Dust off the VCR, slide in a VHS cassette and behold standard-definition programming.
Then, after traveling through a time warp, maybe you can understand what it is like for NFL general managers, coaches and scouts to watch college game tape from a not-so-recent 2018 or 2019. There’s a nagging feeling that this is irrelevant and changes have taken place that can’t be seen.
The biggest question looming over the NFL draft is how teams will handle the dozens of players who opted out of the 2020 college football season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams that went above and beyond the norm to make extra phone calls or acquire video of individual training sessions could be rewarded.
“A lot of kids opted out for serious issues with regards to family, and they deserve that right,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said. “And there are some kids that used it to take advantage of the situation. That’s where [we] have done a great job bringing that to light, so we can discover whether that love for football is real.”
Receiver Ja’Marr Chase, linebacker Micah Parsons and offensive tackles Penei Sewell and Rashawn Slater are projected top-10 picks who didn’t play last season. Fellow potential first-rounders in the same boat include cornerback Caleb Farley, linebacker Joe Tyron and defensive linemen Gregory Rousseau and Levi Onwuzurike.
Quarterback Trey Lance, who could be picked as high as No. 3, has played one game in 15 months because North Dakota State moved its 2020 season to spring. The Big Ten and Pac-12 seasons were canceled then uncancelled, at which point several players chose not to undo plans already in motion and face eligibility questions.
“During the war years we had players go into the service and not play for a year, year and a half, and never can I remember a player who came back with the same status he left with,” said Hall of Fame executive Gil Brandt, a SiriusXM analyst who has scouted NFL drafts since 1955. “If you are a college student and you drop out of school for a year, it takes you a while to get your study habits back. In this case, I think it takes a while to get your work habits back.”
Sports science has come a long way since then, and most players who opted out were quick to hire agents and private trainers. Is that enough to make up for lost developmental time? One thing that can’t be simulated is the body’s adjustment to the physicality of a season.
“I’ve learned so many different types of little techniques that come along with this game,” Sewell said. “I got with NFL people — players that played before or coaches that coached in the league for a long time — and soaked up the knowledge that they have for me. It was just something that I really benefited from this time off.”
There is universal sympathy for players such as Memphis running back Kenneth Gainwell, who lost four family members to COVID-19 before opting out. Not every decision is so easy to understand.
Giants general manager Dave Gettleman compared it to scouting the NBA’s “one-and-done” prospects.
“There are guys that were 19 years old the last time they played football and, oh by the way, this will be 20 months from the last time they put pads on,” Gettleman said. “Some of the opt-out kids did a great job, showed up at their pro days and were outstanding. And there were a few of the opt-out guys who showed up looking like me, so that wasn’t really good for them.”
Rousseau is a one-year wonder (15.5 sacks in 2019) who scouts say looked “stiff” carrying extra weight at Miami’s Pro Day. Agent Drew Rosenhaus claims “multiple teams” told him Rousseau will be their first-round pick if available.
“Rousseau is very raw and could’ve benefited from playing more,” an NFL scout said. “I know some people think he is going in the top 15. I don’t think so.”
Farley’s opt-out — he criticized Virginia Tech at the time for not having COVID-19 safety protocols in place soon enough — was compounded by back surgery in March that caused him to miss pro day. His spin is he’s become a much better student, breaking down film of NFL offensive coordinators.
“I put a bank on my pro day,” Farley said. “I can’t say why this has happened the way it’s happened. It’s not something I would have chosen. I really think it was a lack of information from myself.”
For the most part, the best players are the best players. The deeper the draft goes, however, tiebreakers could go to players who were evaluated last season.
What happens to offensive tackle Walker Little, who has played one game since 2018 because of an injury and an opt-out? Or to his Stanford teammate Paulson Adebo, who was better in 2018 than in 2019 and then opted out? There are other similar cases throughout the middle and late rounds.
“Talking to general managers and head coaches,” ESPN analyst Todd McShay said, “everyone’s kind of, I don’t want to say frustrated, but it’s just so different from what you’re used to.”