The 2023 NFL Draft served as both affirmation and cautionary tale for prospective professional players looking to make an early leap to Sunday ball. While Jaxon Smith-Njigba was the first wide receiver off the board and a top-20 pick, college teammate Luke Wypler — and, to a lesser extent, fellow Buckeye Dawand Jones — perhaps would have been better served to spend another season in Columbus.
But that decision isn’t mine to make, and it isn’t yours.
I want to make it clear that the purpose of this column is not to criticize players for their decisions. There are many reasons for a young athlete to make the jump to the NFL with eligibility remaining. They have to weigh what they feel is best for them, and without knowing all of the personal variables they’re considering, it makes no sense for anyone outside their immediate circle to criticize them for making whatever decision they choose.
With the benefit of hindsight, it can seem easy to make a judgment about whether or not a player made a “mistake” by declaring for the NFL Draft early, but that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong decision for them. My aim here is merely to show how things can work out and how this year’s crop of NFL-bound Buckeyes shows both ends of that spectrum.
My staff “bold prediction” for the 2022 Ohio State season here at LGHL was that wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba would win the Heisman Trophy. That might not have been the boldest prediction of the bunch, given the talent and productivity he’d previously shown, but quarterbacks tend to dominate that particular award, so it was far from a lock.
Smith-Njigba would have been a first-round pick if he’d been in the previous draft, so despite an injury-plagued final season at Ohio State, he was still always likely to get snapped up with some team’s No. 1 selection. That is what came to pass, as Smith-Njigba went at No. 20 overall to the Seattle Seahawks. He was the first receiver off the board and started a run of four in a row to the Seahawks, Chargers, Ravens, and Vikings.
While it’s possible another full year of stellar productivity at the college level might have made his availability irresistable to some of the teams who picked higher, or to those teams picking high next year, it’s impossible to say. What is fair to say is that Smith-Njigba could have improved his stock by only so much if he had played another year with the Buckeyes. There were only 19 better possible outcomes for him.
Center Luke Wypler’s decision is on the other end of that scale. Although he may have a long, productive, and lucrative career in the NFL, it’s not hard to imagine that a season of building on his performance against Georgia in the Peach Bowl could have brought him significant financial gains. There’s a big difference between being a second or third-round pick and going No. 190 overall in Round 6. Wypler had 189 potentially better outcomes, although realistically fewer than that as a center.
That’s not to say Wypler made the “wrong” decision, because his reasons are his own. Regardless of those reasons, a major injury could have kept him from being drafted at all further down the road. Life has risks in all phases, after all. But had he been able to improve on technique and production over the course of another season of college football, a jump of three or even four rounds seems reasonable (or at least possible), and aside from the financial difference, that can also affect the trajectory of a professional football career.
It’s more common for teams to keep a second or third-round player on the roster than a sixth-rounder, even if that player had a mediocre camp and preseason. It’s also an easier decision to stash a sixth-round pick on a practice squad than a higher pick and that can have an impact on development and how that player is perceived.
Wypler’s performance in rookie camp and preseason leaves a much smaller margin for error based on where he was selected than if he’d improved his draft stock and gone in, say, Round 3. Being picked in Round 6 (or even not being drafted at all) is not a deal breaker. It just makes the hill to climb a bit steeper.
In the end, the NFL Draft can confirm whether a player made a well-timed decision, an informed decision, an uninformed decision, or a hopeful decision. It cannot confirm whether that player made the “correct” decision — at least for them. But what this year’s draft showed is that sometimes it works out the way a player thinks it will and sometimes... not so much.