After a historic season, will Kyler Murray still give up on football?

ByJoel Anderson and Jake Trotter ESPN logo
Saturday, December 8, 2018

The plan seemed so clear in June, when Kyler Murray, his family and his agent arrived in Oakland, California, to celebrate the signing of an unprecedented contract with theAthletics.

As part of the agreement, Murray would play football for only one more season atOklahoma, if only to exhaust his desire for the game and clear his mind in order to embark on a promising baseball career. After languishing atTexas A&M, then sitting behind Heisman Trophy winnerBaker Mayfieldat Oklahoma, Murray also wanted to prove he was still a big-time football player, capable of fulfilling the vast potential on display during a spectacular high school career in Allen, Texas.

Still, baseball would be Murray's future.

"In January," A's executive vice president Billy Beane said then of his surprise ninth overall draft pick, before handing him a $4.66 million signing bonus, "we're going to be so excited this kid is playing for the Oakland A's."

Six months later, after a historic season that has put him on the brink of becoming Oklahoma's seventh Heisman Trophy winner, Murray's plan doesn't seem so clear.

Murray staged a season for the ages, and he is on the cusp of shattering Mayfield's FBS passing efficiency rating. He also is the first player in FBS history to average both 300 yards passing and 60 yards rushing. He also quarterbacked Oklahoma to a fourth consecutive Big 12 championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff against No. 1 Alabama in the semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl on Dec. 29.

That has some NFL scouts salivating over Murray's pro football potential. This week, ESPN draft gurus Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay both suggested Murray would be a first-round pick in the NFL draft, if he pursued football.

Murray has said that, "as of now," the plan is still to move on with baseball next month. But he has hinted recently that he'll consider NFL overtures, as well.

Below, we explore the factors Murray will have to weigh. And the questions he'll have to answer.

What is Murray's agent saying about his future?

Even broaching this question to Murray's agent, Scott Boras, is rather futile. In an interview with ESPN, Boras was steadfast that Murray will be playing baseball once Oklahoma's football season ends.

"In good faith that organization did something very unique. Never done before," Boras said of the A's. "So, [Murray] is going to reward the Oakland A's and their owners, fans, by executing the agreement to its truest intent and now continue his baseball career."

That Boras, once named the "Most Powerful Sports Agent in the World" by Fortune, has been so adamant about Murray playing baseball isn't insignificant, according to one top executive with a MLB franchise.

"I will say this about Scott: Once a contract is signed, he's an extreme believer that you signed the contract and you should honor it," the executive said. "But he believes [that Murray will report to the A's] and at the time Kyler probably believed it."

What is Murray saying about his own future?

Murray has been interestingly coy, sure to mention his obligation to the A's, while also indicating his intrigue in the NFL's interest in him.

"I feel like I could play in the NFL, but as far as giving it up, as of now, yeah, that's the plan," Murray said Monday, when asked about his future. Pressed if anything could change his mind, he wavered. "I can't ... I don't have any words for you," he said.

Yet later that day, in an interview with ESPN's Tim Tebow for a feature on "College GameDay," Murray had a slightly different answer.

"I think that's something me and my family will talk about at the end of the season and weigh out the options of what the NFL thinks of me," Murray told Tebow, himself a Heisman winner and a former first-round NFL pick now in theNew York Mets' minor league system. "Right now, my future is already kind of planned out."

That sort of on-the-record ambiguity is why his uncle Calvin Murray, a former major leaguer and player representative for Boras' agency, has been displeased with all of the focus on Murray's future.

"It's the elephant in the room," he said. "But what do we gain out of talking about that? That's the question that I avoid, and we don't even talk about that. Let's not cheat what the kid has done and played his whole life to accomplish."

What is the NFL saying about his future?

If Murray were willing to snub baseball and enter the NFL draft exclusively as a football player, he probably would find a team ready to roll the dice on him with a first-round pick, despite his 5-foot-10, 190-pound frame, which would be an unprecedented stature for a starting NFL quarterback.

"We've never had that type of quarterback go in the first round before," Kiper said. "If he was three inches taller, he'd be the No. 1 pick in the draft. It wouldn't even be a debate."

