MORGANTOWN — Shelton Gibson and 102 other college football players made the increasingly common decision to forfeit eligibility and enter the NFL draft early. Virtually all of them followed the same process.
They file paperwork seeking feedback from the NFL’s draft advisory board, and that combination of general managers, personnel directors and heads of scouting evaluate every candidate. The board returns a review and tells the prospect where he can expect to be drafted: first round, second round or neither. From there, it’s up to the player to make up his mind, and the now-former West Virginia receiver was like a few players before him.
Two years ago, safety Karl Joseph turned in his papers and was told he might be picked in the second round. He returned to the Mountaineers for his senior season, and last year he was a first-round pick. Following the 2015 season, cornerback Daryl Worley was told to expect neither the first nor second round, but he stayed in the draft, was picked in the third round and started as a rookie for the Carolina Panthers.
Not everyone needs the advice. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson won a national championship and graduated by the end of his junior year. No one needed to tell him to turn professional this year. Same for Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, who led the nation in all-purpose yards by a healthy margin the past two years, or Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, the presumed No. 1 pick since his freshman year.
And then there’s Gibson, who never had a 1,000-yard season, never had 10 touchdown catches, never caught 50 balls. He decided, basically on his own, he was leaving the Mountaineers after his redshirt junior season.
The draft begins with the first round at 8 p.m. Thursday on ESPN and the NFL Network and continues with the second and third rounds at 7 p.m. Friday and the last four rounds at noon Saturday. That’s inconsequential to Gibson.
“I feel like it doesn’t matter,” he said. “It really doesn’t. You can get drafted wherever you’re drafted, but that doesn’t make the player you are. Honestly, I can get drafted with the first pick, and it still doesn’t mean I’m going to go out there and everything’s going to be easy for me.
“I still have to go out there and show what I can do. I know if I get drafted in the fourth round, the fifth, sixth, seventh, if I go through free agency, I’m going to have to go in there and do what I have to do to get on the field.”
The Mountaineers did not let Gibson do this without counsel. The team submitted the paperwork with the advisory board, and WVU spoke with Gibson about the situation. Gibson was told he wasn’t a first- or second-round player, meaning the implied suggestion was to return to school.
Certainly, WVU would have been open to that, and the thought was Gibson would be, too, with Will Grier ready to play quarterback. Gibson was not in the market for advice. He entered that conversation with his mind made up, and without knowing his projection, he was about to tell the Mountaineers he was ready to take on the NFL.
“They didn’t even know I was going to declare,” he said. “I talked to my coaches and did everything like that, and they left it up to me, and then I told them. It was a little selfish in a sense, and I expect that [reaction]. They’re losing one of their best players or whatever, but I’d just made up my mind. I’ve seen what they say is the best in the country, and I believe I can play.”
If he’s drafted, Gibson receives a four-year contract, and the higher he’s selected, the more money he makes. If he’s undrafted, he makes the league minimum with a three-year contract. Some 253 players were drafted last season and 76 more signed as free agents afterward.
“Even if I go as a free agent, what’s the biggest thing? Money? I don’t care about money,” he said. “This is my dream. A lot of people do it for money. I don’t care. I can sit here and tell you that, and you can believe it or not, but this is what I want to do. I started playing football in the ninth grade, and ever since then, I’ve been loving it. I come out every day and compete.”
Gibson went about his business in his own way. He and running back Rushel Shell trained in Anaheim, California, and Gibson, a noted speedster, didn’t spend too much time preparing for the 40-yard dash. He thought about it. At the draft combine, he said he could set the event record. He even noted he was given No. 17, which was the same number running back Chris Johnson wore when he set the record at 4.24 seconds in 2008.
Gibson, who led the country with seven catches of 50 or more yards in 2016, worked on his routes instead.
“I want to become a complete receiver,” he said. “I know I can run deep routes. The intermediate routes, getting in and out of my cuts, that was definitely new to me.”
The combine came, and Gibson flubbed the 40. He lifted his hand, which started the clock, and then he took off. He was timed at 4.5 seconds. Twenty others were as fast or faster, including Washington’s John Ross, who set the record at 4.22 seconds. Gibson was again unfazed.
“In a way, it was actually better,” he said. “A lot of people ran 4.5 and 4.6, but I was the only one whose time was in question. They all knew I’m not a 4.5 guy. A lot of people said, ‘If you’re a 4.5 guy, it doesn’t show on tape.’ Everyone knew I was faster.”
Gibson decided to prove it at pro day at WVU last month, and he was timed at 4.39 with every NFL team in attendance. That would have been the third-best time at the combine.
“I’ve definitely showed I compete at a high level,” he said. “That was the No. 1 goal. I showed I want to work, that I’m willing to work on my intermediate routes. I’d honestly never run a lot of them. They say, ‘You’re doing OK. You’re doing good with them,’ but that’s not what I want. I want to be great. So I keep doing these routes over and over, and I’m going to perfect them, just like I perfected the deep ball.
“I talked to you after my sophomore year, when I had a lot of drops with my deep balls. I said, ‘I’m not dropping any more deep balls.’ I dropped two balls last year, and none of them were deep balls. Every single year, I’m trying to be better at something.”