CJ Stroud is faced with a life-changing decision and only a few days to make it. The star quarterback is mulling whether to return to Ohio State for his junior season or declare for the NFL Draft ahead of Monday’s deadline for early entrants. Years ago, that would have been a no-brainer—cash out and never look back. But with program boosters able to sweeten the pot with NIL dollars—the result of a landmark Supreme Court ruling allowing collegiate athletes to profit off their name, image or likeness—the choice between going pro or staying in school isn’t as simple as it once was.
A consensus top-ten pick with potential to be the first quarterback drafted (though his Alabama counterpart Bryce Young may also have a stake to that claim), Stroud returning to Columbus would be almost unprecedented for a player of his elite caliber. Per the league’s rookie wage scale, which predetermines salaries based on draft position, Stroud, if selected in the top ten, would be looking at a signing bonus of over $10 million, not to mention the relative security of a multi-year contract (unlike players drafted in Rounds 2-7, first-rounders are eligible for a fifth-year, team option). We’ve seen six and seven-figure NIL deals before, but if Ohio State can put together a package rivaling what Stroud would make in the NFL, it would be a watershed moment in college sports, a groundbreaking development in the “pay for play” phenomenon.
Stroud would certainly be taking a risk—it’s hard to see his stock going anywhere but down after finishing third in this year’s Heisman Trophy voting while leading all of college football in both passer rating (177.7) and yards per attempt (9.5). Stroud, who redshirted as a freshman in 2020 (Justin Fields was OSU’s starter that year), delivered one of the great performances by a quarterback in recent memory at last month’s Peach Bowl, losing a heartbreaker to top-ranked Georgia (who would go on to win their second straight National Championship) despite throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns.
While several of Stroud’s teammates have already declared for the draft (Paris Johnson, Luke Wypler and Jaxon Smith-Njigba among them), a number of others including Tommy Eichenberg and running back Miyan Williams have opted to run it back. Stroud deciding to stay would be an enormous blow to quarterback-needy teams like Houston and Indianapolis, though it would bring a smile to Buckeyes fans everywhere, solidifying Ohio State as a bona fide title contender in 2023.