Decisions, decisions, decisions.
Last December, or thereabouts, Iowa football players Bryan Bulaga and Adrian Clayborn were faced with "the big one" for college football stars -- leave school early for the NFL draft or enjoy your senior year.
You know what happened.
Bulaga is rated as high as No. 5 to the Kansas City Chiefs in some mock drafts (Pat Kirwan of NFL.com). The NFL Network's Mike Mayock has Bulaga at No. 8 on his top 20 players for the 2010 draft. The ESPN duo of Todd McShay and Mel Kiper have differing views, with McShay putting Bulaga at No. 6 to the Seattle Seahawks and Kiper placing the Big Ten's offensive lineman of the year at No. 23 to the Green Bay Packers.
Going off the 2009 draft, we probably have to throw away the No. 5 comparison. That's where the New York Jets took quarterback Mark Sanchez, who got a $60 million, five-year deal with $26 million guaranteed. Offensive tackles won't get paid as much.
Let's focus on No. 8.
The Jacksonville Jaguars picked Virginia OT Eugene Monroe No. 8. The 6-foot-5, 320-pounder held out for 12 days before signing a five-year contract, worth a maximum of $35.4 million with $19.2 million guaranteed. The $19.2 million is the largest guarantee in Jaguars history.
Now, I'm not saying it's all about money. Bulaga told me that after the Orange Bowl. I believe him. Yes, it's unbelieveably fantastic to secure the future for your family and future generations. Not all players are able to do that. What a glorious achievement if you're one of the fortunate few (and, yes, a ton of work goes into it, so I didn't use the word "lucky").
“The thing is it’s not all about the money,” Bulaga said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize that. It’s about the love of the game. Every guy in here dreams about the next level and going to the NFL. When an opportunity knocks on the door, some guys are ready to take it and some want to stay an extra year.
“That’s where I’m at right now. It’s more than just the money. It’s your career, it’s your dreams, it’s everything. There’s a lot more that goes into it than just making some money. There’s more to it than just that.”
The underlying thought there is that Bulaga wants to be a great NFLer, not just an ATM.
During his spring news conference, I asked coach Kirk Ferentz how he felt about Bulaga's choice.
Ferentz said it's worked out for Bulaga so far. He saw that coming. What you didn't see about Bulaga was the weightroom work ethic, something he took with him on breaks to his old high school, Marian Central Catholic. Last August, O-line coach Reese Morgan let us into, a little bit, anyway, Bulaga's meticulous nature.
“The great thing about him is he comes to work every day. He has a plan. He knows what he’s going to do,” Morgan said. “I don’t know this for fact, but I would imagine he went in after practice and watched tape (it was Iowa's first practice of fall camp). I’m sure he’s watched it by now. He’s got his checklist and his notebook going. That’s really what all of our good players have done.”
(Bulaga had already watched that film, he later confirmed.)
Bulaga turned 21 just last March. One the maturity scale, he could potentially have strength gains ahead of him (he benched 225 pounds 26 times at the NFL's Combine in February). He has room to improve.
"What I've told people is really what you're doing, in my mind, if they draft him, they're going to get a guy who really is going to be a senior here next year and it's really true," Ferentz said. "In his case, next year is his fourth year. He played as a true freshman, (which) very unusual. Missed about half that season. Missed some time last year (three games due to the thyroid condition).
"So, developmentally, and I think this is a positive, his best football is clearly in front of him right now. He's played pretty good football. If you look at how he played in the (Orange) Bowl game after he was able to really have a good month of practice and training, he played exceptionally well, and that was a pretty good player (Georgia Tech DE Derrick Morgan, who Kirwan has going 14th to Seattle). He didn't play against that guy the whole game and when they squared off, I thought he did a nice job.
"His best football is ahead of him. In my mind he's like a blue chip stock; it's hard to shoot a hole in him and there's a lot of upsides, so that's a thing."
