As college football players await word on whether they can take the field for 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a different question is the hotter topic in NFL draft circles: Who will decide not to play if there is a season?
Coronavirus holds the fast-approaching college season in peril, and top players are evaluating whether they logged impressive-enough game tape by the end of 2019 to no longer need more. Scouts and agents alike foresee opt-outs by at least a few elite draft prospects with less to gain from playing in 2020, and expect it to be a consideration for many if NCAA football is played at all.
Said Penn State linebacker Ellis Brooks, a prospect who could apply for early draft entry in 2021, during a recent Zoom call with reporters: "My only advice for anyone would be to do what's best for you."
In recent weeks, the option to not play became of even greater appeal to underclassmen when the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC announced that players concerned about contracting the virus may opt out of the season without losing their scholarships and remain in good standing. Agents expect the ACC and Big 12 to make the same provision. For a draft-worthy underclassman who doesn't sign with an agent, that offers the flexibility to opt out of the season, train for the draft this fall, and still return to college in 2021 if his draft projection isn't satisfactory by the NFL's mid-January deadline to file for early eligibility.
Illinois RB Ra'Von Bonner is the first player known to opt out of the season due to concerns about COVID-19, although Bonner's isn't the kind of opt-out that agents believe will open the floodgates for draft prospects. Bonner is a senior who suffers from asthma, and told the Chicago Tribune his reasons were related to health, not the draft. But a draft prospect with a much higher profile than Bonner's opting out to prepare for the draft, without the health risk of playing the college season, is the watershed moment agents believe could quickly begin a trend.
One agent, who requested anonymity because the topic is a sensitive one with college coaches, said he's spoken with multiple underclassmen who already are pondering an opt out.
"Nobody will want to be the first (opt out), but somebody is going to start the trend. Then there will be mid-round guys, even late-round guys, who sit out. I firmly believe that," the agent said. "It feels like November for us right now -- the home stretch where you're just waiting for (underclassmen) to start saying 'I'm available.' As agents trying to sign players, we could be in the fourth quarter of that game before you know it."
The NCAA's adjusted preseason calendar, approved in June, calls for practices to begin Aug. 7, while opening games remain scheduled as early as Aug. 29. Public comments from college football power brokers, including NCAA president Mark Emmert and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, however, paint a bleaker picture, and situations like Michigan State's, where the entire team went into quarantine on Friday, make those start dates seem like a pipe dream. If the college season is not canceled or postponed until spring, there is another harrowing possibility: a season that begins as scheduled, only to disintegrate into an unmanageable series of cancellations due to COVID-19 outbreaks among teams. The NCAA's protocol calls for a 14-day quarantine for players who have had high-risk contact with a person who tests positive. That could disqualify large swaths of rosters for two to three games and render programs unable to field a team if hit by an outbreak.
All of which could beg this question for draft prospects: Why bother?
"I don't want to see this, but I think there's a chance you see guys play well for three, four, five weeks, get a few quality opponents in, and say 'OK, I'm out.' " Daniel Jeremiah
Three NFL scouts agreed that a baseline consideration for a prospect's opt-out decision should be whether NFL clubs have enough quality game tape from which to make an evaluation. One, who scouts for an AFC club, pointed to Clemson stars Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne as good examples of two with more than enough impressive tape to opt out. Lawrence, potentially the top-rated quarterback whenever he enters the draft, is a junior with two years of starting experience, Etienne a senior with three. It's a much different situation for a player like standout Pitt defensive lineman Rashad Weaver, who was the Panthers' sack leader in 2018 but missed all of 2019 with a knee injury. Proving recovery from injury is among the compelling reasons for a player to play out the season to give the NFL as much tape as possible. And still others, said NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, could see fit to wave goodbye at midseason.
"I don't want to see this, but I think there's a chance you see guys play well for three, four, five weeks, get a few quality opponents in, and say 'OK, I'm out,' " Jeremiah said. "They could decide, 'I'm not going to take any more risk because I've put some good, fresh tape out there. I'll just start getting ready for the draft.' "
The importance of fresh tape to NFL scouts shouldn't be discounted. The possibility of having to evaluate players for the 2021 draft who possibly will have spent more than a year away from the game isn't one they relish.
"You look at a guy who missed a bowl and didn't get in any spring practice, he hasn't played since last November," said an NFC area scout. "If a guy like that opts out, you're talking about a lot of lost development. The impact of spring football practice being canceled last March is kind of being forgotten in all this, but that's huge, too. That's where a lot of improvement gets made, it's where guys put themselves in a position to emerge in the fall."
In the meantime, wheels already are turning that might help remedy that concern.
Reese's Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy is considering a possibility he never would have conceived when he took over the Mobile, Ala., event two years ago: a Senior Bowl that includes underclassmen who haven't graduated.
"We've thought of all the contingencies -- in a doomsday scenario like they don't even play or it gets shut down midseason, I'd be fully prepared to go to the NFL league office and petition for a one-year exemption to include all draft-eligible players for our game," Nagy said. "You would hope the league office would be in favor of something that would benefit all 32 member clubs. If teams aren't comfortable with where they're at in the evaluation process, because of an unprecedented situation, let's bring in underclassmen also."
Meanwhile, Peach Bowl president Gary Stokan ponders an unprecedented possibility of his own -- college football bowl games being played anytime from March to May. Should the Power Five conferences move the start of the season to early 2021, he intends to be ready.
"Right now we're remaining as flexible as we can be for our conference partners and the CFP, that should they want to play as scheduled, we're prepared for that," Stokan said. "As well as prepared for playing games later in January if they need us to push back. We're also prepared to play them in March, or May, should they push back the start of the season to January or March."
What sort of product would be on the field in the spring, however, is another matter. The appeal for draft prospects to opt out of a spring season would be far greater than it would be in the fall, particularly if the dates of the NFL Scouting Combine and the draft held to their norms: late February and late April, respectively.
"It would be a mass exodus. If you're talking about the Alabamas, Clemsons, Ohio States, those programs could potentially lose double-digit players," Jeremiah said. "Agents will make the case that there's only one thing that can help you in the spring -- you play better, and your stock goes up. But there are three negative outcomes. One, you get COVID, two, you get injured, three, you play poorly. The sales pitch (from agents) would be that the odds don't work out in your favor to play in the spring."
For now, the waiting continues as the NCAA considers a historic choice. But as questions about player safety edge ever closer to intersecting with the scheduled start of the college season, draft prospects are left to consider whether the best of their college performances are already enough to make the jump to pro football. And for how long they're willing to play for more opportunities to put good showings on tape.