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Column: For top talent, opt-outs make sense, and we must accept them

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At least they do for top talent heading into the NFL Draft. 

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Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Peach Bowl got a whole lot less interesting in a short span of time when Heisman finalists Kenny Pickett and Kenneth Walker III announced they’d be sitting out ahead of their projected early picks in the NFL Draft. Suddenly, it was like the pairing of a top-10 Big Ten team and the ACC champion didn’t even have a headline. The media promos felt oddly empty. A game that should have a lot of other elements going for it lost all its luster in one fell swoop.

The matchup between the No. 10 Michigan State Spartans and No. 12 Pittsburgh Panthers was initially one of the highlights of the New Year’s Six, and for good reason. When first announced, as previously alluded to, it featured a Heisman contender on each sideline. Both programs were surprises in their conferences — including a conference champ in Pitt.

Ohio State still has players on the fence who have not yet announced if they’ll be appearing in the Buckeyes’ matchup against Utah Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl Game. Leading the pack are star receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave — both projected first round picks in a deep wide receiver class.

As a fan, it stinks to see the players we came to see choosing to sit out — after all, how would we feel if we traveled to LA to watch LeBron James, only to see him resting on the bench? — but there’s a heck of a lot more on the line for these players than there is for fans.

The risks of playing in a bowl game for a highly-rated NFL prospect vary by circumstances, but almost always center on injury risk. We all remember the cautionary tale of Michigan tight end Jake Butt, who tore his ACL in the Wolverines’ Orange Bowl game against Florida State in 2016. Butt had entered the game as one of the top-rated tight ends in his draft class. He ultimately was chosen in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft. After an injury-riddled NFL career, which included two full missed seasons, he retired in 2021.

No, the Peach Bowl will probably not be very interesting without two of the most riveting players in the sport this year on the field, but hey, we all tuned in for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl between Kent State and Wyoming yesterday.

It might be easy to place personal blame on Pickett and Walker. “Selfish” is a word that’s been thrown around a lot in these scenarios. Then there’s Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach who, in typical fashion, criticized players who choose to opt out, stating “You’ve got an obligation to the place that helped build and develop you and finish it out in the bowl…You owe it to your team, you owe it to your fans, you owe it to your coaches…”

“Obligation” and “owe” are strong words — especially coming from a coach, since coaches have no obligation to participate in bowl games if, say, they are leaving for other schools (looking at you, Brian Kelly).

Going beyond the horrifying injury scenario, for Walker and Pickett, the only way their draft stock can go by playing in a bowl game is down. A good game is just par for the course. A breakout game might raise some eyebrows. A bad game could cause some significant downward shifts. These players are generally known entities, and a single game doesn’t change much in the eyes of NFL scouts. The top-10 or so projected picks of the NFL Draft have largely been decided by the conclusion of the FBS regular season (and well before the conclusion of the NFL’s).

Risks associated with playing have a direct financial impact. The disparity in contract value between even a top-five and later first-round pick is well documented and extremely high. As an extreme example, current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons opted out for an entire season, but was still the 12th-overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Cincinnati Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who also opted out, was the No. 5 pick in 2021.

What these players have to lose is a lot different than what other players have to gain, which certainly indicates that there are two sides of the coin when it comes to the decision to opt-out. Liberty quarterback Malik Willis, for example, is now considered a first-round prospect after the former Auburn quarterback went 13-of-24 for 231 yards and three touchdowns in the Flames’ win over Eastern Michigan. He added two touchdowns on the ground. What at times was a rough season for Willis (he had 12 picks on the year) wrapped up on a high note on national television.

Even Willis is something of an extreme example. For middle of the road picks, a good bowl game against a good team can boost stats, perhaps making the difference between a third or fourth-round selection.

However, players stand to benefit even if the stars of the team do opt out. For instance, who is Walker’s backup at running back for Michigan State? I don’t know, but I bet we’ll know their name come Jan. 2. These players are getting real, in-game experience that could position them well come spring ball. Further, as fans, bowl games are something of a bonus to begin with. It’s a cool scenario to see new talent who we can be excited about come next season.

Looking ahead, opt outs are probably going to increase until they are normalized across college football, similar to what we’ve seen with the transfer portal. In particular, good teams that don’t make the Playoff will see their best players opt out — a la the Peach Bowl. As a result, we may start to see bowl game incentives removed from coaching contracts. In the end, players for whom playing in a bowl game is important can do so, while other players have the optionality to pursue their NFL careers.

Ultimately, it’s a decision that’s up to the player in question alone, and should be made in their own self interests. As much as we might want to be idealistic about what’s motivating these players, only this year, with changes to NIL rules governing college athletics, have players finally been able to financially benefit from their performance. It’s hard to make Mike Leach’s aforementioned argument make sense when one considers just how much players have given up for the team without getting any benefits.