Can Players Gain Financially If They Stay In College?

After Alabama’s spring game, Nick Saban said this, via ESPN:

Now, we have guys that have no draft grades, seventh-round grades, free-agent grades, fifth-round grades that are going out of the draft. And the person that loses in that is the player. If you’re a third-round draft pick, and we had one here last year — I’m not going to say any names — goes and starts for his team, so he’s making third-round money, which is not that great. He’d be the first guy taken at his position this year, probably, and make $15-18 million more.

So, the agent makes out, the club makes out, and now they’ve got a guy that’s going to play for that kind of money for three more years, all right? And everybody out there’s saying, “Well, get to your next contract.” Well, there’s obviously 50 percent of these guys never getting to a next contract. And that doesn’t mean all the rest of them got to one, either.

Is Saban correct? The short, boring answer is that there are far too many variables, of which we’ll return to in a moment, to make this statement with any kind of high confidence. But let’s presume that Saban’s draft projection as applied to this case holds up. What’s a reasonable financial projection to make to try to verify this claim?

As ESPN notes, while Saban said that he was “not going to say any names”, the information he did say makes it highly likely, via the process of elimination, that he was referring to Ronnie Harrison, who was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2018 NFL Draft by the Jaguars, and emerged as a starter for Jacksonville the same year. Harrison, for his part, clearly thought he was being subtexted by Saban, and made his displeasure similarly clear:

On the table to the left is Harrison’s actual rookie contract, a $3.39 million deal with a little over $800,000 guaranteed. On the table to the right is the projected contract for the 17th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, a $13.25 million contract that will likely have its entirety guaranteed.

Ronnie Harrison17th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft
YearBase SalaryProrated BonusYearBase SalaryProrated Bonus
Total Value:$3,388,032Total Value:$13,247,960

Looking at that alone, it would appear to justify Saban’s argument. But of course, such a view misses several important points:

  • First and most obvious, Harrison would have been forbidden from earning any money in 2018 had he stayed at Alabama for that season.
  • First round picks are subject to a fifth year option that impedes their path toward unrestricted free agency.
  • Third through seventh round picks are eligible for the Proven Performance Escalator (PPE) should they log enough snaps in their first three seasons.

Keeping these points in mind, let’s take a look at the cash flows between these two contracts. These tables assume that, given Saban’s similar assumptions about the high quality of the player, Harrison will indeed qualify for the PPE, and that the 17th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft will have his fifth year option exercised. These numbers are roughly estimated by applying a consistent 5.8% increase to both the lowest restricted free agent tender of $2,025,000, and on Damarious Randall’s 2019 fifth year option salary of $9,069,000.

Ronnie Harrison17th overall pick in the 2019 NFL DraftRunning Cash Difference
YearYearly CashRunning CashYearYearly CashRunning Cash
2022Unrestricted Free Agency2022$2,301,540$13,247,960
2024Unrestricted Free Agency

In Year 1 anything that Harrison made in the NFL would beat what he’d make at Alabama. In Years 2 through 4 waiting until 2019 comes out ahead, but a range of $6-6.6 million is a far cry from the $15-18 million that Saban speculates. In order to meet that estimate, Harrison would have needed to be drafted 6th overall or higher this year, a daunting task for any NFL player.

It’s also worth noting the locations in the 2019 NFL Draft that Harrison would have needed to be drafted in order to break even in cash flow. For the four year cash flow it would have been the 47th overall selection, while for Years 2 and 3 it would be the 61st overall pick. (The tables below demonstrate these cash flows, with the key figures highlighted.) Harrison was taken 93rd overall in 2018; was a difference in about a round to a round and a half enough to risk playing for no compensation in Tuscaloosa in 2018?

Also note that 2nd round picks are not eligible for the PPE; in the case of the 61st overall pick, that contract would not even meet Harrison’s four year cash flow by Year 5, a year when Harrison can become an unrestricted free agent (UFA).

