College Football Delays Lead To Unpredictable 2021 NFL Draft Process

Photo: © Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

There really are no words to describe what has transpired over the past few months in not only the world, but the landscape of college football. Not too long ago the LSU Tigers were lifting the College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy after a perfect 15-0 season. As usual, many were looking forward to not only the pre-draft process, but also the 2020 NFL Draft.

Gracing the busy halls of the Indianapolis convention, seeing NFL executives, scouts, and evaluators pacing back and forth as well as hurrying up the lethargic escalators was normal moment that happens yearly, but now it just may be a thing of the past. A bombshell dropped this week as the Power 5 dominoes of conferences delaying fall sports seasons came down like a ton of bricks on the hopes of all involved.

On Tuesday, the Big Ten became the first Power 5 conference to put a halt to their schedule until the spring. In football, this had a drastic effect on many notable names such as Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, who simply could only tweet:

The Pac-12 wasted little time following in their footsteps, but everything remained on schedule in the ACC, SEC, and Big 12. 

In an official statement shared by the Big 12 on Tuesday, commissioner Bob Bowlsby said:

“The virus continues to evolve and medical professionals are learning more with each passing week. Opinions vary regarding the best path forward, as we’ve seen throughout higher education and our society overall, but we are comfortable in our institutions’ ability to provide a structured training environment, rigorous testing and surveillance, hospital quality sanitation and mitigation practices that optimize the health and safety of our student-athletes. We believe all of this combines to create an ideal learning and training situation during this time of COVID-19. Ultimately, our student-athletes have indicated their desire to compete in the sports they love this season and it is up to all of us to deliver a safe, medically sound, and structured academic and athletic environment for accomplishing that outcome.”

As the cancellation of conference seasons came in what seemed like waves earlier this week, many questions came about. Is spring football even possible considering the safety concerns associated for players? What about the NFL draft process and the important dates involved with it? Will the actual event really be pushed back as a result of the scattered schedules?

The answers to these questions are ones I attempted to discover when working on this article. Reaching out to multiple team scouts and agents, there were many important thoughts shared and key points made.

2021 Pre-Draft Evaluation Process

Obviously, when the course of college football and its thorough scheduling from August through January is altered, it's natural that the first thought for players and NFL teams is to figure out how this alters the postseason schedule. Postseason meaning all-star games, the NFL Scouting Combine and the actual draft. All have set target dates within a calendar year that they happen within. January is seen as the “universal start” to the pre-draft resume for prospects.

The new year is when all-star games such as the Reese’s Senior Bowl, Shrine Bowl, and NFLPA Bowl take place. These are three of the most popular all-star circuits that evaluators take part in. With many seasons expected to be pushed back to the spring, there are lots of ways that this year's games could be affected. 

One of the more interesting parts of the entire happenings of college football right now is how it has been a damper on the working environment of some NFL teams. Talking to a scout from an NFC team, he stated that 

“I haven’t been in the office since our pre-combine meetings. We met with the coaches in February and that was the last time that we’ve all been in the same room together.” 

When the statement was made during a phone interview on Thursday, it took me by surprise, but considering when the coronavirus struck, it became apparent that the actuality of scouting departments going nearly a calendar year without being in the same meeting space was a realistic possibility. It's an outcome that no one could have predicted, but scouts are learning to navigate their way through what will become the most challenging pre-draft evaluation period in recent memory.

Prior to the storm of season cancellations by certain conferences, we saw notable prospects like Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, Minnesota receiver Rashod Bateman, and Virginia Tech corner Caleb Farley all opt out of the 2020 season, but even without playing another down of college football, most knew that they all would end up being first-round picks.

What I wanted to know is for players that were expected to make "the leap" this season, how are scouts going to gauge those players now that they were unable to even attempt to live up to those expectations.

Michigan edge rusher Kwity Paye was a name mentioned, as he's a prospect that has received lots of hype heading into the season. Having accumulated 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks a season ago, he was labeled as an "athletic freak" and finished in the top spot of Bruce Feldman's annual Freaks List. The 6-foot-4, 272-pound defensive end was expected to be the next first-round edge rusher out of the Big Ten, but the conference announced the cancellation of the season until the spring.

Talking to a prominent agent, he mentioned that players of his caliber and how they will be evaluated was a "twofold" answer.

"A defensive lineman like him, we already know he's super raw, but the athleticism, size, and his overall I.Q. as a player sets him apart from some of the other guys, but at the same time my thought process immediately goes to you can never have enough great defensive linemen, especially ones that can rush the passer. For a guy like Paye, I think him not necessarily having an opportunity to build on that season won't be as hurtful to his stock because I think a lot of the hype around him is based upon upside, potential, and room for growth."

On the opposite end of the spectrum, an AFC scout felt as if some skill position players will be the ones affected the most by the circumstances of the current state of college football because there can be too much film out there on them. He commended what Parsons and Bateman did because they left by putting exclamation points on their careers.

A great example of what he described as having "too much film" was former LSU safety Grant Delpit. Even though the Cleveland Browns' second-round pick obviously wasn't eligible for the NFL draft following his sophomore season in 2018, he explained that prospects like Parsons, Bateman, and even Rondale Moore only have one to two years of college tape can help prevent scouts from poking holes in their resume.

Emphatically saying to me, "if this pandemic happens after Delpit's sophomore season, he's probably a top-10 or 15 pick easily. So, just putting that into context of what I mean with some of these players that opted out early, I think it helps them because there's no way they can hurt their stock now."

Agencies are also navigating and finding ways to alter their plans in hopes of still being able to persuade prospects to sign with them. The process has been challenging for many, but another prominent agency gave some insights to The Draft Network about how they have been maneuvering over the past few months and what they have shared to potential clients.

"Earlier in the year, when we noticed that the college football season was in jeopardy, we began preparing for how we would approach the pre-draft process if it was canceled. That means that we reached out to training facilities and learned their plans for training our clients for such a long period of time. We also made sure housing would be available and planned out other basic necessities. Basically, we ensured that everything that we would normally do for a client in the pre-draft process, normally starting in December or January, would also be available to our clients from August through November. Also, in a normal year, players are signing with agents in December and January. This year, some players are signing with agents in August."

All in all, the landscape of college football has entered, and seems as if it will remain in, uncharted territory for the foreseeable future. Athletes everywhere are scrambling to find out their draft stock from outside sources to decide on what to do with their future. Although we are many months away from the NFL addressing what will happen with the NFL Scouting Combine, and the actual draft, but there are many sides of the equation that remain puzzled as to what's next amid a situation that no one has experienced before.

Written By:

Jordan Reid

Senior NFL Draft Analyst

Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-Founder of Former QB and Coach at North Carolina Central Univ.