Skipping bowl games has been a staple of the NFL Draft process, but a pair of top selections show there’s still life in “meaningless” games.
For an NFL Draft prospect, everything changes upon their professional entry. Even the postseason games take on whole new importance.
After all, no one in their right mind would consider skipping the Super Bowl. The Gator Bowl, on the other hand, saw less than perfect attendance.
Skipping bowl games has become as much of a staple in college football as fight songs and storming the field. The trend started with Michigan’s Jake Butt in the 2016 Orange Bowl, as an ACL tear saw him plummet from top tight end prospect to fifth-round afterthought. The College Football Playoff has remained untouched, but the smaller bowls have not been as fortunate.
There were 40 bowl games played last winter. Many of them, the CFP trio notwithstanding, featured at least one starter sitting out to focus on draft prep. 10th overall pick Devin Bush skipped the Peach Bowl, as did Michigan teammate Rashan Gary, who heard his name two picks later. Fellow first-round absentees included Denver’s Noah Fant (Outback) and New England’s N’Keal Harry (Las Vegas). Buffalo choice Ed Oliver also didn’t partake, though he had prior injury issues.
Players shouldn’t be condemned for a bowl skip. Holiday season entertainment for the viewers doesn’t outweigh a potential career-derailing injury. A chance for a better number in the final polls isn’t worth the danger. Careers are on the line. Any number of the football-loving public would do the same in their own profession.
This draft, however, makes the case to play.
On this local New York level, the case was best on display through Duke’s Daniel Jones. The Blue Devil is a particularly delicate case, as he partakes in the caution-filled quarterback genre. West Virginia’s Will Grier exercised his skip option, eschewing a chance at Camping World Bowl glory. Jones, however, chose to partake in the Independence Bowl. He’d lead his 7-5 squad up against AAC also-rans from Temple.
Entering the game, Jones was seen as a borderline first-round choice. Todd McShay had him seventh in his quarterback rankings. USA Today ranked him in the same spot amongst the incoming throwers. That changed with the events in Shreveport. Forced into a 27-14 deficit, Jones helped the Blue Devils rattle off 42 unanswered points. Five touchdowns of the eventual 56-27 victory came of Jones’ doing. His 423 yards set a bowl game record.
Eight Senior Bowl completions later, Jones was the second quarterback chosen in Thursday’s festivities. The New York Giants called his name. It’s perhaps the most impactful pick the Giants have made in recent history, as Jones is the most legitimate answer the team has to post-Eli Manning questions.
Simply put, if Jones skips the game, the Duke product could’ve fallen to the second round or worse.
To a lesser extent, Kentucky’s Josh Allen went through the same experience. Allen’s name already appeared at or near the top of many mock drafts. Common sense dictated he would pass on the Citrus Bowl game against Penn State. Allen wasn’t having it.
Laden with postseason awards, his draft fate mostly secured, Allen made the decision to play against the Nittany Lions. He was rewarded with one final showcase, as his last collegiate box score featured three sacks against a strong offense. The game’s Orlando setting would prove ironic. Allen went one pick after Jones, going seventh to the NFL’s squad in central Florida: Jacksonville.
In an NFL landscape putting an increased emphasis on offense, Allen separated himself as an unmissable defensive prospect. As a bit of an added bonus, Allen eliminated any “character issue” label with a ringing endorsement from Wildcats coach Mark Stoops.
“It just says a lot about who he is and the way he cares about this place, the way he cares about his teammates,” Stoops said, per Michael Wayne Bratton of Saturday Down South. “He’s going to do things the way he always does. That’s put his head down and do things 100 miles an hour. Play hard, practice hard, and prepare the right way. He wants to continue to improve his stock and he wants to help us win the football game.”
The man chosen immediately before Jones and Allen was LSU linebacker Devin White. His stats weren’t as prolific as those picked after them, but a strong Fiesta Bowl game against UCF was nonetheless promising. He wound up with eight tackles and a forced fumble in the 40-32 win.
According to White, he wanted to let his play in one last Baton Rouge showcase do the talking. He succeeded with one final lasting Tiger memory.
“I really don’t care (about the possibility of an injury,” the future Tampa Bay Buccaneer said to Scott Rabalais prior to the game. “I just want to make plays. It can be slow tempo, fast tempo, on concrete, in the dirt, in the desert, on the mountain. Just run the ball and let me come tackle you. That’s all I want to do.”
To reiterate, there’s no need to trash those who choose to miss the bowl party. There’s always a chance the game could end disaster. It’s a risk that Butt, and others, learned of the hard way. But a new to raise your stock could be to take that risk and play anyway. In this country, we the people are free to make our decisions in the pursuit of happiness. That obviously goes for college football players as well.
But in this unforgiving draft setting, every position, every pick matters. One slot could change the course of an athlete’s career. Modern technology has allowed the draft process to grow into a constantly updating phenomenon. Pro days and the Scouting Combine might as well be national holidays in football circles. With so many names to remember, prospects are searching for any way than to separate themselves.
Bowl game participation could be that factor.
Of course, it’s no guarantee. But in today’s football world, especially the topsy-turvy draft…what is?