The road to the 2021 NFL draft got even more complicated with the news that the Big Ten, Pac-12, Mountain West and MAC conferences will postpone their 2020 college football seasons. The coronavirus pandemic has put us in a tough situation this year, and many top draft prospects now face losing a full 12- to 15-game reel of game tape. It puts players, as well as NFL team scouting departments, at a disadvantage come draft time next year. So I started brainstorming.
What can we do to at least partially replicate the opportunity those prospects no longer have to show what they can do on the football field? How can we help everyone — the players and the teams seeking them — as we enter the pre-draft process?
As I thought through it, I kept coming back to one possible solution: an expansion of the annual late-January Senior Bowl week. Different iterations of a minicamp have been tossed around already, including by Green Bay Packers GM Brian Gutekunst last week, but I wanted to offer my personal take on what I’d like to see in this very weird, very different NFL draft prep landscape. Let me explain.
Why does it matter?
On top of the conference decisions that will sideline players, many other prospects have voluntarily opted out or will before their seasons begin. As of now, the ACC is among the conferences still planning to kick off in 2020, but Miami Hurricanes outside linebacker Greg Rousseau and Virginia Tech Hokies cornerback Caleb Farley — the draft class’ top edge rusher and No. 3 corner, respectively — already declined to suit up. Fifteen of the 32 names in my early mock that posted last week, including two of the three quarterbacks, aren’t playing this fall, and that number could still climb.
Even looking ahead to the spring, I expect that most of the highly ranked talent would opt out of a potential season there, too. In fact, it won’t surprise me if 100-plus draft prospects decide to declare and prepare for the draft rather than play a college season at that point. Just look at the logistics of it. A full college season would be followed by NFL rookie mini camps just weeks later. Then comes July training camp and a full NFL season. Some guys could be looking at nearly 30 football games on top of grueling camps over a seven- to nine-month period. The human body isn’t built for that. And with the NFL draft unlikely to move from its current April 29 date (it must be between Feb. 14 and June 2, per the new CBA), the college season could still be ongoing when its time to make picks. Any Round 1 guy planning to declare for the draft who currently is facing a postponement of his final season has in all likelihood played his final down of college football.
To be clear, it won’t hurt the Trevor Lawrences of the world too much. I’ve seen everything I need to see from him — he is the best quarterback prospect I’ve seen since Andrew Luck came out of Stanford. Instead, this is going to impact the guys who make the jump in their final year, guys who capitalize on a new opportunity on the depth chart, guys with a suddenly more favorable coaching system, etc. As I complete my summer player evaluations, I can’t tell you how many had the phrase “Need to see ___ from him this fall” or “Still needs to develop ___” or “Could benefit from more game experience.” This final slate of collegiate games plays a big part in where prospects are taken in April. Just look at the three most recent No. 1 picks:
Joe Burrow entered the 2019 season with a fifth-round grade from me. His name hardly was on the pro radar. Then he went undefeated en route to an LSU national title, the Heisman Trophy, a 76.3% completion percentage, 60 touchdown passes and college football’s best Total QBR (94.9). He was the no-doubt No. 1 overall selection for the Cincinnati Bengals this April, less than a year after he was considered maybe an NFL backup.
Kyler Murray entered 2018 with just 142 passes over two seasons with Texas A&M and Oklahoma. Considering he had two seasons of football eligibility remaining and all signs were pointing to a MLB career, NFL scouts I spoke with in the summer of 2018 didn’t even do a full-tape evaluation of Murray. I took a wait-and-see approach, as well. Then he lit up college football with 54 total touchdowns as one of the game’s most electric dual-threat prospects and new Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury decided to take Murray at No. 1 to design his offense around him.
Baker Mayfield came into his final college season at Oklahoma with a third-round grade. He jumped to first-round consideration thanks to a great season and ended up going No. 1 to the Cleveland Browns in the 2018 draft.
