Paulson Adebo was faced with an extremely difficult decision ahead of the 2020 college football season; and when weighing whether to opt-out or play his final year at Stanford, Adebo chose the former. This wasn’t the first time he had a professional career to consider. After the 2019 season, when Adebo had the third-most passes defended (10) in the Pac-12, there was wide speculation he would enter the 2020 NFL Draft; he was touted as CB2 off the board by ESPN’s Mel Kiper.
When Adebo faced that decision, he opted to play. This was January 2020, the same time as the first confirmed COVID-19 in the United States. Soon after, the coronavirus brought everything to a sketching halt; sports were in flux. As months passed, professional and collegiate football worked to safely begin play; despite collegiate sports’ efforts, the 2020 season and pre-draft cycle would be drastically different. In California, specifically Santa Clara County, where Stanford is located, COVID cases were on the rise. The Pac-12 was the most cautious conference, but Adebo, like many of his teammates and peers across the West Coast, were still facing extreme uncertainty. When he opted-out, he focused on the 2021 draft.
Adebo returned to Stanford on Thursday for his Pro Day; it was the only time he would face NFL evaluators with no annual NFL Scouting Combine. He didn’t have 2020 tape. While he had two extremely successful seasons in the backfield at Stanford, Adebo was still considered an enigma. How fast was he? How did he look on the field? How sharp were his ball skills without any live snaps for a year-plus?
Pro Days aren’t an exact science—after all, it’s just one day, really a couple of hours, at best, in front of NFL personnel. When scouts and league executives attend a Pro Day, they often have almost all of the information they need; they’re just looking for that missing piece, as Stanford head coach (and former NFL coach) David Shaw described. Every game, every play has been combed through. Now, it was about answering the final, lingering questions. Adebo believed he did that. After working diligently at the EXOS training facility in Dallas, he became the cliche: bigger, faster, stronger. He clocked a low 4.4s and a high 4.3s 40-yard dash, he had a broad jump of over 10 feet, and then came the missing piece: the ball skills.
“Now he can get past deflections,” Shaw said after Thursday’s event. “He made some unbelievable catches, he’s got the hands of a receiver so I think a lot of people walked away checking a lot of boxes. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—he didn’t play this year so a lot of people kind of got him out of that mix—but I still think he’s one of the top corners in America, one of the top corners in this draft. I think today really showed that.”
Ball skills were a focus of Adebo’s training. With Brent Callaway, EXOS’s strength and speed coach, and Clay Mack, a defensive backs coach, affectionately known as the DB guru, Adebo focused on staying lower, coming out of his breaks smoother, and finishing with the ball in his hands. He wanted to fine-tune the small techniques of playing cornerback; those minute details that become the difference between a pass breakup and an interception in the NFL. This was on display Thursday. What wasn’t as noticeable were the intangibles.
It’s challenging to stay laser-focused week in and week out without live snaps. Adebo didn’t have Stanford’s amenities, but, more so, he didn’t have the ability to refine his skills against the competition. He had to tap into a different mindset, much like his Stanford teammates, who only played six games in the COVID-19-condensed schedule. Adebo took this challenge in stride, and the results will bear themselves out on draft weekend.
“It’s just a difference of circumstance,” Adebo said. “Obviously, being on my own, having to take things into my own hands, getting that first dose of being your own person and not having this whole entourage of people at your mercy to do anything you want... in that way I think I matured a lot and learned a lot about myself.”
Shaw believes if Adebo would have played a full season, he would have been a first-round pick. Adebo believes he can be put in any room and be the fastest corner. The scheme-versatile defensive back isn’t much of an enigma now.