Obviously, the 49ers wouldn’t have used a third-round pick on linebacker Chris Borland in 2014 if they’d had an inkling he may call it a career after only one season. Borland’s decision introduces a new complexity for scouts — determining whether a player may decide to walk away from the game prematurely.
There may be no way of spotting a propensity to choose to retire early, especially since the phenomenon is new and still too rare to allow teams to articulate potential factors. But in San Francisco, G.M. Trent Baalke undoubtedly has been asking himself whether he missed whatever evidence there may have been to indicate that Borland may not be long for the NFL.
Moving forward, look for teams to try to come up with ways to ensure that players on whom a draft pick will be invested will be invested in the profession. Already, many scouts focus on whether a player truly loves football. Borland’s decision raises the stakes for teams intent on finding players who have a high level of devotion to the sport.
“No offense to anyone but I’m playing until I can’t anymore. I love this game too much,” Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said on Twitter in reaction to the news. That’s what teams will be looking for, especially in guys who play positions susceptible to concussions.
Ultimately, some teams may decide there’s no way to know how players who have never played NFL football will react to the intensity of the highest level of the game. A kid who loves football after playing in high school and college may decide after getting a taste of it at the professional level that it’s not something they want to do for as long as they physically can.
But regardless of whether there is or isn’t a way to flag a player who may retire after only one NFL season, the Borland situation underscores the importance of at least raising the question before using the pick. After the pick has been used and the player surprises everyone by retiring, the question definitely will be raised internally regarding whether the G.M., the director of college scouting, and anyone else whose fingerprints are on the pick should have seen it coming before the player was drafted.