For the past few months we have been wondering about the immediate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the New York Giants and football at large. What will free agency look like if players can’t visit or have workouts? What about the draft after team personnel were pulled off the road and selections had to be made remotely? What will the offseason and training camp look like, or what will football even look like without the benefit of a pre-season?
But what about impacts on the 2021 NFL Draft? How could players opting out — or collegiate football being cancelled altogether — impact the NFL draft?
On Friday, Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley announced that he was opting out the 2020 season. Farley, a red-shirt sophomore is coming into the season as the top cornerback on some boards. He not only brings good coverage on the field, but at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, with long arms and the speed to keep up with receivers down the field, he has all the athletic tools teams love to draft highly.
And as it just so happens, the Giants could well find themselves in the position of needing another starting cornerback. In this lone case, we could consider whether Farley opting out could lower his draft stock — as scouts have to evaluate him without a season of tape — or whether coaches and GMs will question his commitment to football and consider him a risk.
However, we can’t really consider this an isolated, case. It’s certainly the most high profile opt out decision we’ve seen, but it won’t be the last. As NFL players, such as Matthew Stafford, get put on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, and Major League Baseball struggles to even have a season, we could see many more student athletes opt out.
This weekend football players across the Pac-12 have issued a joint statement saying that they will opt out of the season unless schools take greater steps to ensure the health and safety of all student athletes. Earlier in the summer we also saw five different conferences at the FCS level (Ivy League, MEAC, Patriot League, CAA, and SWAC) announced that they are cancelling all fall sports. The NAIA announced that it’s championship is being postponed until the spring — though the season formats are still being left up to individual conferences.
The FCS doesn’t garner the same kind of attention that the FBS does, but it’s still a significant reservoir of talent for the NFL.
The NFL can likely cope with individual opt outs like Farley’s. They would likely be treated the same as if they suffered a season-ending injury in the first week or in training camp — but without the need to do follow-up exams to assess recovery and rehab. The NFL has also gotten fairly used to the idea of top players opting out of bowl games, and even electing to not finish seasons and prepare for the draft in the event of injury (such as with Joey Bosa).
But what could the NFL’s options be if whole swaths of athletes opt out or if FBS conferences come to the conclusion that they can’t have football safely?
The foundation will have to be the tape and scouting reports teams generated on these players over the last couple years. Scouting a player isn’t a one-year affair, and teams routinely begin building profiles on players well in advance of their entry into the draft. But also we could see an inverse of the dilemma facing teams in the lead up to the 2020 draft. This past draft we saw teams forced to lean on their in-season scouting reports as workouts and pro days were cancelled. But in 2021, we could see those workouts and pro days take on new importance as they could be the first time scouts get to see players on a field since the 2019 season.
We could also see post-season All-Star games expanded. Games like the NFLPA Bowl, East West Shrine Game, and Senior Bowl — and the week of practices leading up to them — are important parts of the draft process. They allow scouts and coaches to get up-close and personal with prospects, see how they take NFL coaching and how they’re able to perform against other draft prospects and outside of a familiar team. Traditionally they have been showcases for seniors, but — and I should make clear that this is entirely conjecture — we could see All-Star games expanded to allow for draft-eligible underclassmen as well.
As we’ve said all along, we don’t know what the future holds with respect to football and the COVID-19 pandemic. And as we keep an eye on the the developments at the professional level, we should remember that decisions at the collegiate level will impact the pros as well.