I left college early. I’m happy.
One of my fellow freshman at Wake Forest stayed all four years. He’s happy.
I can’t compare myself to Tim Duncan when it comes to any athletic endeavor, but we both faced the decision of whether to leave college early.
Duncan passed up on at least one and maybe two chances to be the No. 1 overall pick, and coming out after his senior season didn’t negatively affect his draft position or his Hall of Fame-level NBA career with the San Antonio Spurs. He put off future financial gain, but it didn’t hurt him.
As the oldest of six children, when AP credit left the option to cut a year off the college cost, the best decision for me was to graduate. I avoided future financial pain for myself and my family. And I knew that I was missing out. While my best friends enjoyed a senior year in which they had time to road trip and hang out, I had my nose to the grindstone in graduate school. But there was a payoff. Three months after most of my friends graduated from college, I had finished my master’s degree at the Medill School of Journalism and was starting a job with a national magazine, Pro Football Weekly. For someone who was just 22, that was a quick start to my career – one that wouldn’t have happened had I not graduated early.
I thought about my choice, and about Tim Duncan’s, when QB Andrew Luck announced Thursday that he was going to remain at Stanford for a fourth season. While Luck has two years of eligibility remaining because he redshirted, he should graduate next spring from an elite school with an elite architectural engineering degree.
By staying, Luck passes up being the slam-dunk, no-doubt No. 1 overall pick. Sam Bradford, last year’s No. 1 pick, got a contract guaranteeing him more than $50 million.
But Luck’s decision isn’t dumb. First of all, Bradford’s $50 million guarantee was the last of its kind. With the CBA expiring this year, there’s little doubt that one of the changes we’ll see in 2011 and beyond is that draft picks will no longer receive such massive starting salaries. So Luck isn’t risking a $50 million guarantee by returning – instead, he’s likely risking something more like what the NBA’s top pick gets – $15-20 million. That’s still a risk, but if Luck performs at the same level next year that he did last year, that money will be there in 2012.
Of course, Luck is taking the risk that Washington QB Jake Locker took last year – that his play will decline so much that his star fades. Locker would have been a top-four pick last year, and perhaps even the No. 1 pick, but after returning for his senior season, Locker now will be fighting to get into the first round. Given the new salary structure, his decision will cost him at least $20 million in guarantees. Luck’s risk financially cannot be that big, even if he suffers a career-ending injury.
But Luck also has a lot to gain. He can win a Heisman Trophy, after finishing as a finalist this year. He can go to the Rose Bowl, after the BCS sent his squad to the Orange Bowl instead this year. Those are memorable accomplishments that are on the table.
So Luck isn’t the big loser in this decision – the Carolina Panthers are. The Panthers, sitting with the No. 1 overall pick, were poised to take Luck to answer their quarterback situation – or to take a king’s ransom to let someone else get Lucky.
Now the Panthers must decide whether to reach on a quarterback like Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert (and it’s hard to entrust your franchise to a dude named Blaine) or to take a defensive player like Clemson DE Da’Quan Bowers or Auburn DT Nick Fairley and hope that holdover Jimmy Clausen develops.
But there is another option – thanks to the new salary structure. And it’s one the Panthers have used before. Back in 1995, in their first-ever draft, the Panthers held the No. 1 overall pick. There wasn’t a clear-cut top guy that year, just as there is no longer a clear-cut No. 1 this year. So the Panthers traded down from No. 1 to No. 5 and still took QB Kerry Collins, whom they likely would have taken at No. 1 . (The Bengals, picking No. 1, took RB Ki-Jana Carter. It didn’t work out well.) Carolina also got draft-pick ammunition that allowed them to add two more first-round picks.
Collins took the Panthers to the NFC championship game in his second year before immaturity forced him out of town. He later led the Giants to the Super Bowl, and he is still in the league. Collins has never been a complete franchise quarterback, but he’s close to that level. If Gabbert accomplishes what Collins has in his career, it would be a success.
Those kinds of trades became impossible with the high price of picks like Bradford, but in the NFL world that is coming, they will be on the table again. And so maybe, the Panthers have a chance to find some luck. That’s reassuring after a day when what looked like Dumb Luck turned out to be plain old Bad Luck for the Panthers.