Most NFL general managers and scouts believed D'Brickashaw Ferguson was ready to play in the pros this year, but the Virginia tackle didn't think he was prepared physically or mentally. So Ferguson did what many thought was unimaginable: He walked away from a potential $30 million contract to play one more season of college football.
Ferguson, a senior from Freeport, N.Y., was widely regarded as the best tackle in the country by most NFL scouts and general managers after the 2004 season. If Ferguson had entered the draft, he might have been selected among the first five picks. Former Auburn running back Carnell Williams, the No. 5 selection by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, signed a five-year, $31 million contract that included a $13 million signing bonus.
Quite simply, Ferguson said he just wasn't ready to leave Virginia.
"Honestly, I love playing for this team, and there are a lot of things I want our team to accomplish, including winning a championship," Ferguson said. "Anything I can do to contribute to that would be great, and I want to do that. That's why I'm here. Coach recruited me to win championships, and I want to do my role."
Cavaliers Coach Al Groh, who worked 12 seasons as an NFL assistant and one season as head coach of the New York Jets, said he believes Ferguson made the right decision. Groh had numerous discussions with Ferguson before April's NFL draft and admits he didn't know what the player was going to do.
"There's so much talk about players coming out of school that the assumption is made that that's what they're supposed to do," Groh said. "That's an option for them if that's what they'd like to do. I know this is a kid who values his education, wanted to get his degree, likes this school, likes college football and knew he could get better."
Ferguson, who has started all 39 games in his college career, didn't turn 21 until Dec. 10 and is just now growing into his body, Groh said. Ferguson, 6 feet 5 and 295 pounds, gained 30 pounds before the 2004 season and didn't become an overpowering pass blocker until last year.
"From having been on the other side of it, the most critical factor in a player getting to a team is not just his draftability, but his ability to play well when he gets there," Groh said. "All the evaluators of guys going in the draft, they're always saying, 'Well, he's the fifth-rated cornerback in the country.' Well, that's relative to who's going to get picked in the draft. That's not always relative to, 'Is the guy going to be a really good player?'
"When a player really makes their money is on the second contract. That's when they're truly a free agent. That second contract is based on how well a player plays early. If a player goes in and he's just not ready to perform early, that's going to hurt his resume toward his marketability in the future."
If Ferguson stays healthy this season, he could break two significant marks in Virginia football history. His 39-game starting streak is the second-longest by a Cavaliers left tackle -- all-American Jim Dombrowski started 45 games in a row from 1982 to 1985. No Cavaliers offensive lineman has ever started 50 games or more and none has started four bowl games.
Ferguson has certainly come a long way since he reported to Virginia in 2002 as one of the country's best offensive line prospects. He was immediately installed as the starting left tackle in training camp, became the first Cavaliers freshman to start an opener on the offensive line, and stayed in the lineup the rest of the season. Ferguson more than held his own against older and stronger players despite weighing only 252 pounds.
"He's a much more powerful player now," Groh said. "His anticipation and reaction to pass rush games is better. He's become much more knowledgeable of it, where he doesn't always have to react to it but can kind of see it coming from pre-snap looks. Without having played a game yet, he can do things with his game right now that he couldn't do last December."
Most NFL general managers and scouts believe Ferguson will remain in the top five picks in next April's NFL draft. Last year, Oklahoma's Jammal Brown was the first tackle selected, No. 13 overall by the New Orleans Saints. In April, Ferguson could be one of at least four tackles selected in the first round, along with Auburn's Marcus McNeill, Miami's Eric Winston and Texas's Jonathan Scott.
Even if he slips in the draft, Ferguson said he won't second-guess his decision to stay in school. After Virginia finished with a disappointing 8-4 record in 2004 and lost to Fresno State, 37-34 in overtime, in the MPC Computers Bowl in Boise, Idaho, Ferguson hopes to lead his team to better things this season.
"Whenever you don't finish or complete your goals, it always makes you want to do more," Ferguson said. "Until we reach the goal of winning a championship, I'll never be satisfied. There's a lot to be done."