL scouts don’t seem too impressed by players who aren’t even smart enough to take a massive paycheck the first time it’s offered to them.

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