Former LSU offensive lineman La’el Collins had one of the most bizarre NFL draft sagas in recent memory. A surefire first- or second-round pick, Collins’s status was upended when he was named in connection with the murder of his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Brittney Mills. A paternity test for Collins has since come back negative, and Baton Rouge police still do not consider Collins a suspect.
All that was publicly known on draft day was that police wanted to speak with Collins in connection with Mills’s death. Any team planning to draft Collins had to weigh the possibilities of a number of different scenarios: that Collins would be locked up, Roger Goodell’s penchant for swinging the banhammer before the legal system fully adjudicates a case, the public relations hit of drafting a potential murder suspect. Collins threatened not to sign if he was drafted late (and for late-round slot money), and eventually wasn’t drafted at all. He signed an undrafted free agent deal with the Cowboys last week.
Robert Klemko has a fascinating tick-tock of the entire situation, including heavy participation from Collins’s agents to explain their thought process at each step. There’s a lot of meat here, but most interesting is how the agents sought to gain the best deal for Collins.
As was widely reported at the time, Collins’s agents requested to have him removed from the draft altogether. He would then enter this summer’s supplemental draft after, presumably, he had been cleared. In the supplemental draft teams submit bids tied to a round, first through seventh, mimicking the rounds in the normal draft. Whoever bids the highest round gets the player, and forfeits that round’s pick in the next year’s draft. Collins’s agents were hoping that, once cleared, some team would submit a first or second round bid, and he would receive the commensurate salary. That’s what happened with Josh Gordon two seasons ago.
But the Collective Bargaining Agreement is clear that an eligible player cannot bypass the draft to enter the supplemental draft, and despite a potential murder rap hanging over his head, Collins was eligible. The NFL denied his request.
After Collins went undrafted in the first round, his agents scrambled to figure out their next step. One agent, Mike McCartney, tells Klemko that he received a trial balloon from a GM who said he was thinking about drafting Collins in the fifth round. This year’s fifth round players have signed contracts for four years and around $2.5 million, with only $250,000 guaranteed. But McCartney knew that Collins could earn a hell of a lot more than that if went undrafted and signed as a free agent:
“I’m thinking, That’s the worst thing for us,” McCartney says. “I ran the numbers. If a guy is drafted, he signs a four-year deal. If he gets a three-year undrafted-free-agent contract, plays well and often, then gets the first-round tender and the player participation pool bonus money, he could be paid better than the 33rd pick in the draft.”
Collins’s agents decided to let teams know that if they weren’t going to draft Collins in the second or third round, they shouldn’t bother. They threatened teams that if Collins was drafted any later, he would sit out the season and re-enter the 2016 draft. While NFL teams bought the threat, it was apparently a bluff:
“We can put it on the record now: We were never going back in the draft,” [agent Rick] Smith says of waiting for the 2016 draft. “If someone had drafted him, we would’ve had a long, long discussion about it, but at the end of the day you can’t go back in the draft. He could get injured, gain weight, or 10 great tackles could come out. Too many risks.”
Evidently the most difficult part of deciding to tell teams not to draft Collins was getting Collins himself to agree. It is easy for neutral observers to sit back and say, “you’ll probably make more money this way, so it makes sense to try and avoid being drafted.” But to somebody who has presumably dreamed for most of his life about being drafted, and worked hard to become a great football player, it’s understandable that Collins would’ve resisted having to wait another year, with no guarantees that it would pay off.
Collins wasn’t picked in the second or third round, nor in the fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds. It would have made total sense for some team to take a seventh round flyer on Collins. Seventh round picks get almost no guaranteed money, and very few of them play more than a handful of snaps in the NFL. At least one team had to decide it was worth the potential PR headache to take a flyer on a potential first-round talent virtually for free, right? Right.
Before making its seventh-round selection, one team sends Smith one last text message.
“There was a team that had drafted four offensive linemen,” Smith says, “and they said, ‘We’re taking him.’ And I texted back, ‘You’re going to embarrass yourself. You’re going to waste this pick.’
As pointed out by Jimmy Kempski, this team was likely the Rams.
Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, the Rams were the team that drafted Michael Sam in the seventh round last year. They have a recent track record of drafting players that other teams avoid for non-football reasons.
But the Rams passed, and Collins became an undrafted free agent. He signed a three-year deal with the Cowboys, and if he makes good on his potential, he will come close to earning the same amount of money he would’ve if he’d been drafted where projected. His entire $1.65 million contract with the Cowboys is guaranteed, and even though that’s less guaranteed money than he would’ve gotten, it is more than any third round pick got. The Baton Rouge murder investigation continues, but as of now, it looks like La’el Collins ended up in a fine place.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo via Julio Cortez/AP.