How One Player’s NFL Draft Could Alter the College Football Playoff System

How One Player’s NFL Draft Could Alter the College Football Playoff System

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Today’s guest columnist is Richard C. Giller, Esq., a partner at Greenspoon Marder LLP.

College football players opting out of playing in bowl games garnered national attention in 2016 when, for the first time since the College Football Playoff (CFP) system was established in 2014, two top 10 NFL draft picks (Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey) decided to skip their last college football games. While their decisions sent shock waves through the sport, they did not impact their draft status since they were taken fourth and eighth, respectively, in the 2017 NFL Draft.

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Each year since then, dozens of college football players skip playing in secondary bowl games, but, so far, no player has decided to opt out of a CFP playoff game. That trend could change depending on where one player—Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams—is selected during this week’s draft.

Early in the second quarter of Alabama’s loss to Georgia in January’s CFP National Championship game, Williams caught a pass and headed up field. He made a cut and immediately grabbed his left knee. Williams crumpled to the ground in obvious pain, having torn the ACL in that knee. He underwent reconstructive surgery and his rehabilitation is reportedly ahead of schedule.

A torn ACL is not only a serious injury, it often shortens and even ends careers. When drafting an athlete who has undergone ACL surgery, NFL teams must weigh a number of factors—among them the risk of a second ACL injury. Contralateral ACL injuries, meaning an injury to the healthy knee, is “one of the most serious complications” after ACL surgery. Other studies show the risk of a contralateral ACL tear is as high as 25%. Additionally, the incidence of suffering a second ACL injury following ACL reconstruction “has been reported to be 15 times greater than that in a previously uninjured cohort.”

Prior to the CFP title game, Williams was considered by most analysts to be the best draft-eligible wide receiver in the 2022 NFL draft. Before his injury, Williams was a consensus top 15 NFL draft pick, usually pick 13, according to most pundits.

Draft position can make a significant difference in first-round rookie contracts. For example, the 13th pick in last year’s NFL draft, Rashawn Slater, signed a $16.63 million contract. By comparison, last year’s 15th pick, former Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, signed a $15.58 million contract; Zaven Collins, the 16th pick, signed for $14.69 million; and last year’s 21st pick, Kwity Paye, signed for $12.64 million, earning $4 million less than last year’s 13th pick.

The decision to opt out of playing in a bowl game is a personal one that involves a number of factors, including whether the player had the foresight, before his final college season, to secure a permanent total disability (PTD) insurance policy with a loss-of-value (LOV) rider. PTD insurance pays an athlete who suffers a career-ending injury. The LOV rider covers the difference between the anticipated value of a player’s first (or next) professional contract, and the value of the contract he actually signs. With a sufficient PTD/LOV insurance policy in place, the decision whether to play in a bowl game may be significantly easier than without such insurance. It does not appear that Williams had a PTD/LOV insurance policy when he was injured.

We don’t yet know where Williams will go in this week’s NFL Draft, but if he drops below the 13th pick, he may well regret having put his body—and his future earnings—on the line, even if it was for the college football national championship. Just as Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey performed a cost-benefit analysis regarding whether to play in a meaningless bowl game, future first round NFL draft picks may watch where Williams is drafted and ask themselves how much is the shot at winning a college football championship ring really worth? Is it worth losing millions of dollars in your rookie NFL deal, and possibly cutting short your NFL career because you suffered a serious injury in that game?

The landscape of the CFP system, and which top college football players ultimately participate in those extra games, may hinge on where Williams lands. Some mock drafts have Williams going as high as pick 11, but most sites now have him being selected somewhere between pick 15 and 21. This week we will know where Williams was drafted and what financial impact his decision to play in the CFP playoffs had on his draft stock.

After that, it won’t be until later this year when we can assess the impact his torn ACL and subsequent draft position will have on whether players opt out of future CFP playoff games. But you can be sure those future players will factor Williams’ experience into their decision.

Giller works out of Greenspoon Marder’s Los Angeles office and serves as chair of the firm’s Insurance Recovery and Counseling practice group. He has represented dozens of professional athletes and recovered tens of millions of dollars in connection with their disability and loss-of-value insurance claims.

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