Caleb Farley was the first top prospect to make the decision that has added a whole new layer of uncertainty to the annual crapshoot that is the NFL draft.
The talented Virginia Tech cornerback decided back in July to skip the 2020 season because of the coronavirus. Having lost his mother to cancer in 2018, Farley was unwilling to put another loved one at risk and felt it would be safer to skip the season no matter the impact on his draft status.
Farley had plenty of players follow his lead, including several others set to be high draft picks next week such as LSU receiver Ja'Marr Chase, Oregon tackle Penei Sewell, Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater and Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons.
Now it's up to NFL teams to figure out how much to weigh those decisions in their draft evaluations and how to project what kind of prospects they will be.
“We’re talking about top 10, top 15 players that you haven’t seen in over a year,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. “It’s challenging. It really is because you don’t know where they are physically. There’s a difference between working out and being in good shape and then football shape. I think it’s going to play a big part into this year’s draft in terms of teams just wanting to know what they see."
McShay said he believes some teams will opt to take players who played in 2020 over those who sat out if the grades are similar but most of those top players are still expected to go off the board in the top half of the first round.
Farley has another factor complicating his situation after undergoing back surgery in March. He is expected to be ready for the start of training camp and has no regrets on his decision, even after being forced to skip his pro day workouts because of the injury.
Longtime draft analyst Gil Brandt, who spent nearly three decades with the Dallas Cowboys, likened the players sitting out 2020 to those who missed seasons in the military during the Vietnam War.
Brandt said those players rarely came back at the same level, but the situation with Farley and the others is far different since they were able to work out and spend extra time studying film and working on technique that they believe will help them in the NFL.
“That’s all I’ve been doing is breaking down offensive coordinators and learning from some of my mentors and guys in the NFL who have been playing the position for a long time,” Farley said.
"Learning new techniques. I’ve truly grown and got better in my fundamentals. I’m just excited to get around a staff, a new defensive backs coach, a new defensive coordinator so I know I can just be a sponge and soak up everything they have to offer.”
While players such as Sewell and Chase are still expected to be top 10 picks, others such as Miami defensive end Gregory Rousseau, Washington pass rusher Joe Tryon, Memphis running back Kenneth Gainwell and Central Florida cornerback Tay Gowan might have missed out on opportunities to build on promising 2019 seasons that would have improved their draft stock.
Even several of the top prospects who didn’t opt out of the entire 2020 season have limited film with some such as Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle missing significant time with injuries, South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn shutting his season down early after coach Will Muschamp was fired and North Dakota State QB Trey Lance playing just one showcase game in the fall before the Bisons had their full spring season in FCS.
That lack of game film could lead to some difficult choices for decision-makers such as Cincinnati’s Duke Tobin, who could be contemplating taking a player such as Chase or Sewell with the fifth pick despite not getting to see them play in 2020.
“You’re projecting, it’s probably a bigger projection than when you studied a guy that’s played three years of college football,” Tobin said. “That’s our job, to project them into our league into our system and scheme and into our division and what we do. It’s a year like no other.”
The reasons for opting out vary for each player and teams are doing their homework to figure out why before making a big investment.
Several players in the Big Ten and Pac-12 began preparing for the draft when those conferences announced in the summer that they wouldn’t have a fall season only to change directions later and opt for a shorter campaign after some of those players had already signed with agents.
Many chose to sit out at that point rather than pay back an agent to regain eligibility.
“You can’t knock them for that. They’re trying to get themselves ready for the next 40 years of their lives,” Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said. “Why did the kid opt out? Did he have sick parents at home? Did he have to get a job? There are some differentiations in that whole opt-out thing that I think you have to get to the root of why did the kid opt out, number one.”
While nearly all of the players had good reasons for their choices, it doesn't mean that the lack of game film won't give second thoughts to teams.
But the players also are quick to point out that it wasn't like they put the time to waste. Many worked with specific-position coaches to help hone their craft to prepare them for the NFL.
Northwestern offensive lineman Rashawn Slater, a projected first-round pick, spent his time training with Duke Manyweather.
“I was a much-improved player going into my senior year but now even more so,” Slater said. “Just training with Duke, he’s a master. Every single day I was learning something new. He taught me how to move more efficiently, how to leverage better and how to just be more powerful and explosive off the ball, stuff like that. My technique has shot up since last time I played.”
Now the question is if NFL teams feel the same way.
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