Ducking the spotlight, some stars decide to skip NFL draft

The hat-and-hug routine with the NFL commissioner that has become a rite of passage for many college football stars on draft night is not for everybod

The waiting is the hardest part, even for players good enough to be invited to the draft, and some prefer to do it away from the ever-present eyes of a national television audience.

“I know that the draft is really a great event and a great thing to go to,” said University of Pittsburgh offensive tackle T.J. Clemmings, a potential first-round pick who declined an invitation to attend the draft in Chicago next week. “It also can be pretty stressful. Nobody knows where they’re going to go. But the wait, I’d rather have that wait with my friends and family here at home in New Jersey.”

There will be several noticeable absences when the three-day draft starts Thursday night, including potential top picks. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper all plan to skip the spotlight.

Either Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback could be the first overall selection, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers holding the top pick and in need of a passer. The last time the No. 1 pick did not attend the draft was 1994, when Cincinnati selected Ohio State defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson.

But this year, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell might have to wait until pick No. 3 or even 4 — Cooper could go in the top three, too — to pose for a picture with a just-drafted player, his new team’s jersey in hand.

Not to worry. Goodell won’t be lonely. Twenty-eight players are scheduled to attend, including Southern California defensive lineman Leonard Williams and West Virginia receiver Kevin White.

From 2000-09, an average of six prospects attended the draft, and even then some declined the invitation. Former Wisconsin offensive tackle Joe Thomas went fishing with his father the day he was drafted No. 3 overall by the Cleveland Browns in 2007.

When the NFL moved the draft to prime time in 2010, it expanded the invitations and 17 prospects attended.

“More and more asked how they could take part,” NFL vice president of football communications Michael Signora said.

The NFL pays for two first-class or four coach airline tickets for each player, whichever the player chooses, and two hotel rooms, plus some in-town transportation.

Since 2010, the NFL has had at least 23 prospects attend each draft.

Players often slip out of the first round and into Day 2 — which can be a little uncomfortable.

Quarterbacks tend to draw the most attention, especially when they aren’t selected as early as projected. Cal’s Aaron Rodgers was the first to endure the long, televised wait when he dropped to No. 24 in 2005 before being scooped up by the Green Bay Packers. Southern California Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart (No. 10 to Arizona in 2006) and Brady Quinn (No. 22 to Cleveland in 2007) also endured the slide.

Leinart said he’s glad he had the experience of going to the draft, but he would plan things differently if he could do it over again.

“I would have stayed home, had a big party in my parents’ house with all my closest family and friends over. Been just super relaxed. Played golf. Whatever it may be,” he said. “Enjoyed it with my family in a stress-free environment.”

Last year it was Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel who had to wait backstage, with TV cameras cutting to him on just about every pick as he checked his phone and took swigs out of a water bottle. The Browns ended up taking Manziel at 22, and the cameras switched focus to Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville’s star quarterback.

The Vikings kept Bridgewater from having to return for Day 2 by taking him with the 32nd and last pick of the first round.

Geno Smith was not so lucky back in 2013. The West Virginia quarterback tumbled all the way out of the first round after there was talk he could be an early first-rounder. Smith considered not showing up for Day 2, but did and the New York Jets took him with the seventh pick of the second round.

Mariota and Winston probably don’t need to worry about sliding that far, but still have decided there’s no place like home.

“I applaud their decision, being home in a comfortable environment,” Leinart said. “For Mariota, he’s a shy person. That’s not his deal. Jameis Winston is probably avoiding it for other reasons. To stay out of the media.”

Winston had a series of off-field issues at Florida State, including a rape accusation against him. He has said he plans to spend draft night with loved ones, including his paternal grandmother whom, he said, has type-2 diabetes and cannot make long trips.

“I want the people who have been there since Day 1 to enjoy this moment,” Winston told NFL Network after his pro day at Florida State last month. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I would look forward to spending with my family.”

Mariota will be in his beloved home state of Hawaii, with more than 200 people at his high school alumni clubhouse, he said.

“For me it was a way to culturally pay respect to where I come from and to be with my family and friends, and at the same time to be with everybody who has helped me get here, and making sure they are all a part of this moment,” Mariota said. “These are the people who got me here.”

The commissioner can wait.


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