Kiper, however, still thinks Murray, with only 16 career starts, could crack the first round.

"He is a unique, spectacular talent," Kiper said. "You can't find quarterbacks who can throw and run like he can."

That's why Murray could still get drafted, even if he reports to the A's in January, and skips the NFL scouting combine, at least according to one NFL scout.

"They're going to do their due diligence, but would someone take a pick or a flier on him late? That's really tough, but I would say someone would just do it just in case.

"If a team didn't really think the kid was going to show up, you're kind of wasting a draft pick," the scout said, noting that if Murray didn't report, he would be eligible again for the following NFL draft, unlike in the NBA or MLB where teams can hold your rights for multiple years. "If you're a team that is confident and maybe thinks the kid will show up, yeah, you could. But you would have to be in a very rare situation to pull off something like that."

Is it possible Murray could play both sports?

Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders both did. But that was a different time. In an interview with MLB Network during the baseball draft, Jackson suggested that Murray would be better off focusing on one sport.

"The sporting world's a little different now than it was when I played," Jackson said. "They have more talent, way more talent. The talent pool is deep. I can't tell the young man what to do, but whatever sport he chooses, concentrate on it."

To this point, though, Murray has found a way to balance both.

He hit cleanup and played center field for the Sooners in the spring while practicing with the football team. On one long day, Murray actually played in Oklahoma's spring game, then drove over to the baseball field and started the Sooners' game against Texas.

"The biggest thing is there was a plan in the beginning, and it started, honestly, when we brought him here," said Oklahoma football coach Lincoln Riley. "It was tough on him. But we got together a good schedule for him and worked together with our baseball crew to get him to where he could do both, but also try not to wear him down and give him rest where we could. And then he did a good job just handling it all."

Of course, handling both sports as a pro would be far more challenging than it was in college. Still, Riley doesn't rule out Murray being able to make it work.

"It'll be an interesting question. ... I don't want to put it past him," Riley said. "A lot of people would say he can't do what he's done right now. How well he performed for our baseball group here this spring and how well he's played here for us. He athletically is so gifted and can transition between the two. Conventional wisdom would think, like in the spring, that he would have a hard time going from throwing a baseball to throwing a football. And he's not throwing it any better now than he did in the spring during the middle of baseball. He can athletically transition between the two.

"So then it comes down to physically holding up, and then the mental side of it."

What happens with Murray's baseball contract if he plays football?

Neither Boras nor the A's have commented specifically on the details of Murray's contract with the club. But if he were to choose football, an MLB executive said the A's have almost certainly protected themselves from having to pay out the full amount of Murray's signing bonus.

"My understanding is he's not guaranteed his whole $4.6 million -- it wasn't like a lump sum," the executive said. "It's completely normal, just some contract language to protect you. And even if after two years he walks away and wants to go play football, you're responsible for only the prorated signing bonus."

In effect, this is business as usual for baseball teams. A number of former MLB draft picks ultimately chose to pursue football full time, including Russell Wilson, Jameis Winston and Ricky Williams.

Baseball teams, however, know the guaranteed money and potential for higher earning power in their sport can ultimately prove irresistible.

"I would probably just try to educate him on the amount of money you can make being in baseball," the executive said.

What level of baseball player is he projected to be?

During that introductory press conference in Oakland, neither Murray nor the A's shied away from comparisons to Baseball Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson.

"I think that what they're talking about is the power and certainly the speed," A's manager Bob Melvin said then. "If that's the comp people are putting on him, we're OK with that."

Murray has in talent and potential what he lacks in experience on the diamond. His speed and athleticism are uncommon even for college football, which would place him in elite company in baseball.

"He's that type of freak athlete, where the fact that he had a stunted development and didn't play for a couple of years might not matter," the MLB executive said, invoking the name of a two-time American League MVP: "That's likeMike Trout-type athletic."

In a post-draft recap by ESPN's Keith Law, he agreed that Murray is a potential star: "The A's stole the show on draft night by takingKyler Murray with the ninth overall pick, and as soon as he's done getting his brains scrambled on the gridiron, he might end up an All-Star center fielder in the majors. Murray is a plus-plus runner who really took to center field after playing shortstop in high school, and he has a good, simple swing for hard contact, albeit without much power now or in the future. He did strike out too often this spring, in a quarter of his plate appearances, but had less than 100 at-bats total in the preceding three years while he focused on football. Your future is in baseball, Kyler. Embrace it."

