The NFL draft just drove another nail into bowl system's coffin

The Jacksonville Jaguars' first round draft pick, running back Leonard Fournette answers question from the media Friday, April 28, 2017 at EverBank Field after being selected in the NFL Draft. (AP Photo/Bob Self/Florida Times-Union)
The Jacksonville Jaguars' first round draft pick, running back Leonard Fournette answers question from the media Friday, April 28, 2017 at EverBank Field after being selected in the NFL Draft. (AP Photo/Bob Self/Florida Times-Union)

Credit: Bob Self

Credit: Bob Self

That sound of screaming off in the distance last weekend? That was the bowl system, already gasping for breath and taking a turn for the worse.

It can't be fixed by Michigan tight end Jake Butt, no matter how much you appreciate his faith-based attitude after having perhaps lost upwards of $2 million by playing in the Orange Bowl. And it certainly won't be saved by running backs Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey, who left their teams in the lurch by skipping bowls to enhance their draft status.

Hardcore LSU and Stanford fans may have lost some appreciation for their teams' star backs when it happened. None of that mattered when the NFL treated them like lottery winners.

When college football bowed to the wishes of the majority and accepted a playoff system — even one as small as four teams — it hammered the first nail into the bowls' coffin. Those games would soon be considered useless by the media, by fans and (one day soon) a strapped-for-cash cable network.

We just didn't know that players would feel likewise.

It's all about the playoff now, and the NFL didn't exactly fail to notice. On Thursday and Friday nights, 18 of the top 55 players chosen — nearly one-third — were from Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and Washington. That's a remarkable haul for four teams to provide.

But it's really the three players mentioned here who will impact things moving forward.

Fournette skipped out on LSU's bowl game, didn't even have a totally impressive combine and was still picked fourth by Jacksonville on Thursday night. Same spot as Ezekiel Elliott a year ago, even if the Jaguars' situation is unlikely to give Fournette the opportunity to produce similar results.

McCaffrey was a less certain first-round pick last December when he announced he would skip Stanford's Sun Bowl appearance. He had a great combine and did nothing but climb draft boards. McCaffrey landed in Carolina with the No. 8 pick Thursday night, despite the fact he's seen more as a utility back-receiver than an every down ball carrier.

That didn't stop ESPN's Herm Edwards (Mr. "You Play to Win the Game" himself) from tagging McCaffrey as the one player who can make an immediate impact on his team's offense.

Now understand that the draft success of Fournette and McCaffrey will not open the doors for an across-the-board rush to skip bowl games. These two players had significant name recognition. Both finished in the top six in Heisman balloting in 2015 although injuries caused them to slide in 2016 voting.

But the question of whether star players can call it a season in December if their team isn't in the playoff has been answered by the NFL with a definitive, "Sure, come on aboard."

Of course, Michigan's Butt did not do that. Like most football players, he isn't wired that way. He participated in the Orange Bowl and suffered a major knee injury. That meant he slid to the bottom of the fifth round before the Denver Broncos picked him Saturday.

Butt had an insurance policy that will pay him $543,000 that is tax free. That, coupled with his probable signing bonus, is equivalent to being picked in the third round. However, some analysts thought Butt might be a second-round pick.

Since we will never know, that speculation will live and, by comparison, Arkansas tight Hunter Henry, who was drafted with the third pick in the second round in 2016, begins his NFL career with about $2.7 million more in guarantees than Butt.

The Michigan tight end said he had no regrets about playing in the Orange Bowl. He tweeted, "All it took was a little trust in God and a little patience. Couldn't be happier to be a part of the Broncos."

Most college football players will continue down Butt's path. Either oblivious to the money that schools are raking in these days or simply satisfied with their scholarship and stipend, they will suit up, play hurt, take injections, do whatever it takes and roll the dice.

Butt's injury comes one year after a similarly devastating injury dropped Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith from a high first-round pick to a high second-round pick, costing him millions. The Cowboys remain optimistic he will participate in team drills shortly, but he remains less than 100-percent healthy a year after Dallas drafted him.

And in the wake of the 2017 draft, more of those who can follow the Fournette and McCaffrey path, the all-conference and all-America players who have produced the tape that will get them into the first round, will see the non-playoff bowl games for what they have become — a money grab for coaches, athletic departments and administrators.

The bowls aren't dead. But they have never seemed smaller in stature than they do today.

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