Canzano: NFL Draft taught Oregon Ducks a valuable lesson
Program stability on display this week.
It was just a year ago that Verone McKinley, a sophomore at the University of Oregon, surrendered his final two seasons of eligibility and declared for the NFL Draft.
Nobody picked him.
Mykael Wright, Devon Williams and CJ Verdell also gave up college eligibility and went undrafted. More on that trio in a bit. McKinley went to training camp with the Dolphins last summer as a free agent. The defensive back clawed his way onto the roster and started two games.
His salary: $705,000.
A year ago, I talked with an UO program insider who told me of that quartet undrafted players: “They got horrible advice.”
It was a strange time in Eugene in late 2021. Mario Cristobal left for Miami. The Ducks hired a new head coach, Dan Lanning, from Georgia. UO’s defensive players, in particular, were facing playing for the program’s third coordinator in four seasons. But misguided expectations and bad advice from agents were mixed up in those poor draft-declaration decisions as well.
One NFL agent who asked he not be identified, told me that fellow agents are so desperate to represent a limited pool of new clients that they routinely overpromise and underdeliver.
“You are spot on with the premise — agent advice is the biggest issue,” he said.
The gamble eventually worked out for McKinley, but I can’t help but wonder where he might have been picked in this week’s NFL Draft had he just stayed at Oregon for another season of college football.
His free-agent entry to the NFL was a high-wire act. McKinley left money on the table. Under the NFL’s rookie salary scale, the first selection in the fifth-round of the 2023 draft will get a $4.4 million contract that comes with a $558,496 signing bonus.
Wright gave up his college eligibility and landed in the XFL. Williams was signed by the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent last spring, but got cut. This March he signed with the USFL’s Philadelphia Stars, but was released before the season started. And Verdell, who was coming off an injury in college, went to training camp with the Indianapolis Colts last year and didn’t make the 53-man roster.
Oregon’s 2022 football season would have been better with all four of those players in uniform. But you could make the argument that the players themselves would have benefitted by staying in college. Division Street, Inc. — UO’s booster collective — was just getting set up. The calculus was changing. We could all see it.
A year later, quarterback Bo Nix could have declared for the NFL Draft but returned to college with an assist from Oregon’s NIL collective. Also back for another season is defensive lineman Brandon Dorlus, who Tweeted his return with: “We ain’t done yet.” Popo Aumavae, Casey Rodgers, Mase Funa, Bryan Addison and Jamal Hill all decided to stay in college. They’ll be at Autzen Stadium at 1 p.m. on Saturday for the program’s spring game.
Instead of preparing for the NFL Draft in the last month, Nix has been at practice in Eugene. He has also apparently spent some time babysitting for the Lanning family. The Oregon football coach came home last week to find Nix and his wife, Izzy, watching his three children.
“I walked in the front door and there’s Bo in my house,” Lanning told me. “I’m like ‘What’s going on?’ and he’s like ‘I took the boys to basketball practice. They’re upstairs getting ready for bed.’”
Defensive back Christian Gonzales isn’t babysitting and he won’t be at Oregon’s spring game. He’s expected to be a first-round draft pick on Thursday. His decision was a no-brainer for that reason. Linebacker Noah Sewell gave up eligibility and declared for the NFL Draft, too. He’s projected as a mid-round pick. But there’s a notable trend developing at Oregon.
Did the Ducks learn something from the last draft?
I also think were some other factors:
Cristobal left UO and agreed to become Miami’s football coach on Dec. 6, 2021. The talented underclassmen at Oregon were without a head coach and facing a total program reboot. Cristobal signed a 10-year, $80 million contract at Miami. He was doing what was best for himself and his family. Why shouldn’t they? Unfortunately, without a permanent head coach, there was nobody on campus at Oregon to advocate for the return of those players. The Ducks hired Lanning six days after Cristobal left. By then, the UO underclassmen were already knee-deep in discussions with agents and had declared for the draft.
I know a lot of reputable NFL agents, but the business is cutthroat. There were only 262 players drafted last season. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on agents and it has to be tempting to fall into the habit of telling college players what they’d like to hear vs. what they need to hear. Having a sitting head coach around to balance the conversation and connect players with current NFL GMs and scouts is an important check. Lanning told me on Tuesday that he speaks regularly with NFL talent evaluators. Having an NIL collective with deep pockets around helps, too.
The players themselves are often guilty. They can be delusional, even amid sound advice. Long-time NFL writer Len Pasquarelli once told a story about defensive end Simeon Rice, who slipped his agent a piece of paper with the words “75 for 5” on it. Rice was a free agent and wanted a five-year, $75 million contract. His agent, Roosevelt Barnes, made some calls, studied the market and informed his client that the numbers weren’t realistic. Rice promptly fired him. His new agent promised he could get that deal done, but then went out and landed Rice a five-year contract worth $41 million.
Lanning won 10 games in his first season at Oregon. I’m glad he’s back for an encore act. Stability is key to any college program. Remember, UO essentially had the same football coaching staff for three decades under Rich Brooks and Mike Bellotti. The assistants almost never left. There was very little turnover, except maybe with the offensive coordinators during Bellotti’s tenure.
In the last seven Oregon football seasons, the Ducks have had four different head football coaches. Mark Helfrich to Willie Taggart to Cristobal to Lanning has been a blur. I suspect it felt like a blender for players such as Justin Herbert, who suited up for three different head coaches in his college career. Lanning talks like he’s going to stick around. The UO program feels as stable as it has been in a while.
The NFL Draft is Thursday. Oregon’s spring game is Saturday. People will talk about those things as if they’re separate events, but I don’t. I can’t help but think this week about the last year for McKinley, Wright, Williams and Verdell.
Those guys may have declared for the NFL Draft no matter what anyone told them. But I’m glad the line of Oregon players behind them look a lot wiser.
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Can you imagine refusing a $200 million contract, because someone else is getting paid a little more. Talk about delusional. Maybe the players should take a trip back to they grew up and take a look at the folks trying to get by on minimum wage, housing subsidies and food stamps. How much is enough?
NCAA Football Participants: 73,712
Draft Eligible: 16,380
Players drafted: 254
Really simple, actually. It's pure delusion on the part of players. Often, desperation. Hell, today CJ Stroud said, "I'm not a test taker. I play football" The majority of these kids aren't in college to take tests. They are assuming it's a step to the NFL. With the odds above......pure delusion.