Bell: Skipping draft worse for Winston, Mariota than NFL

It would definitely look weird if the NFL draft is christened in Chicago on April 30, and the top two quarterbacks on the board — Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota — are not in the building.

Embarrassing for the NFL? Yeah, right.

Embarrassing is when a high-profile player is seen on video knocking out his fiancée. Or when one of the biggest stars in the game is charged with child abuse. Or when a team owner is popped for DUI. Or when a star quarterback is busted for bankrolling a dogfighting ring.

The NFL has seen its shield tarnished in all sorts of ways. Failing to have Winston and/or Mariota present in the Windy City doesn’t even rank in the big picture.

Sure, you’d want the past two Heisman Trophy winners at your stage show, hugging Roger Goodell while Mike Mayock and Mel Kiper provide final breakdowns of their pro potential.

But even without the passing duo, the sky won’t fall on the NFL draft. The league can, well, absorb this.

Winston and Mariota are highly regarded prospects but have proven nothing on the NFL level. If they want to dis their new employer by skipping the draft, it’s their loss. And not just because they would miss an opportunity that so many players would beg for — to be marquee attractions for the league’s showcase offseason event.

Winston, widely pegged to be selected No. 1 overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has said he wants to celebrate at home in Bessemer, Ala., with family and friends who have supported him from the start. That’s noble enough. Plus, a member of Winston’s camp told me an ailing grandmother who doesn’t travel well is in the equation, too.

Following his pro day Tuesday, Winston maintained that he still isn’t sure about whether he would be at the draft. I’ve wondered for a couple weeks whether he would indeed show up in Chicago if he knew for sure that he’d be the top pick. I mean, if there were anything that could change Winston’s mind, being No. 1 could be the ticket.

Mariota, whom the Bucs publicly maintain could be their choice but is more widely projected as a top 10 selection, has apparently decided to stay home in Hawaii to celebrate. According to an ESPN report, his reasoning includes cultural tradition.

And as much as coach Ken Whisenhunt of the Tennessee Titans, owners of the No. 2 pick, says he loves Mariota, there’s also the risk he could tumble into the middle of the first round. Imagine the angst captured by the cameras in the green room.

The pride factor is understood, but the ebb and flow of the draft comes with the territory.

Like a lot of people, I felt for Aaron Rodgers when he slid to the 24th slot during the 2005 draft. (After attending his awesome workout at Cal that year, he was No. 1 in my mock draft.) But he made a sweet recovery to demonstrate that made-for-TV draft drama pales in the big picture on the road to becoming a two-time NFL MVP.

Can you say Discount Double-Check?

Granted, Winston and Mariota have their reasons if they opt to stay away. But it’s still a bit silly. They can have their celebrations at home after the draft — even weeks later.

If people can get married in February and take their honeymoon in July, why can’t a couple of high draft picks delay their parties? I’m sure people would understand.

I remember when Keyshawn Johnson went No. 1 overall in 1996. He went to New York, site of the draft then, participated in the pre-draft functions and walked across the stage. Then he flew home to Los Angeles and threw a bash that was so grand, that years later he told me it was the most money he’d ever squandered. But he didn’t regret it, either, because he had his draft memory with his homies.

By thumbing their nose to the NFL — and the charity functions, fan and sponsor interaction events and media obligations that are part of the draft week festivities — Winston and Mariota would be shirking some professional responsibility.

They are quarterbacks, right? Faces of the franchise? Well, attending the draft would be a good step toward showing they’re ready to handle the big time like big boys. It’s a big business, and they are poised to reap some major rewards from a league that generates more than $11 billion in annual revenues. Skipping the draft comes off as being spoiled while wrapped in a sense of entitlement.

Besides, they should seize the moment when they can. Hot shot status doesn’t last forever.

Remember, NFL also stands for Not For Long.

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