Look, I’m not here to get anyone’s hopes up unnecessarily, but what started out as a possibility the size of an ant has grown to be a gigantic elephant in the room when discussing the ever-evolving Ohio State football roster for the 2023 season. We know that Zach Harrison, Ronnie Hickman, Paris Johnson Jr., Dawand Jones, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and Luke Wypler are all heading to the NFL, but the one guy that seemed like the biggest slam dunk of all to forgo his remaining eligibility has thus far remained as silent as a mouse, to continue to animal allusions.
Now, I am historically on the side of individuals making the right decisions for themselves, even when their decisions do not line up with the ones I would make were I in their shoes. Take the aforementioned elephant, Ohio State’s two-time Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback C.J. Stroud. If I were currently being projected to be AT WORST the No. 4 pick in the NFL Draft, as much as I bleed scarlet and gray and love the institution of higher education on the banks of the Olentangy with every fiber of my being, there would not be a team of wild horses strong enough that could keep me from making my desire to be a pro known to anyone and everyone; especially NFL GMs.
Apparently, that is just one of many differences between C.J. Stroud and me, because clearly, he has more than money on his mind. College players have until Monday, Jan. 16 to make their intentions known and officially declare for the draft; at this point roughly one hundred underclassmen have already publicly entered the draft process, not counting the seniors who still had redshirt or COVID eligibility remaining. But why hasn’t Stroud, who is projected to be the first or second quarterback taken? If the current mock drafts are correct (and they rarely are at this point) and Stroud sticks in the top four, he would be locked into no less than a projected $36.7 million over his four-year rookie contract, including a roughly $24 million signing bonus. Why in the world has C.J. not posted a sentimental graphic thanking Buckeye Nation for the best three years of his life, but telling us that he’s leaving Columbus to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a professional football player?
Well, if I had to guess, it’s because of pride; and not the “goeth before the fall” type, but rather the type where someone places tremendous value in their name and legacy and the mark that they leave on the things, people, and places that mean the most to them. The type that would be hurt knowing that — even though he was a two-time Heisman finalist and climbed to the upper echelons in the record books of one of the most storied college football programs in the country — he was 0-2 against his rival, won zero Big Ten titles, and never raised a national championship trophy.
From where I am sitting — admittedly a bazillion metaphorical miles away — that’s the only reason that I can imagine that could cause Stroud to hesitate to make his NFL declaration. We have seen countless players over the years who love Ohio State, treasure their time in the program, and hold the brotherhood close to their hearts opt to head to the NFL early; so something has to be making him hesitate other than just the good vibes that being a Buckeye can bring, right? Pride and legacy might just be the answer.
Also, despite all of the complaints surrounding Ohio State’s standing in the Great NIL War of 2023, the risks associated with delaying the millions of dollars that an NFL contract would inevitably bring might be mitigated to some degree by Stroud’s ability to make millions of dollars while still being a college player. Obviously promoting car dealerships, semi-shady collectives, and other various businesses from across Central Ohio won’t equal what an NFL signing bonus would be, but would it be enough to make staying in Columbus worth it? That’s something that only C.J. can decide for himself.
There is obviously tremendous risk in not jumping to the NFL at this point for Stroud; not only are there the obvious injury concerns that could befall any player at any level at any time, but as eye-popping as an NFL contract is, you know what is even more life-changing? An established, starting quarterback’s second NFL contract, and the only way to get to your second contract is to start playing under your first.
I’ve already told you that if I were in Stroud’s position, I would have already declared, signed with Drew Rosenhaus or Rich Paul, and moved into a beach house in southern California to train for the combine; but I am not C.J. Stroud and C.J. Stroud is not me. He is a deeply religious young man and, clearly, there are things weighing on his heart far more heavily than the pursuit of money.
If the two-time reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year returns for a fourth season as a Buckeye, Ohio State would immediately become the national championship favorite, as no other contender (unless you count USC as a contender) would be returning a Heisman-level starting quarterback. So, of course, as a fan, I would love to see No. 7 run it back one more time. But as a dispassionate observer, I might think Stroud foolish for not getting while the getting’s good.
C.J. Stroud is going to be paid to play football in 2023 (either directly or indirectly) one way or the other, so the true question that the quarterback has to answer is, “Are the zeros at the end of the check enough to erase the heartache caused by leaving so many goals unfulfilled in Columbus?”
Only Stroud can answer that question for himself, but whatever he does eventually decide will undoubtedly be the right decision for him.