Yesterday, Heisman trophy winning quarterback and Oakland A’s first-round pick, Kyler Murray, announced that he had declared for the NFL Draft. The announcement was the culmination of a couple months speculation in regards to whether Murray would decide to honor his contract with the Athletics or chase his dream of playing football at the NFL level.
Though he declared for the draft, it doesn’t mean that Murray will forgo playing baseball. The process of filing the draft paperwork had to be completed by Monday in order for him to be eligible for this year’s draft. However, ESPN’s Adam Schefter did report that Murray actually filed the draft paperwork on Friday and that he was leaning towards playing football.
For some, this may seem like the wrong decision, particularly in light of the higher risk of injury that playing in the NFL comes with. However, there are several other factors to take into consideration when looking at this decision from Murray’s standpoint.
First, there is the injury factor, which plays into the average length of career but also the quality of life after the game. There is plenty of debate over what the average length of a player’s career is in football. The most recent estimate that I could find is from former NFLPA president DeMaurice Smith’s comments in 2011 that stated the average NFL career is 3.2 years. It’s hard to quantify injury rate and compare football with baseball, but let’s assume that the rate of significant injury is higher for NFL players than MLB.
Of particular concern these days for football players is the connection between playing the sport, concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). The research is ongoing into the degenerative neurological disease, but the information that is currently available has already led several young players (most notably San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland and Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel) to quit playing football out of fear of further damage. While the league has continued to try to legislate hits to the head and neck area out of the game, they do still happen, and that is a concern when considering a football career.
For Major League Baseball, the numbers are similarly murky, but it’s safe to presume baseball careers are at least a little longer. In addition, we don’t see nearly as many ACLs or Achilles tears in baseball as we do in football, so it’s likely he’ll hurt less later in life if he plays baseball. That is certainly a significant factor. While concussions aren’t as prevalent in baseball, they do happen, and the league has developed protocols like the NFL to allow for time to recover. But, one thing to consider here is there is no guarantee that Murray ever makes the major leagues.
In a recent study done by Rick Karcher, a professor of sports management at Eastern Michigan University, of the 158 college baseball position players drafted in the first round between 1996-2011, 122 (77%) reached the majors. That is a high percentage of picks reaching the majors for sure. But, that number drops to 95 (60%) when looking at players who played at least three years in the majors.
Here’s why that is a factor. MLB’s entry draft and the rules governing team control allow teams to keep players for quite a large portion of their careers often at lower than one would expect their value to be on the free agent market. Yes, first round picks like Murray get large signing bonuses, $4.66 million in Murray’s case, but outside of that bonus, they are then sent to the minors where contracts are, well, a bone of contention. The absolute best-case scenario for Murray’s baseball arc would be that of a Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber or Alex Bregman all college players who were in the majors within two years of being drafted. None of those guys have reached the second contract of their career yet however, due to the fact that the teams have them under control until they have accrued six years of service time.
Even once they do accrue that time and become a free agent, there hasn’t been much earning potential for free agents in the last two classes. Look no further than superstars Bryce Harper or Manny Machado for examples of players who are still awaiting the massive contracts that proponents of baseball like to say are there for the players. Now, MLB has attempted to solve this problem in Murray’s situation by saying they would waive a recent rule change to allow the A’s to offer Murray a major league contract in an attempt to persuade him to play baseball.
The difference is, with the NFL, if a player is drafted in the first round, their contracts are guaranteed for the first four years with a fifth year team-option and the players get to prove themselves right away at the professional level.
We don’t know what the numbers would work out to be if Murray were to go the route of signing a Major League deal, but let’s just take an example of a current free agent in Bryce Harper. Harper made it to the majors just a year after being drafted in 2010 and has earned $52.3 million over his eight years of time with the Nationals. Not too shabby. In his first four seasons, however, he earned $9.4 million.
Now, let’s look at what Murray could stand to make if he decides to play football. Murray plays quarterback, which, in and of itself, is the highest-paid position on the football field and also one of the most protected by the rules. Since the news is fairly new, there aren’t a ton of mock drafts with Murray in them so we have to do a bit of speculation. Three teams in the Top 10 are theoretically looking for immediate quarterback help. The New York Giants (#6), Jacksonville Jaguars (#7), and Denver Broncos (#10) all have unsettled QB situations. The guys picked in those slots last year signed contracts worth $23.8 million (guard Quenton Nelson), $21.2 million (QB Josh Allen) and $17.6 million (QB Josh Rosen) respectively.
I know what you’re thinking. But, what is the guaranteed money? That is a question we have been trained to ask about football over the years because behind the eye-popping numbers is generally slightly less eye-popping guaranteed money. However, for rookies, the first contract they sign is largely entirely guaranteed if they are a first round pick. So, Murray would be looking at likely double the money in the first four years.
That doesn’t even count the money that Murray could make as a quarterback if he makes it to his second contract. Of the top 10 contracts in the NFL in terms of practical guarantees, eight are quarterbacks. Yes, injury is a factor and yes, there is no guarantee that he makes it to his second contract. But, as a quarterback, if he were to, there is quite a lot of money in it. And, with the current way that MLB teams look at free agents, it’s possible he could earn more money from the NFL.
Related to the point above but separate is the potential for endorsement money for Murray. It was reported that an MLB marketing executive made the trip with A’s brass to discuss with Murray the potential avenues to endorsements in baseball. I couldn’t find a quantitative approach to looking at the difference in average endorsements between NFL and MLB players, so we’ll have to be a bit more speculative and base it on Forbes’ highest-paid athletes list for 2018 and sort by endorsement earnings.
In this respect, there were 18 football players that made the list and 14 baseball players. That isn’t much difference between the two leagues, so things would seem fairly even on this front.
Overall, there are pros and cons to both sides of this argument without question. Murray is an extremely talented athlete putting up ridiculous numbers in both sports so there is a legitimate shot in either one. In the end, it comes down to what the young man dreams of doing and in that respect, the former top-rated quarterback in Texas high school football, may already have his heart set on the gridiron.