Ronnie Harrison47th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft61st overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft
YearYearly CashRunning CashYearYearly CashRunning CashYearYearly CashRunning Cash
2022Unrestricted Free Agency2022$1,345,449$6,236,6182022$1,132,320$4,673,676

Speaking of unrestricted free agency, that’s a crucial advantage that Harrison holds by entering the NFL in 2018. He will be able to become a UFA two years earlier than 2019 first round picks. In order to match what the 17th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft could earn by 2023 on his rookie contract (about $23.4 million), in his second contract Harrison would need to add to his career earnings on his rookie contract (about $4.875 million in this estimate) a minimum of about $18.5 million in cash in the first two years, or at the very least, get that much guaranteed. Using a similar 5.8% adjustment for inflation, $18.5 million in 2022 dollars would equate to about $15.5 million in 2019 dollars. That’s the amount that Tashaun Gipson signed for in his first two years in the contract he signed with the Texans this offseason. Gipson’s contract is hardly near the top tier in most metrics among safety pay, so if Harrison can build upon his promising rookie season and become a solid starting safety, getting a deal similar to Gipson’s two years in advance is a reasonable goal for Harrison to aim for.

Here is what the cash flow comparison looks like if Harrison did sign a contract similar to Gipson, adjusted for inflation. Contract structure can influence this one way or the other, but here Harrison would come out ahead in Year 5 while breaking even in Year 6.

Ronnie Harrison17th overall pick in the 2019 NFL DraftRunning Cash Difference
YearYearly CashRunning CashYearYearly CashRunning Cash
2024$8,665,541$32,026,5592024Unrestricted Free Agency

For one last detailed table, let’s briefly presume that Harrison overestimated his draft stock, and was taken in the 7th round or became an undrafted free agent. When compared to the contracts of Trey Quinn (Mr. Irrelevant) or George Odum (a UDFA safety), note that the cash flows are not radically different. Furthermore, remember that UDFAs sign only three year deals, and then are eligible for restricted free agency. While drafted players are only eligible for a PPE raise to the lowest RFA tender, UDFAs are eligible for a higher tender. If Harrison plays as presumed by Saban, he would likely have received a 2nd round tender (as presumed below), thus increasing the final contract value above his actual 3rd round status.

YearRonnie HarrisonTrey QuinnGeorge Odum
Yearly CashRunning CashYearly CashRunning CashYearly CashRunning Cash
Year 3 Running Cash Difference:($829,460)($881,200)
Year 4 Running Cash Difference:($829,460)$317,800

* * * *

The narrowly tailored examples above, as mentioned, only encapsulate a small handful of possible scenarios for the future in the NFL for players situated like Harrison. There are some in which Saban’s arguments could be proven correct:

  • Certain players could be drafted in the first round only if they play another year in college to build upon their draft stock, as Saban suggests.
  • As Saban also says, such players could fail to earn a second contract of consequence, and the difference in career earnings could be substantial.
  • It’s also possible that for players taken in the later rounds of the draft (or UDFAs), there may be less patience to keep them on the roster if they fail to show promise early in their NFL careers.

However, consider some other plausible scenarios that run counter to Saban’s hypothesis:

  • The player’s previous Day 2 estimated draft stock could remain unchanged or fall. Then the player’s earnings per year remain largely unchanged, except that he’s played for no money in college one more year, and is another year away from free agency.
  • The player could get injured in his additional year in college, and see his draft stock fall considerably. The most prominent recent example of this is Jaylon Smith, who went from being judged as a consensus top five pick to falling all the way into the second round.
  • The calculus varies by position. Ronnie Harrison, for example, is a safety, a position not traditionally valued high. Would Saban be as cavalier to suggest this about, say, a quarterback? Especially considering he currently has a quarterback that is highly regarded for the 2020 NFL Draft?
  • Finally, as Harrison said in his tweet, put the money aside for a moment. The grand majority of football players have been dreaming of becoming a pro since they were children. If they have a reasonable chance to achieve that dream, why should they hold back?

And as Harrison also noted, Saban has an inherent conflict of interest in wanting to nudge his players for staying at Alabama as long as possible, in order to maintain what has been the most powerful program in college football since he arrived at Tuscaloosa.