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The quietly-increasing risk with young talent in NFL

Teams like the Bengals heavily rely on the NFL Draft while constructing their roster. However, what seems like a long-term solution is slowly proving to be a bigger risk than in the past.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that was agreed upon by NFL parties back in 2011 included a rookie wage scale and increases for contracts to veterans. Even though teams still crazily jump into the free agency frenzy with big money, many teams still prefer the younger, cheaper talent they can get in the NFL Draft.

For those who follow the Cincinnati Bengals, their obvious offseason strategy resides in the accumulation of new talent they collect in April, as opposed to the early days of March. Some love the strategy, while some loathe it because of their inactivity in outside free agency, but most do find some level of understanding in their offseason process.

However, there is another topic in the NFL that has also been emerging on the horizon. Aside from what the NFLPA negotiated for them six years ago, some NFL veterans aren’t reaping the benefits of their peers, and the increasing information on head injuries and CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) might start affecting the importance teams place on the April festivities.

Though it hasn’t been a fully-widespread theme yet, many players are beginning to step away from football very early in their careers. The San Francisco 49ers had one of the worst offseasons in recent memory back in 2015, in the form of letting head coach Jim Harbaugh go, while seeing many talented players retire unexpectedly. Veteran departures like Patrick Willis and Justin Smith were somewhat-predictable, but a couple of younger players’ proclamations began to pave the way for a trend that could change the long-term scope of the NFL.

Chris Borland, a 2014 third-round pick by San Francisco, announced his retirement just one year into his career (a pretty solid one at that), as he feared long-term health issues from concussions he suffered over years of playing football. Offensive tackle Anthony Davis also abruptly announced he was taking a year off of football to “heal his brain and body” just five years into his respective career, though he did return to play for them in 2016.

This week, a similar announcement was made by Giants defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa. After being selected in the third round by New York in the 2015 NFL Draft, the talented outside rusher said he wanted to suddenly step away from football this year.

While this isn’t a direct correlation to other young, talented players stepping away because of health concerns, one has to wonder if that’s what is on Odighizuwa’s heart when making this tough decision. With more research being done in recent years about football’s effects on head injuries, and other retirees voicing their ailments and concerns about their health as they age, younger players are far more in tune about the risks earlier in their careers.

So, what does all this mean for the NFL? More specifically, what might it mean for the Bengals? Truthfully, it’s hard to pinpoint an exact answer.

For the league, seeing younger players step away from the game, even if temporarily, does present a long-term problem. While scientific advancements and rule changes are aimed towards limiting head injuries, players might make an understandable cash-grab, so to speak, after just a couple of seasons and go on to different endeavors while understandably preserving their long-term health. It also might start to sway kids away from playing the game for ones that don’t have the same long-term health effects.

For teams around the league, they need to be aware that a high-round draft investment may not even last through their initial contract. Whether that means a bigger emphasis on pre-draft interviews and/or more adeptly studying prospects’ injury histories, from a business standpoint, teams want to obviously get the most out of their talent on the field.

For the Bengals, it could bring a little bit of a different slant on the imbalance of interest they show between the draft and free agency. Whether it’s ethically right or not, the business side of the game tells a team like the Bengals to look at steadier veteran free agents in the prime of their careers, over those on the “back nine,” or even the occasional rookie who might bail out of a contract earlier than expected.

This possible approach from Cincinnati won’t be something we’re likely to see in the next couple of seasons—both because the Bengals haven’t experienced their players retiring early, as well as their frustrating resistance to change. However, it will be interesting to see what their attitude will be if the trend continues and increases around the league, as well as if they personally experience it with a talented youngster of their own.

This analyzation of what the minority of NFL players opt to choose isn’t a condemnation of their decision, nor is it to single out certain players and what some might wrongfully deem as their potential lack of desire for the game. It’s simply to point out a changing landscape in the most popular sport in America.