CJ Stroud is expected to be a top 5 NFL draft pick this spring. Will he become a Niles pioneer instead?

Monday is the deadline for players with remaining NCAA eligibility to declare if they would like to make themselves available for the NFL Spring Draft.

Bryce Young of Alabama and Will Anderson Jr. announced. Same with Georgia’s Jalen Carter, Broderick Jones, and Kelly Ringo. So too with Northwestern’s Peter Scoronoski, Clemson’s Miles Murphy and Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr.

Almost every highly rated player has declared for the draft at this point…with one notable exception, Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, who is in contention to be a first-round pick and first overall pick.

Across all football, Stroud is expected to do so before the deadline. He hasn’t done that yet. He might have pulled it off for the sake of drama, or he might be referring to something that could become a thing in this new era where college athletes are allowed to cash in on their name, image, and likeness.

Stroud – or someone like him in the future – might actually stay and evolve because of the more advantageous financial situation.

To be clear, this kind of decision happened before NIL.

In 1997, Peyton Manning was projected to be the #1 overall pick, but he returned for one more season at Tennessee. In 2010, Andrew Luck did the same thing so he could play again and finish his degree at Stanford University. Justin Herbert returned to Oregon for the 2019 season despite being in the top five or at least the top 10.

So it’s a rare, but unheard of decision.

However, these three all came from wealthy backgrounds (at least) and were not under any financial stress. Stroud’s situation is different, raised by a single mother with three brothers.

The NIL is now offering the opportunity to turn pro without financial considerations to all-star players, no matter how they were raised.

Two-time Heisman Trophy finalist, Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud is expected to be a top pick in the NFL Draft. Thanks to NIL, the payday is no longer a zero-sum consideration. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There is nothing in the current market to suggest that Ohio State’s boosters through more traditional team, commercial, or sponsorship opportunities will be able to equal the potential wealth of the NFL. The top five picks in the 2023 NFL Draft are expected to receive four-year deals worth between $32 million and $41 million (including signing bonuses between $22 million and $27 million).

Getting into the league early also starts the clock on a lucrative second decade. If Stroud proves to be as good as a draft scout, then he could get a deal that’s already worth between $30 million and $50 million a year, and it will certainly be higher in the future.

That’s why if Stroud decides to stay at Ohio State, he won’t trade everything he can earn through the NIL this year for his rookie deal. It may get relatively close to equal money over the next 12 months.

He was really trading his first year (his lowest paid NFL) for the final year of his career — whether it’s four, eight, or 20 — that could be some of his highest.

There is simply no comparison.

Money is no longer a zero-sum consideration now – millions or just tuition and room and board. Nor development as a player. You’ll be hard-pressed to convince Manning, Luck, or Herbert that they made the wrong decision to go back to college football. Combined with camaraderie and education, they supposedly honed their skills so they not only made it to the NFL, but were poised to become superstars.

Patience can be beneficial.

It is not uncommon in baseball and hockey, where college players can be recruited by professional teams and yet still play under NCAA rules. College basketball has already seen the return of several fringe prospects in the NBA, due in part to NIL money, including Kentucky’s Oscar Cheppui, National Player of the Year.

The same has become true of college football.

Michigan boosters, among others, have created a group called “Another Year Fund” that makes no secret of its goal to tip the balance in the go-to-school or stay-at-school debate for Wolverine players. Its motto reflects Bo Schembechler’s old promise: “Those who stay, they’ll pay.”

It describes itself squarely as “a crowdfunding campaign designed to retain Michigan’s key football players, starting with Blake Corum and Cornelius Johnson, Trevor Keegan and Zak Zinter.”

Corum, a running back who suffered a knee injury in November, announced that he would be returning to Ann Arbor (rather than a mid-round draft pick). Same with Keegan and Zinter’s offensive line, with Johnson also expected to return.

Might this work out a top-five pick at probably the most important position on the field, though, the kind that provides a plethora of talent and anticipation in college football?

Stroud has already had some nice NIL deals. He drove a $200,000 Mercedes G Wagon last year under an agreement with a local auto dealer as well as another with Columbus-based clothing brand Express. And that’s just the traditional stuff.

There is no poor star quarterback anymore. They may not be as rich as their NFL counterparts, but the promise of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of nothing money may slow the flow of talent from college to pro. If nothing else, it gives every player from every background the luxury of a choice of development that was previously reserved for those from wealthy families.

CJ Stroud is perhaps the pioneer here. If not, someone will be nearby.

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