Columbus, Ohio – most of it Ohio State Football Eligible players have declared their intentions in the April NFL Draft — with one very notable exception.
In fact, 29 of the 32 players included in the first round of CBS’s new mock draft on Friday have declared their entry. Two of the exceptions are USC’s Jordan Addison and UCLA’s Quentin Johnson, who are expected to be in the middle of the first round. the other Buckeyes quarterback CJ Stroud, He is frequently listed among the contenders for first place overall.
Stroud’s departure from the draft after three seasons was seen as a formality since he became the eventual Heisman Trophy finalist in 2021. It was only when he followed it up with another solid season that certainty grew widely. His presence as one of the top three quarterbacks in this draft — along with Kentucky’s Will Levis and Alabama’s Bryce Young — shapes the conversation around several NFL franchises this winter.
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However, Stroud has discussed this decision more than might have been expected. The deadline for early entry — players who leave after their third year of college — is Monday.
There is precedent here. Another undoubted NFL quarterback talent returned for an additional year. Peyton Manning did that at Tennessee a generation ago, and it has worked out well for him in the long run. Andrew Luck was projected to finish first overall in 2011, and stayed at Stanford, finishing first the following year. Oregon’s Justin Herbert may have been the best quarterback in the somewhat soft 2019 class, but he fell behind to finish sixth in 2020.
Stroud’s decision includes one factor that none of these stars had to consider. He can stay in college while making good money. Not top-notch NFL money, but certainly no change. Besides driving a Mercedes G Wagon for free, Stroud has earned actual endorsement income with multiple brands believed to be in the seven figures.
This was, after all, one of the great benefits that was suggested when the name, image and likeness became a reality.
Manning, Locke, and Herbert chose to stay in college even though they knew they were losing a year’s worth of income. The difference-making income Stroud will need to stay in Columbus will not flow through donations to OSU-related groups. It may come from a global brand of some sort, but those kinds of deals are within OSU’s reach.
As a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist who just got knocked out while nearly beating Georgia and who will once again lead a contender to the national championship, Stroud’s is a brand companies want to be associated with.
However, in purely financial terms, it seems like a no-brainer. to me Spottrack — which tracks the NFL’s salary cap structure, contacts, and other such details — Projected four-year contracts for players named in the top five picks range from $34 to $41 million. The signing bonus ranges from $22 to $27 million. (Teams also carry a fifth-year option on first-round contracts.)
The same basic structure will await Stroud if he delays Project 2024. However, two other factors are at play. First, delaying entry into the NFL means delaying the start of the second, more lucrative decade. This is where players have leverage, and for most of the elite, this can lead to contracts reaching the mid-nine figures.
Second, Stroud could essentially trade one season’s worth of earnings at OSU for whatever he might make in his final season in the NFL — whenever that happens. Kirk Cousins, for example, is set to earn $36 million in 2023 for its 12th season.
Professional sports money can be ridiculous. Franchise quarterback money is on an entirely different spectrum.
Which brings us to another point directly related to income: risk. We can’t talk about an athlete staying in school with the guarantee of an equal payday in the NFL after one year. Men get hurt — often. We don’t yet know, for example, if the hamstring injury that basically cost Jaxon Smith-Njigba his entire season will now be a factor in his recruiting status.
Not every dollar of an NFL rookie contract is guaranteed. However, no dollar is guaranteed from a contract until you actually sign it. Three of the players who defended Stroud last season — they faced Paris Johnson Jr., Duane Jones and quarterback Luke Whipler — have announced plans to go into the draft.
But if she’s really struggling with that decision, money probably isn’t the main motivator.
Stroud accomplished a lot in his two seasons as a starter. Two trips to New York as a Heisman finalist, becoming only the third Buckeye to achieve two Top Four finishes in voting. He was twice named the Top Ten Offensive Player of the Year and Quarterback of the Year. He ranks second in OSU history in passing yards and touchdowns. Four receivers assisted in all seasons for America.
However, he can’t shake some other numbers. There are 42-27 and 45-23 scores of loss to Michigan. Zero Big Ten Championship appearances as a starter, not to mention wins. Zero playoff wins, too, though it was arguably his career-best performance in his one-point semifinal loss to Georgia last month. Two trips to New York without having to make room in his bag to win the actual prize.
Stroud spoke of the patchy and complex legacy of the minutes after Michigan’s loss. “I’ll just eat it,” he said at the time.
Perhaps this superior performance in the Peach Bowl—letting it all out on the court, including the scrambling performance he’d held for two years—helped him swallow those other shortcomings.
Or maybe he can’t choke it down until he takes another bite of it.
I am very skeptical that Stroud would not choose to take the safe and reasonable course of moving to the NFL. Nor do I think he delays this decision in pursuit of drama or indifference to the time frame. The answer probably didn’t come to him as easily as it did to the rest of us, who don’t have to live with it.
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