ATHENS — What I’m writing today is going to be unpopular with most Georgia fans. I already know that. Nevertheless I believe it needs to be said.
Players probably should be devalued if they choose to skip out on their team’s bowl games.
I’ve already seen that the majority reaction of the Dawg Nation on social media to the criticism and predicted drop of Deandre Baker in this week’s NFL draft is to defend the Bulldogs’ talented senior cornerback. I’d expect nothing less of this fervent fan base, which is definitely one of the best in college football.
Their reaction to this week’s draft news was predictable. In a conference call with reporters on Monday, ESPN draft expert Todd McShay predicted that Baker, a projected first-round pick, could fall because of decisions he’s made and how he has handled himself in pre-draft meetings with teams. Chief among those was a last-minute decision to skip the Sugar Bowl.
When McShay’s thoughts were reported, some fans viewed them as character assassination.
“That’s BS! … Didn’t want to risk future!” @KarenHa17217114 exclaimed.
“That’s ridiculous. … Click bait!” @MelissaRabb1 echoed.
“Give me a break. Dude is a stud!” @BulldawgRob said.
“Why play in the bowl game when you could hurt yourself and risk your entire career?” @BenG added.
I’d reply to that last one this way: If Baker does indeed drop, that’s why.
As much as anything in the world, professional sports and their respective drafts are the ultimate free markets. Teams gather as much information as they possibly can, weigh them against things like cost and risk and gain and salary cap and make their calls, always with the intention of improving their teams.
Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t.
As for Baker, when he stood on stage and accepted the Jim Thorpe trophy for being named the nation’s top defensive back, his stock was sky high. In the weeks that followed, there were reports that Georgia’s senior cornerback from Miami might become a Top 10 pick.
Then the NFL machine started doing its digging.
Before the Bulldogs even got to New Orleans to play in the Sugar Bowl, Baker reversed on his statement at the College Football Awards Show that he intended stick with his team. This came as a bit of surprise to Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who had until the week the Bulldogs got to the bowl site thought Baker was going to play right cornerback against the Texas Longhorns.
“He has decided not to play in the game,” Smart said upon arrival in New Orleans. “That’s a decision that he came to … last week, somewhere around mid-week. He was very honest about it. He was very concerned about it. We at the University of Georgia support his decision. It’s a tough decision when you look at it. He was forced to make it. He probably spoke prematurely at the Thorpe Award.”
That’s all well-documented and, frankly, ancient history at this point. But it’s important first note here to know exactly what McShay said when he was asked about Baker on Monday.
“Really, really good football player,” McShay said. Then came a “but.”
“If he falls, part of it is going to be frustration from the coaching staff about the way he finished his career,” McShay said. “In terms of not playing in the bowl game but being around and not being the best influence. That’s the best way I can put it.”
“The best way I can put it,” is the most important part of that statement. It implies McShay knows more than he’s saying but chooses not expound.
It’s also important to note that McShay is not the only one who cited negative feedback from NFL personnel on Baker’s pre-draft preparation and testing.
So, let’s be clear: McShay has no dog in this hunt. He’s just doing the impossible job of trying to predict what’s going to happen in the NFL draft, which begins Thursday in Nashville. So he’s got no reason to value or de-value Baker. Him and Mel Kiper and guys like them simply parrot what they’ve been hearing among NFL personnel pros, and probably half of that is rhetoric.
But McShay was pretty specific here when he cites “frustration from the coaching staff” and “not being the best influence.” And it meshes with what I heard while in New Orleans, and since then. Obviously he’s spoken with Georgia coaches.
What is undeniable about Baker is his talent. He didn’t test well at the NFL Combine, but he did great at UGA’s Pro Day. After running a 4.52 40 in Indianapolis, he ran the 4.4 so coveted by NFL execs before 30-something scouts inside Georgia’s Payne Indoor Athletic Facility in Center in March.
And then there’s always what Baker did on the field. Famously, he did not give up a touchdown pass his final two seasons with the Bulldogs. We’ll never know whether that streak would’ve been broken against Texas in the Sugar Bowl. Maybe that’s another reason he didn’t want to play. But facts are facts and stats are stats and there’s no quibbling about that.
If Baker does drop, I’d wouldn’t expect it to be too far. Last time I checked, the NFL still covets corners that thrive in one-on-one coverage.
But then there’s also this: Football is the ultimate team sport. All of us can recite the adage about chains never being stronger than their weakest links. That probably goes double in football. It takes the best player playing his best at every position to compete at the highest level.
And while the Sugar Bowl might not be the College Football Playoff, it’s also not the Alamo Bowl. There’s no question Baker’s absence in that game severely handicapped the Bulldogs.
I get the whole argument about college football’s free labor system and players risking their NFL futures. But injury risk happens every week during the season. A player is no more at risk at a bowl game than he is any other week of the year. The real examples of a potential high-draft pick being injured in a bowl are actually very few and far between.
Baker was not alone in his decision. At last count, somewhere around 20 players chose to skip their teams’ bowl games due to the risk of potential injury to their bowl stock.
The irony is, the choice not to play in a bowl could actually negatively impact some of these players’ stock, Baker’s included. But that’s only fair in a free market economy.