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Different Season Awaits Some

The few months before the NFL draft can be just as important to some players as what they accomplished on the field

January 05, 2006|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

So what's next on the agenda after Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush blink away their not-so-rosy bowl memories after a 41-38 loss to Texas?

Another season.

"The season running from Jan. 5 to April 29 is just as important in the draft process as the season that runs from September to January," said Gary Wichard, chairman and chief executive of a Pacific Palisades-based athlete management company. "This is the final season. You're putting your resume together ... and that's where the athlete has to focus, above and beyond everything else."

Bush, who has one year of college eligibility left, is expected to make himself available for the NFL draft in late April and be picked at or near the top of the first round. Leinart, a fifth-year senior, also is expected to go near the top of the first round. Speculation is soaring over whether Winston Justice, LenDale White, Darnell Bing and others might also declare themselves eligible for the NFL draft.

"SC this year is something like Star Wars," said Newport Beach-based player agent Leigh Steinberg.

"There haven't been two more dazzling, marketable, transfixing superstars to emerge from one school at one time. Matt Leinart is one of the first movie star quarterbacks ... then there's this multi-dimensional offensive force, this living highlight reel that is Reggie Bush."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 06, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
College football -- In Thursday's special Rose Bowl section looking ahead to the NFL draft, an article said there are about 1 million high school football players who graduate every year. The 1 million is about how many high school football players there are in total.

But even athletes who've been playing the game for years can't afford to take a breather. Competition for space atop the NFL pyramid is intense. The 2006 crop of NFL draftees will sign contracts valued at more than $300 million -- or more than all NFL players earned during the 1983 season -- but the disposition of that cash is heavily tilted toward top-round draftees.

Bush and Leinart have survived a Darwinian process that begins each year when about 1 million high school football players graduate. About 60,000 of those athletes play collegiate ball, according to the NFL Players Assn., and just 6,000 draw interest from an NFL scout.

Fewer than 900 athletes each year sign an NFL contract and only about 300 find a place on an NFL roster. The winnowing process continues on draft day. Quarterback Alex Smith, the top NFL draft pick in 2004, won a guaranteed $24 million. But the average bonus for a player drafted during the third round plummeted to $526,000.

The numbers game is just as brutal for player agents. About 1,000 agents are registered with the players' association, but about 70 agents, who each represent 11 or more clients, account for roughly half of the league's active players. When agents who represent between six and 10 players are included, 10% of the agents represent about 75% of all players."You can do the math," said Steinberg, who has represented a dozen No. 1 or No. 2 draft picks. "It's not going to be an enormously profitable business for many agents."

Players feel increasing pressure to pick an agent as soon as their collegiate careers have ended. Stephen D. Linett, a Los Angeles-based agent, remembers chasing down athletes late into February. Now, agents say, most athletes name an agent within a week of playing their last game.

Bill Palmer, a businessman and the father of former USC quarterback Carson Palmer, said the process can be brutal for athletes who are unprepared or ill-equipped to deal with the intense pressure.

"Your life is changed immediately," Bill Palmer said. "You're no longer a college kid. If you're going to be picked high in the draft, you're excited. And you're excited about starting the rest of your life.

"You're a pro, and you're open to all of the things that the pros are open to."

Carson Palmer left USC with a Heisman Trophy tucked under his arm and his place in the collegiate record books secured. He was the top pick during the NFL's 2003 draft and agreed to a contract with the Cincinnati Bengals before the draft was held. But his father said that "no one, not even Reggie Bush, is guaranteed a thing in this world."

The courting ritual that can begin years before the draft can confound athletes and their parents.

"Logically, nothing should happen until after the last game," said David Dunn, a Newport Beach-based agent who represents Palmer. "But the competitive nature of the representation business has created an illogical system. A lot of players are swarmed by agents as soon as they're identified as viable prospects."

Bush and other players with remaining college eligibility first must decide whether to play out their collegiate string -- as Leinart and fellow Heisman Trophy winner Palmer did -- or jump into the fray.

Leinart and other seniors must decide if they will play in a postseason all-star game. Agents are divided on whether the risks outweigh the benefits for highly rated players who might get injured or hurt their draft status with a poor showing. The question is more easily answered for lower-rated players who want one last chance to showcase their talents in a game setting.

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