2022 NFL Draft: Five collegiate stars who left ZERO paydays on the table and then slipped big in the draft

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After any draft in any professional sport that uses a collegiate feeder system, it’s easy to look back with the 20-20 vision of hindsight and identify early entrants who would have benefited from staying in college one more season. Ditto for the 2022 NFL Draft, except this season there’s an extra wrinkle in the equation because name, image, and likeness are changing collegiate sports.

While backroom deals and bag drops have long been part of college football’s seedy underbelly, the amount of money available to star players is increasing rapidly as we enter a new world for the sport. The NFL is no longer the only place to legally make life-changing money from football as the NCAA takes a hands-on approach to overseeing NIL play.

Playing college football in this era will be more lucrative for some players than going ahead and fighting for an NFL roster spot. While early-round draft picks still live in a unique financial stratosphere at the pro level, the lack of guaranteed money for late-round draft picks should give some college juniors pause for thought as they make decisions about their futures think.

For most young football players, reaching the NFL is the ultimate dream, and fulfilling that goal can go beyond a simple financial equation. But for some juniors from the 2022 draft class, the benefits of one final collegiate season seem to have outweighed the benefits of a move. Here are five juniors from the 2022 draft class who might have made money through NIL but will now be fighting for their proverbial lives in the NFL instead.

The following players are ranked in order of how poorly they fared during the draft compared to pre-draft expectations and hopes.

1. Justyn Ross, Clemson WR

undrafted

Ross was ranked as the #17 receiver and #123 player in the CBS Sports NFL Draft position rankings, which should have resulted in a mid-round pick. Instead, Ross went down as one of the draft’s biggest nudges. Ultimately, it’s hard to pat Ross for staying in the draft. The projections were there, he was four years with Clemson and the knee injury that forced him to miss the 2020 season as a medical redshirt likely only increased his sense of urgency to take the fastest route for the NFL.

His 46 catches for 514 yards as a main gun in a scuffling Clemson pass attack last season suggested the 6-foot-4 target was recovering well enough from injury to have a nice pro career. In the end he still could. But in hindsight, he could have played one more season of college football. As skeptical about college football’s new frontier as Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is, the Tigers have a burgeoning NIL infrastructure, and Ross would certainly have been a huge beneficiary had he opted for a dramatic return.

2. Jalen Wydermyer, Texas A&M TE

Signed with Buffalo as an undrafted free agent

Wydermyer established himself as one of college football’s best tight ends during a three-year stint with Texas A&M, and it came as a surprise that he didn’t get drafted. Given Texas A&M’s strong donor base and unabashed willingness to provide whatever resources are needed to succeed on the field, you have to believe he could have capitalized on a NIL deal with the Aggies that would bring more financial comfort than looking around to seek an NFL roster spot.

3. Frank McCormick, UTSA RB

Signed with Seattle as an undrafted free agent

It will always make sense for the elite few running backs picked in the first or second round to make the NFL leap. After all, Najee Harris is guaranteed to snag more than $13 million when he signed with the Steelers after being picked No. 24 overall last year. But running backs at risk of slipping into the late rounds or into unconscripted territory may be better off returning to a program where they queue for the big NIL money.

McCormick is a great example. He was an absolute stallion at UTSA and would have been one of the most desirable players on the transfer portal had he opted to transfer to a Power Five school rather than remain in the NFL draft. Certainly, the NIL opportunities available to him in a major college program—or maybe even UTSA—would have been more financially lucrative than fighting for a roster spot as an undrafted free agent.

The longstanding thought with college running backs was that they should leave after their junior season when they were likely to be drafted, regardless of position, so they could make some money while still having tread on their tires. The longevity of running backs in the NFL is notoriously short, and the idea was that stars should capitalize on that position as long as they’re healthy. It’s shocking that McCormick wasn’t drafted, and his fall should be a cautionary tale for other star junior running backs in the NIL era. For many great college backs, there may be more guaranteed money available in college now than there was on the fringes of NFL life.

4. Kaleb Eleby, QB West Michigan

Signed with Seattle as an undrafted free agent

After a stellar three-year college career in Western Michigan, Eleby was ranked the No. 10 quarterback in CBS Sports’ NFL Draft Prospect Rankings, but will now be in contention for a spot on the pro list. After 41 touchdowns and just eight interceptions in the past two seasons with the Broncos, power conference teams with roaring NIL engines would likely have lined up for Eleby in the transfer portal. He could have made an excellent one-year rent in the high six figures for a first-year coach or a coach in the hot seat.

5. Sam Howell, North Carolina QB

No. 1 in the 5th round (No. 144 overall) to the Washington Commanders

After setting program records for career passing yards and touchdowns over three seasons, it’s understandable Howell is ready for the next chapter in his career. But he would also arguably have been the most well-known player in the ACC had he returned for his senior season. As a historically great Tar Heels quarterback, Howell could certainly have worked out a seven-figure ZERO deal had he decided to play his senior season.

Salary data from quarterbacks selected in the fourth round (Ian Book in 2021) and fifth round (Jake Fromm in 2020) in the last two drafts suggest Howell is unlikely to earn $1 million guaranteed for his rookie contract. It’s not that Howell made a bad choice, but if he had had a burning desire to play another season of college football, it probably could have been a sensible financial move if his stock had passed its zero value.

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