By Ben Spar
Like many other Cardinal sports fans, I spent the first week of the quarter searching Bryce Love’s name on Twitter every day to see if he had declared for the NFL Draft or decided to stay for another year. The Stanford junior had a breakout year in 2017 after backing up Christian McCaffrey for two years, rushing for a Stanford-record 2,118 yards and finishing second in the Heisman Trophy voting. Love was the highest-profile draft eligible player yet to make a decision, which was slightly surprising given that all of the other famous underclassmen (Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Saquan Barkley, etc.) had already declared for the draft. This past Tuesday, in a short Tweet, Love announced he was staying. (I am very thankful that he decided against going the “corny Player’s Tribune Article” route.)
Although I was slightly more hopefully about Stanford football’s chances next season, my initial thoughts were that Bryce Love had made a mistake. Justin Reid, Harrison Phillips, Dalton Schultz and Quenton Meeks – Stanford players who all will probably be drafted lower than Love would have been – all declared for the draft probably for one major reason: An athlete only has a limited number of football years, and why waste one of these precious years not being paid when there is the option to draw a salary? Player salaries for the first four years are specified by a rookie wage scale (based on draft position), such that high-profile players like Love are further incentivized to declare for the NFL early so they can sign their more lucrative second contracts sooner. Love’s decision is especially surprising given that he is a running back, a position where players generally have shorter careers and even fewer good years; in 2017, eight of the top 10 rushing leaders are 26 or younger, and the oldest (Lesean McCoy) is 29. Imagine if Love, who already has injury issues with his ankle, gets seriously injured next season and never plays in the NFL; I’m sure (or at least I hope) he is taking out an insurance policy.
There definitely are some solid arguments for him staying in school that are being made. I think there is a lot of value to being a member of the “Heisman club,” so if Love does win the award next season I could definitely be convinced he gave up a year in the NFL for good reason. However, he only is being given 15-1 odds to win and is the fifth favorite, illustrating why he may not be a great bet, as he would probably need even better stats than last year on a national title contending Stanford to win. Similarly, I think being the best player on a national championship team would probably make it worth staying, but those odds are even worse. Although I do appreciate the argument that Love stayed for academic reasons (often made by those that believe in the integrity of college football), and I understand that Love one day would like to be a doctor, but it isn’t like he is going to medical school in the next few years, so there would be no harm in taking a few off-seasons to finish his degree.
The best argument for Love staying is that he may be able to improve his draft stock. If he had declared for the draft this year, Love was projected to be a late first-round to mid second-round selection (picks 20-45). In a year with great running back depth, teams may not have wanted to select Love early in the draft, given they could get a player with 70-80 percent of the talent at the same position a few rounds later. Although he has game-breaking talent, Love’s main criticisms are that he is too small and injury prone, and not good enough in the passing game. These are all things Love can potentially overcome next season. Imagine he does, and he is able to rise to a top-five position in the draft (still a long shot), what sort of impact would that have?
It turns out that in terms of rookie contract, being a top-five selection would make a large difference. The fifth pick in last year’s draft signed a fully guaranteed four-year contract worth 25.4 million dollars, while the 20th pick (upper end of Love’s projected range this year) signed a fully guaranteed four-year contract worth 11.0 million dollars. The 45th-pick signed a four-year contract worth 5.9 million dollars (3.6 guaranteed). For a quarterback that might sign a 100 million-dollar contract with his second deal, this difference does not matter that much, but to a running back, one of the lowest paid positions in the NFL, it definitely makes a difference. Rookie running back Leonard Fournette, the fourth selection in last year’s draft, has the fifth highest salary per year, fourth highest total salary and highest guaranteed salary of all NFL running backs. As such, it is fairly likely that this would be the most lucrative contract of Love’s career. Rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, the second selection in last year’s draft, is 23rd, 18th and 12th highest in those categories among quarterbacks respectively.
If I were a betting man (which, although shocking to many, I am not), I would say this is the main reason Bryce Love is staying; he sees the economic state of the running back position and is taking a chance on himself. This sort of improvement is most likely of all the longshots, and definitely the most lucrative. As a final thought, it is possible that Love was influenced by wanting to have a “victory lap” year. After McCaffrey’s Heisman runner-up, he was “the man” on campus, or at least as close to it as any Stanford athlete can be; it was a big deal to be in a class with him. As his backup, Love witnessed this, and he may want his own time to be the guy everyone is talking about. Having millions of dollars as a 21-year-old surely is fun, but it is hard to put a price on the coolest guy around.
Contact Ben Spar at bspar ‘at’ stanford.edu.