You get the point. It matters. Boiling it down to money, millions of dollars in guaranteed money could be based on a final season of college ball. Burrow is an extreme example, but his senior season made him more than $30 million over the four-year life of his rookie deal. As I evaluate players for the jump to the next level, game tape reigns supreme. Player evaluations are made up of medical reports, background checks and character assessments, but what we see on game film is the baseline for ranking and projecting pro careers. One less season of it impacts a good deal of the process.
Teams, likewise, won’t have complete pictures heading into the draft. Someone like Rondale Moore, a speedy Purdue receiver who recently opted out, has the tools to be a real weapon in the NFL. But after suffering a hamstring injury last season, team scouts will have just 29 catches and four games worth of film to watch from within essentially 28 months of draft day. How do GMs know if he’s worth the pick, and how does Moore show he belongs in the top-end receivers conversation? (I have him ranked No. 46 on my board right now.)
So what can we do to help everyone out?
A showcase event
In my opinion, getting these top prospects more head-to-head football activity is the best alternative to the opportunity the college season would have provided. And there’s no doubt that the Senior Bowl excels at that. From the point when the clock hits zeros in the national championship game to the time the clock starts for the No. 1 pick in the draft, nothing is more valuable for me, as an evaluator, than the week of practices included in the Senior Bowl event.
Guys who improve over the course of those three sessions show me they can pick things up quickly and stand out among some of the best in the country. Javon Kinlaw, Justin Herbert and Jordan Love jumped out last January, and all three ended up first-round picks. Kinlaw didn’t even stick around past his second practice, and he didn’t have to — he knew he had already achieved what he came to Mobile, Alabama, to do. Of the 308 selections on Day 1 or Day 2 over the past three drafts, 101 attended the Senior Bowl (32.8%).
Here’s what I’d love to see this year: an expanded Senior Bowl to incorporate more players and to take place over multiple weeks. Consider it a pre-draft training camp.
Currently only seniors and fourth-year juniors who had graduated by the December prior to the game are eligible for the event. So for one year only, let’s loosen the restrictions to also invite select players who already have opted out of the college season. There is a limitation of 114 players right now, but let’s pump that up to 160, 170.
Then, rather than three days of practices and one game, let’s blow it out to two or three weeks with staggered play. Perhaps it’s three weeks with one week on, one week off, one week on. Perhaps its two weeks with practice sessions every other day. Whatever works to get us from three practices up to, say, 10 over the course of the event. Most NFL teams already send their entire scouting staff and coaching staff to the event, so it would be the perfect showcase.
This would provide valuable “tape” for a lot of these guys: prospects wearing pads and competing against top-level talent. It’d include 1-on-1 drills for edge rushers against offensive tackles, interior linemen on both sides of the ball, tight ends and running backs up against linebackers and safeties, and of course wide receivers doing battle with cornerbacks. Pass-protection drills. Run-blocking concepts. Combo block work. Three-man pass-rush drills. We’d see it all. And beyond the 1-on-1 work, we’d get team sessions, 7-on-7s and 11-on-11 scrimmages.
It would go beyond the on-field stuff, too. After practices, the extended event would allow teams to meet with players at night, between sessions or on off days. And media would be able to put together more all-access opportunities to share compelling prospect stories. It’s win-win across the board. The NFL and NCAA would need to work together to put it all together, and NFL teams would likely need to chip in to help pay for the event — something they already do for the combine — but it’d help recreate the lost scouting portion of the process.
Would it be a bubble? It’s possible. We aren’t sure what everything will look like in five months, but a bubble could certainly work. It’s all on the table.
In the end, it won’t make up for the Joe Burrow of the 2021 class. Someone isn’t going to jump from a fifth-round grade to the surefire No. 1 overall pick. But it will give these guys a chance to display their talent and make their cases and potentially change their family’s lives. It seems like a no-brainer to me. I know Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy is open to anything and already is having preliminary conversations regarding what’s next. Let’s get it done.