Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette did just fine in the NFL draft: Why others will follow their lead

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

PHILADELPHIA – Last December, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey decided to skip his team’s game in the Sun Bowl so he could “begin my draft prep immediately.”

Meanwhile LSU’s Leonard Fournette sat out the Tigers’ appearance in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl as part of what he later deemed a mutual decision between he and his coach, Ed Orgeron, who cautioned him not to play because “you have a lot on the line,” Fournette told the NFL Network.

There were howls. There was handwringing. There were questions about whether putting individual goals ahead of one’s team would impact draft status. The establishment wasn’t pleased. Could NFL teams trust such selfish players, they asked? No one will take them high, they cautioned.

Here on Thursday at the NFL draft, Fournette was selected fourth overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Soon after, McCaffrey went eighth overall to the Carolina Panthers.

Debate over.

Leonard Fournette is greeted by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being taken fourth overall by the Jaguars. (AP)

What did Fournette think of the two of them – running backs, no less – going so high in the draft after all the dare-to-skip-a-bowl-game talk?

“I mean, nothing really,” Fournette said, which is about the perfect answer.

There was nothing to think. There never was anything to think. Unless you are a bowl director or cling to some unusually strong concept of college loyalty, this was a nothing decision. No matter what the people profiting off the bowl game say – and that includes coaches and athletic directors who receive bonuses for playing in it – the games are meaningless. Bowl games are just an old boondoggle to make everyone money except the players (who get a gift bag for their efforts).

Everyone involved in the bowl game is a highly paid professional, telling the players not to be professionals.

Look, skipping a college football playoff game would be a major red flag. That matters. Maybe bailing on a long-awaited trip to a Rose Bowl or a small school making a big bowl might raise an eyebrow.

An LSU Tiger missing the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl? Come on. Not dedicated to the team? Have you seen Leonard Fournette play football? The Jaguars sure did.

The cries were designed to scare future players to stay in their lane and give one more bit of obedience. It was about squeezing one more game, one more paycheck from them. That isn’t going to work anymore.

It’s perfectly fair and fine for any player who does choose to play in their team’s bowl game. That’s their decision. If they see greater value in suiting up one more time with their buddies, then great for them. It’s an understandable and admirable quality. It’s the same if you choose not too, though.

There was more, too, on Thursday. Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers missed the Orange Bowl due to injury, he suited up but couldn’t get through warm-ups. Some doubted the significance of the injury, though, and ESPN reported last week that some teams were questioning his commitment.

Peppers went 25th overall to Cleveland anyway.

McCaffrey may be the ultimate example here. By boldly declaring his intentions, he set forth a plan that he and his family (which includes his father Ed, a 13-year NFL veteran and three-time Super Bowl champion) believed would help his draft stock more than one additional game.

By ending his season a month early he had more time to rest and heal from nagging injuries, more time to train specifically for the combine, more time to prep for the process that would propel him into the top 10. If that is seen as a more beneficial route, then this will become common. Bowl games will miss their departing stars but will morph into showcases for young talent and the promise of the following season for the teams involved. That can be fun, too.

This may have a bigger impact than even the cautionary stories, such as Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith or Michigan’s Jake Butt. A likely top-five pick in the 2016 draft, Smith was injured in the Fiesta Bowl and dropped into the second round, costing him maybe $10 million and a year of his career. Butt was a projected 2017 first-rounder who blew out his knee in the Orange Bowl and wasn’t selected Thursday.

Mostly, Fournette and McCaffrey silenced the critics and the complainers for the next wave of players. Guys can freely make a choice on what path they want knowing full well that choosing to sit out a bowl game won’t hurt them a bit.

There will still be some moaning. There will still be some rebuking. College Sports Inc. doesn’t want to give an inch or a quarter.

The debate is over, though, dead and decided in the first eight picks of the first round here Thursday.

More NFL draft coverage from Yahoo Sports:
Grading every pick: Who did the best in Round 1?
Falcons’ pick wins draft night with emotional, expletive-laden interview
Watson’s heartwarming moment after being drafted
Raiders take risk, pick CB at center of rape investigation
49ers take Bears’ pick, deliver cold Twitter shot

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