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The Nation

The NFL Draft Dilemma: Play Now or Play the Odds

December 21, 2005|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Sitting in the front row, his football pants still grass-streaked from practice, Reggie Bush raised his hand. He had a question about dealing with agents.

The two former National Football League executives standing at the front of the room Tuesday did not mince words. They told the USC tailback and his teammates about agents' commissions -- "Don't pay 3%. Tell them 1%" -- and about dealing with taxes and front offices.

"You guys are your own little business," said Joe Mendes, a former Washington Redskin vice president. "You have to figure out the best way to optimize your value."

With an undefeated team headed for the national championship game Jan. 4 at the Rose Bowl, the Trojans' roster includes a handful of juniors and sophomores talented enough and eligible, under NFL rules, to turn professional after the season. So their coach, Pete Carroll, asked two longtime friends of his, Mendes and former New York Jet executive Pat Kirwan, to give a seminar on the pros and cons of leaving school early.

Bush, the Heisman Trophy winner, is expected to enter the draft and is considered a top pick. The situation is not so clear-cut for teammates such as tailback LenDale White, offensive lineman Winston Justice and safety Darnell Bing, who said, "Agents try to get at you. There are a lot of people telling you what to do."

Every year at this time, college football's best underclassmen face a tantalizing gamble: Should they go for the money now or wait a year in hopes of making more?

If they turn pro and are chosen in the top eight spots, they can receive in excess of $13 million, guaranteed. But the figures steadily drop from there. This is where young athletes meet the business side of their game.

Last spring's top draft pick, quarterback Alex Smith, commanded a $49.5-million contract that guaranteed him $24 million, even if he proved a complete bust. By the 10th pick, former USC receiver Mike Williams, received $10.5 million guaranteed. The last selection of the round, guard Logan Mankins, signed for $4 million guaranteed.

By the second round, the average guarantee fell to $1.4 million, Kirwan said. By the third, it was $526,000.

Predicting exactly where a player might be drafted is guesswork, especially for underclassmen. They must submit their names for the draft in January -- before they have a chance to perform for scouts in private workouts or at the NFL combine, a group showcase in Indianapolis.

Much of what happens on draft day in April is predicated on these sessions.

"When they go to Indy and blow you away, they go up," said Gil Brandt, a former Dallas Cowboy executive. "And, to be quite honest, if they don't do well, they're going to drop."

Even if a player aces the combine, an important question remains: Which teams need someone at his position, and where will they pick in the draft?

Last spring, California quarterback Aaron Rodgers left school early and was touted as a potential No. 1 pick. But when the San Francisco 49ers chose Smith of Utah instead, no team picked a quarterback until Green Bay took Rodgers with the 24th selection.

"That's a huge difference," Brandt said. "I mean, millions of dollars."

Complicating a player's decision to enter the draft, and thereby forfeit his college eligibility, is what longtime agent Leigh Steinberg calls a "cacophony of conflicting advice."

Agents might whisper about high draft positions and large bonuses, hoping to sign the player as a client. College coaches, wanting to keep him around, might low-ball his prospects. Family and friends will have ideas of their own.

"Virtually everyone in their life has something to gain from the decision," said Paul Haagen, a Duke law professor who counsels high-profile college athletes. "It's very hard to establish trust."

Lofa Tatupu heard no shortage of opinions when he was considering an early departure from USC last spring.

Teammates supported the linebacker, but nearly everyone else advised him to wait, saying that he would go in the fourth or fifth round, that he could play his way up to a more lucrative spot with another year of college. Carroll, who has been forceful about players staying in school, echoed this message.

"He was just being real with me," Tatupu said. "He told me what he had heard. He told me, as a man, how he felt personally."

Tatupu might have sought further counsel from the NFL -- players can ask a panel of pro scouts for an educated guess on where they might be drafted -- but he missed the deadline to submit his applications, and "I went into it blind," he said.

The NFL makes no secret of its position on the matter. The league sends a pamphlet to underclassmen considering the draft titled "Stay in School."

"It's a sensitive topic," said Floyd Reese, general manager of the Tennessee Titans. "If you talk to most pro personnel people, they would rather have the players stay in to get the extra year of maturity."

Even agent Steinberg said, "Virtually any player will benefit from another year in school."

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