That said, there are obviously questions about how easily Murray can make the transition to baseball, while learning a new position in center field after splitting time between both sports for most of his life.

"I do think it is challenging for guys when they don't have enough of the reps of doing it," said Chad Hutchinson, who was a pitcher in theSt. Louis Cardinals' organization before leaving baseball to play quarterback for theDallas Cowboys and Chicago Bearsfrom 2002 to 2004. "For anyone who tries to do baseball on a full-time level, you can't waver on that. It takes so much time and dedication and perseverance."

There's also a matter of the difficulty in advancing through a baseball organization's minor league system, starting with a path that includes stops in the rookie league in Phoenix, Class A ball in Beloit, Wisconsin, Class AA in Midland, Texas, and then Class AAA in Las Vegas. This is a grueling process of small-town bus rides, cheap motels and modest per diems that weeds out most players, including those who were once top draft picks.

Compare that to the NFL, where early-round draft picks are given warm welcomes to their new cities, start making hundreds of thousands of dollars and immediately have a chance to play in the league.

"For a quarterback, it's not as obvious a choice as it would be for a wide receiver or a cornerback," said the MLB club executive. "For someone who's going to win a Heisman and be a first- or second-round draft pick, that's a different calculation. The rules have changed and you can't even really beat up a quarterback like you could 20 years ago."

But Boras, who was the first baseball agent to negotiate contracts of more than $50 million (Greg Maddux), $100 million (Kevin Brown) and $200 million (Alex Rodriguez), said a player with Murray's skill set has the potential to join his collection of multimillionaire clients.

"How many quarterbacks in the NFL make $100 million? If a center fielder can steal 60 bases and hit 20 home runs consistently, his earning potential will exceed what most quarterbacks make," Boras said. "You can't find athletes that can do that. His star -- as great as he is in football -- is brighter in baseball."

So if baseball doesn't work out, can Murray return to football?

In late 2001, and down in the minor leagues again, Hutchinson -- a former star quarterback at Stanford -- called and told his agent that he wanted to give football another try.

Boras was firmly against it.

"Scott said, 'You're crazy if you want to go back and play football,'" Hutchinson said. "He's like, 'It's guaranteed money. You don't have the injury factor.' And, hey, it's a valid argument.

"He didn't believe me until I organized a [football] workout and he saw it on the ESPN ticker."

Indeed, once Hutchinson made it clear he was serious about playing in the NFL, Boras changed his tune and agreed to represent him in football. They ultimately negotiated a $5 million contract with the Cowboys, including a $3.1 million signing bonus. The contract included a no-baseball clause.

"At the end of the day, Scott was there for me," Hutchinson said. "He was an advocate."

Will Murray have a similar desire and resolve?

His own father, Kevin Murray, has shown previously that a baseball contract doesn't have to be an obstacle to football. He was drafted in the 11th round by theMilwaukee Brewersin 1982, agreeing to a $35,000 signing bonus. But after early struggles in rookie ball, he left the organization and signed with Texas A&M to play football. He and the Brewers actually ended up in federal court, with a judge ultimately ruling that he could break his contract and play for the Aggies.

Kevin Murray, however, later suffered an ankle injury at Texas A&M that damaged his NFL prospects. That disappointment has lingered over the family since, a reminder that nothing is guaranteed in a contact sport like football.

"You look at the finances of the issue -- the baseball money is guaranteed," said Calvin Murray, who also alluded to the evidence of head trauma that is overwhelmingly more common in football. "Baseball guys don't deal with CTE."

For those reasons -- including the money, the A's contract and the influence of Boras -- the odds favor Kyler Murray's baseball future with the A's, beginning whenever his football season with the Sooners ends. No matter how tantalizing of a football player he has proved to be.

Ultimately, Murray and his family will decide, as he told Tebow. But then again, at the end of that same interview, Murray was vague when discussing the NFL and whether his future is locked in.

"We'll see what happens," he said.

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