Tampa Bay Times
THE GREAT UNKNOWN
NFL teams grapple with draft evaluations complicated by players who opted out of last season.
Jaelan Phillips and Gregory Rousseau are long, explosive and relentless. They can blow past linemen, corral quarterbacks and chase down ball carriers. They had similar production (1.5 tackles for loss per game) playing the same position (defensive lineman) at the same school (Miami) wearing the same jersey number (15).
There’s one significant difference: Phillips put up his monster numbers last year; Rousseau didn’t. While Phillips was finally living up to his five-star-recruit potential as a second-team All-American, Rousseau was watching from afar as one of college football’s most high-profile opt-outs for the season because of coronavirus and other issues.
That puts the Hurricanes’ two projected first-round NFL draft picks at the center of a variable that has even confounded ESPN analyst Mel Kiper.
“How you factor in the optouts against the guys that played … is going to be the most interesting storyline of this draft,” Kiper said.
At least a half-dozen firstround hopefuls sat out 2020. A handful of other top-40 prospects left their teams during the regular season.
Their decisions give the Bucs and every other team differing, if not incomplete, sets of data. Front offices must evaluate the risks and rewards of an opt-out player’s potential based on yearold film and pro day performances.
The result is another layer of uncertainty in an already uncertain process, an only-in-a-pandemic dynamic with millions of dollars and franchise futures at stake.
It started (sort of) with Fournette
When running backs Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey skipped their college bowl games in 2016, no one knew how NFL teams would respond. Would front offices view those choices as understandable business decisions or the red flag of a quitter?
The league shrugged. After both were drafted in the top eight, skipping bowl games became common for players looking at the draft. But sitting out a season didn’t become viable until the pandemic
The reasons differed by player. Opting out allowed Rousseau to help his mother, a nurse, retire early from the coronavirus frontlines. Others did so because of money (preseason All-American defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman from Pitt), concern over family members’ health (likely first-round cornerback Caleb Farley from Virginia Tech), lingering midseason injuries (Florida State receiver Tamorrion Terry), and to get a jump-start on draft preparation (FSU cornerback Asante Samuel).
College football’s collective indecision about whether and how to have a season — the Big Ten and Pac-12 canceled, then restarted their seasons, for example — played a significant role, too.
“I didn’t feel comfortable going out there to play if they weren’t comfortable with us being out there playing,” said defensive back Ambry Thomas, a Day 3 draft prospect from Michigan.
By sitting out, Thomas and others no longer had to accept the extra risk of injury or illness, nor did they have to endure the season’s start-and-stop chaos. They could concentrate on themselves.
“Opting out, that gave me time to focus on the things that I needed to improve on my game,” said receiver Nico Collins, an early-round prospect from Michigan.
For Collins, that meant refining his route running. For Rousseau, it was increasing his flexibility.
Northwestern offensive lineman Rashawn Slater said the individualized training he received in Texas “definitely works to my advantage” as he vies to be the first tackle off the board.
“Every single day I was learning something new,” Slater said.
Slater believes that knowledge has made him a better player. Maybe it will allow him to contribute more as a rookie or extend his career.
But how much will it help him on draft day?
Less information, more risk
As talented as some of the opt-outs are, not having 2020 film creates an extra risk teams have to assess.
“A lot can change with the player between 2019 and now,” Bucs general manager Jason Licht said, “especially if they haven’t been playing and they’ve just been training.”
Teams don’t know how Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell, LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase and Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons would have progressed or regressed from All-America 2019 seasons. They have to assess eight-figure investments based on old information. “We’re talking about top-10, top-15 players that you haven’t seen in over a year,” ESPN analyst Todd McShay said.
Rousseau is even riskier. Because he made only two appearances during his redshirt 2018 season, his resume consists of 13 games in 2019.
“I don’t have a lot of film, but I feel like I showed a lot in the times that I did play,” Rousseau said.
He did. His 15½ sacks trailed only Ohio State’s Chase Young, Washington’s No. 2 overall pick last year. But it’s still only one year, making his sample size outdated and small.
That puts a greater emphasis on Rousseau’s pro-day performance, which carries another pandemic-related challenge.
Because the scouting combine was canceled, there’s no apples-to-apples comparison of prospects doing the same drills on the same day at the same place. Teams must gauge players on pro days held in different conditions across the country.
The numbers, McShay said, aren’t comparable. And in at least one notable case, they don’t exist.
After leaving Virginia Tech, Farley said, he put “a lot of bank” in his pro day. But he was unable to participate in it after having surgery on a back issue.
“Really the only negative about (opting out) is just not being able to go put up numbers that I was supposed to go put up,” Farley said.
Will that hurt his draft stock? Before Farley’s surgery, Kiper said, another year of solid production would have solidified him as a top-10 pick. Instead, Kiper sees Farley going later in the first round, a potential multimillion-dollar slide. Then again, if Farley had played and gotten ill or injured, that could have affected his position, too.
All the uncertainty leads to an array of questions. Kiper wonders whether the incomplete evaluations will cause some lower-tier opt-outs to drop an entire round. Will the extra risk lead some teams to trade out of this year’s draft and into next year’s, for which the process, it is hoped, will be more normal?
“If you have a similar grade on a guy that didn’t play in 2020 versus a guy that did play in 2020, you’re going to probably go with the guy that played this season,” McShay said, “because you just feel like you have more information on him.”
Which makes Miami’s No. 15 from 2020 seem a lot more appealing than the one from 2019.