INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Desmond Ridder spent the days leading up to last year's NFL draft preparing for his final college season and awaiting the birth of his first child.
The veteran quarterback returned to campus hoping to improve his draft stock, increase his potential future earnings and lead Cincinnati to the College Football Playoff.
Last summer's NCAA decision to allow athletes to profit from their celebrity status has led to angst in college sports as an newfangled market with millions of dollars becomes intertwined with recruiting.
But it also made it possible for Ridder to chase his college dreams — and support his family. Ridder, now a possible first-round pick, found it was the perfect combination.
“It allowed me to kind of relax, especially financially," he said at the NFL's scouting combine. “You know, having a house at the time, paying bills, which I probably wouldn’t have been able to do just on a COA (cost-of-attendance stipend), so being able to start a family in April when I welcomed my daughter to this world, it just made me calm and sort of gave me a sense of security."
If others follow Ridder's lead, college football and the draft could be forever changed.
Some, such as Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian, have long argued too many underclassmen leave school for unguaranteed NFL paychecks rather than developing their skills and pursuing degrees.
There is already evidence from the first NFL draft class to earn endrosement cash that it is happening.
Only 73 non-seniors declared for this year draft, the lowest total in nine years. And while it's too early to know whether this is merely an anomaly in the era of COVID-19 and extra years of college eligibility or a trend, stories such as Ridder's are expected to make an impact.
Just ask Peter Schoenthal, the founder and CEO of Athliance. His company advises players at Division I schools on the nuances of name, image and likeness deals and he's already hearing more talk about players staying in school longer. Now there's money in it, even if it's not pro contract money.
“So many times, especially in football and basketball, players come from lower-income families where they have so much pressure on them to provide and be the breadwinner in the family," Schoenthal said. “Now if you come back to school and don't rush the process, you can make a nice living and if the money isn’t the factor, it allows the factors that really matter like individual development and a degree I think you’ll see more players coming back.”
Ridder is this year's best example.
While the star quarterback and his agent, Brian McLaughlin, have never publicized how much Ridder actually earned last season, estimates have generally put the total at about around $250,000 — more than enough to pay the bills.
Ridder traded his Kia for a Range Rover and bought Bose headphones for his offensive linemen. He routinely took teammates to dinner and even gave high-priced Christmas gifts to his cousins.
Now he's poised to cash in again — this time as a higher draft pick than last season.
Georgia receiver George Pickens was one of 10 college athletes signed by Tom Brady's new apparel brand, BRADY. He visited New York, where he met the seven-time Super Bowl champion in person while signing the deal. Pickens is projected to be a late first- or second-round pick.
Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum, another potential first-rounder, sold T-shirts and donated the $30,000 proceeds to the university's Stead Family Children's Hospital, something that could have run afoul of previous NCAA rules.
“I thought it would be a cool thing to do. Other people were doing stuff with the hospital so we created the T-shirt," said Linderbaum, winner of the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center. “I think (NIL) is a great opportunity to make money — as long as it doesn't become a distraction.”
Naturally, that's also a concern for college coaches in all sports.
Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis, likely a first-round pick this week, was so worried about the possible distractions he initially rejected NIL money. When his mother created a plan, though, Davis jumped on board.
“I didn’t really know what to do, I didn’t know how to go about it," he said. “But with a little bit of help, my mom kind of spearheaded the whole operation. She knew exactly what she wanted to do, we knew what we wanted to do and it felt good being able to buy things for my mom and my brothers.”
Finding that balance could help smooth the transition from college to the professional ranks, as it did for Davis, or keep players like Ridder on campuses a while longer. Schoenthal believes that's where college sports is ultimately headed.
“If I’m a fifth, sixth, seventh-rounder and have no guarantee of making a team and a guy on the practice squad makes $90,000, maybe I’m better off coming back,” he said. “I absolutely think it’s going to happen and I think we’ll see quarterbacks slotted for the second or third round come back to get first-round money and make some of that NIL money to bridge the gap.”
Ridder is just the first example of someone who made that choice. He's not likely to be the last.
“For those mid- to late-round guys who don’t really know where they’re going to go, there’s a lot of security in it,” Ridder said. “If you’re a big-time name at your school, being able to stay there, make some good money and be able to make a name for yourself and raise and improve your draft stock, why not?"