Scout: Fournette, McCaffrey made smart decision to sit out bowls

Count Jaylon Smith's misfortune potentially as a lesson learned for top college draft prospects.

The former Notre Dame linebacker's NFL draft stock slipped after he suffered a severe knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl in January, which allowed the Dallas Cowboys to select a player initially projected as a high first-round pick in the second round. Smith lost millions, and about a year later, two high-profile prospects who intend to enter the 2017 NFL Draft -- LSU RB Leonard Fournette and Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey -- have elected not to play in their respective bowl games. Neither mentioned Smith by name in announcing their decisions, but NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks believes Smith's injury could be the impetus for a growing trend.

"All these guys are around the same age as Jaylon. Those all-star games, the tours, the camps, that whole high-school circuit, they all were together. They may have a relationship," said Brooks, who is a former NFL scout. "I'm sure when they saw Jaylon go down in the Fiesta Bowl, knowing he was a lock to be a top-five pick and fell to the second round, they start doing the math. They're going to say 'Why? What's the point?' There is more risk than reward for them. Jaylon Smith's injury could be a tipping point for the way some of these bowls are viewed by top players."

An NFC West scout told College Football 24/7 he doesn't expect the decisions of Fournette or McCaffrey to be viewed as a negative by scouts, and pointed to Smith's situation, as well.

"I don't view it as a big deal for players of Fournette and McCaffrey's caliber," the scout said. "You know Jaylon Smith has to wish he had sat out the Fiesta Bowl. I would say it's a smart decision."

NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci said he hopes the practice doesn't become more common.

"If it's based on (injuries), I get it, no question about it," Mariucci told The Rich Eisen Show on Monday. "I hope it doesn't start a trend where the premiere players who think they're going to be top-10 picks say 'I'm not going to play because I don't want to get hurt.' Jaylon Smith is an example, I know that. It happens in every sport."

Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott weighed in Monday calling for prospects to compete in bowl games, but like Mariucci, he expressed understanding for players who have been injured. Both Fournette and McCaffrey dealt with injury problems this season, particularly Fournette, who missed four games.

"I've talked to a dozen scouts who went through there (LSU), did their due diligence, and there's no doubt he was legitimately hurt," said NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah.

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Brooks and Jeremiah agreed that Fournette and McCaffrey won't be thought of any less by NFL scouts. But that doesn't mean the decision that's right for them would be right for any underclassman under any circumstance.

"For guys viewed as first-round picks that have a large body of work, it's one thing," Jeremiah said. "Now if you're a one-year starter viewed as a third- or fourth-round pick, you'd be missing out on an opportunity to help yourself. But those elite players can't really help themselves in a setting like the Sun Bowl."

Another factor: There is no national championship at stake for either Fournette's team, or McCaffrey's. If a top draft prospect were to ever bypass a College Football Playoff appearance for self-preservation, it would be viewed differently.

"If you sat out the playoff, it would come off like a pure selfish move. Selfish beyond a business decision," Brooks said. "If you help your team get to a point where it can win a national championship, everybody should be all in on it. That's different. Nobody cares about a bowl game on Dec. 23. Those games are for the school's benefit, the schools line their pockets, but for the player, they don't get anything but sweats and some swag."

If Brooks is right, Fournette and McCaffrey won't be the only top draft prospects that prioritize their NFL careers over playing in bowl games in the coming years.

Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter @ChaseGoodbread.