By the way, Ferentz gives input, but he doesn't play a heavy hand in player's decisions. He knows he's biased -- he's said he always believes the best decision is to stay in school -- and he knows his boundaries in these matters.
Iowa went 1-for-3 in NFL decisions after the Orange Bowl. Clayborn announced he was staying in December. After Iowa's 24-14 victory over Georgia Tech, Bulaga and cornerback Amari Spievey announced they were leaving early. The Chicago Bears will take a look at Spievey tomorrow in Iowa City, according to the Chicago Tribune.
"Again, that's a personal decision for players and I'm not going to start thinking that I know what's best for any of the guys," Ferentz said. "I have always been a guy who believed in staying in school and finish out your career, but that's not my decision to make. That's being presumptuous and being selfish."
The wind blew the other way when it came to Clayborn. The Hawkeye world rejoiced when the 6-4 285-pound defensive end said he was staying at the University of Iowa.
Kirk Ferentz rejoiced and wasn't shy admitting it. In fact, during the Orange Bowl postgame, Ferentz mentioned Clayborn and national awards.
Ferentz looked it up. The three finalists for the Lombardi Award, which goes to the nation's top lineman, were seniors. Nebraska's Ndamakong Suh took it home. Suh is No. 2 to the Detroit Lions on Kirwan's mock draft.
"Adrian is one of the better players we've had and like most good players, he really improved each and every year," Ferentz said. "He kind of used the bowl as a showcase, but he did some things during the year that were really exceptional. And beyond that, what he does on the practice field, really makes us a better team, because he's got a great attitude."
For Clayborn, it came down to a shot at national awards and, according to Ferentz, a slot somewhere in the first round.
"I think Adrian should be in (the discussion for national awards)," Ferentz said, "assuming he keeps progressing and playing like he has, he'll be one of the best in the country and feedback I got he would have been a first round pick this year, so maybe, you know, a year from now, he'll be even higher, which I think he will be."
Kirwan has four pure defensive ends going in his mock draft (version 4.0). It's hard to compare, but in that vein, look at Clayborn and Morgan in the Orange Bowl. Clayborn had two sacks and nine solo tackles against the Yellow Jackets. Morgan was held in check, with three tackles and one half tackle for loss.
Judging by the 2009 draft, Northern Illinois DE Larry English went No. 16 to the San Diego Chargers. He signed a five-year $17.8 million contract with $9.9 million guaranteed.
Ferentz was asked why Clayborn returned if he was projected as a first rounder.
"I didn't ask him," Ferentz laughed. "I didn't ask (former Iowa all-American tackle Robert) Gallery either. I said, OK. Thumbs up.
"In Gallery's mind he probably thought he had a shot at the Outland (Gallery won the 2003 Outland). Gallery probably thought he would have been a 20 to 30 pick and he could elevate his stock a little bit (he was picked No. 2 overall by the Raiders in 2004). He chose that route and Adrian was probably thinking the same thing.
". . . I think Robert really enjoyed his experience here and I think Adrian is having a ball and his mom (Tracie) is having a ball, too."
With as much as $1o million guaranteed on the table, there is risk, though it can be balanced by insurance.
The NCAA's insurance program (Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Insurance) could be in Clayborn's future. Or will likely be, as it was for Gallery and Bulaga.
According to Jeff Stanley of Houston Casualty Company, which administers the program, it has been around for about 20 years and includes 100 to 150 athletes a year. An NCAA football player has to project — the NCAA and HCC conduct confidential evaluations — into the top three rounds of the draft to be eligible. The student is issued a loan and must repay it when eligibility is up.
The insurance is invididualized and can cover as much as $5 million for football. Premiums cost around $10,000 per $1 million insured, Stanley said.
"I know this, he had a lot of fun last year," Ferentz said. "He has fun playing, fun practicing and being with his teammates. There is a little risk/reward there. He was willing to take the risk. He is going to graduate, too, and I think that was important to him."For Clayborn, the game of football will remain just that for one more year.