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NFL Draft

What Does Chris Olave Gain By Returning To Ohio State?

  • The Draft Network
  • January 19, 2021
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With every NFL draft declaration cycle comes a major surprise. Schools work hard to recruit their own upperclassmen and encourage them to return for their senior seasons, and players weigh a variety of family, monetary, and personal factors to make their decision.

This year, the shocker was Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave. Ranked in the top 40 of TDN’s Predictive Board before he returned to school, Olave was a fringe first-round player. Now he’s a Buckeye again.

https://twitter.com/chrisolave_/status/1351292550699618310

When a player of Olave’s caliber returns to school, it has significant ramifications. The landscape of the wide receiver class for 2021 and 2022 changes, as does the projection for Ohio State football and Olave as a player. Everyone has something to gain.

So what is there to gain for Olave?

Some Draft Stock

Olave wasn’t going to be a top-20 pick this season—not in a class with Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, and DeVonta Smith firmly in the top tier of receivers, and Rashod Bateman, Terrace Marshall, and Kadarius Toney peppering the second tier. That’s not for a lack of production—Olave was 12th in the country in receiving yards/game—nor for poor film, as Olave’s routes, hands, and athletic ability stack up against first-round receivers of years past. It’s just a really good class.

Olave comes in a little slight at 188 pounds and played with a top-five pick in Justin Fields at quarterback. With another year in the Ohio State weight room, and then team-leading production without Fields at quarterback, Olave will make a case for the top wide receiver in the 2022 draft. That class still could have some strong wide receiver prospects, however: Olave is joined by rising underclassmen in Purdue’s David Bell, Arkansas’ Treylon Burks, Georgia’s George Pickens, and Olave’s Buckeye teammate Garrett Wilson. 

If Olave climbs from the 35th overall pick to the 15th overall pick, he’ll gain roughly $6.5M on his first contract. That’s nothing to sneeze at—but, of course, there’s no guarantee he climbs that far.

Olave is evidently following the DeVonta Smith model. Smith was the leading receiver on a stacked Alabama wide receiving corps last season, but elected to return to school for his senior season after fellow juniors Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III left for the NFL. With Ruggs and Jeudy went quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, eventually the fifth overall pick. Smith was projected as a fringe-first, likely-second round pick, much like Olave was for the 2021 NFL Draft.

Smith returning paid off. He dominated with a higher volume of targets, demonstrating field-stretching and YAC ability that was harder to display in the crowded room of 2019 Alabama. Smith is an expected top-15 pick, even with the concerns around his slight frame considered—he’ll challenge for WR1.

So Smith’s stock is up, and he’ll make more money in the 2021 draft than he would have in 2020. For Olave, a full 2021 season could give him an opportunity to post gaudy numbers like Smith, though he’ll have the full competition of NFL-caliber pass-catchers on Ohio State’s roster to contend with: Wilson, another first-rounder; tight end Jeremy Ruckert, who also returned to school; and a flock of talented underclassmen. When Smith returned to school, 117 receptions between Jeudy and Ruggs were vacated; as Olave goes back to school, the leading receiver leaving Ohio State is running back Trey Sermon, with 12 total catches on the year.

It was a risk when Smith went back, and it paid off. It’s an even bigger risk for Olave, and whether it pays off or not remains to be seen.

Legacy

Not everything is about the NFL and the draft. Olave doesn’t have to make decisions to maximize his earning potential or his pro career if he doesn’t want to. Olave was largely a reserve player as a freshman and had a COVID-shortened junior year, but is only 13 touchdowns off of the career record for a storied list of Buckeye receivers. 92 receptions and 1,240 yards would get the job done on those career milestones as well.

https://twitter.com/BillLandis25/status/1351299871760904196

That may feel like a lot—but Olave was a target hog this season, and still somehow efficient on that volume. He caught 50 balls for 729 yards and seven touchdowns in seven games this season—in a 13-game season, that’s 93 catches, 1,353 yards, and 13 touchdowns. He’d be a record-setter.

The same concerns about a crowded wide receiver room and new quarterback remain, but Olave has a chance to be the most productive receiver in college football. He’ll be an early frontrunner for the Biletnikoff Award and, just a season removed from Smith’s Heisman award, will get looks in that conversation as well. 

What will happen?

All of this is well and good. Olave can gain some draft stock and challenge for OSU records.

But will he?

I love Olave’s film and think he’ll be a great pro, but this is a tough bet to make. The Buckeyes will likely look to spread their targets out a bit more this season, will experience a dropoff in quarterback play, and will lose some offensive line talent to boot. Those lofty numbers are within reach, but they are long shots.

To the same degree, unless Olave returns for his senior season with a heavier frame and demonstrates the same athletic ability, he largely is what he is. While he could end up drafted earlier in a thinner class, I’m not sure how much his stock really can climb. I think Olave could have gone at the end of the first round this season, and I think he will go around the end of the first round next season.

But Ohio State gets another season of him, and we get to watch him dominate the Big Ten once again. Never say never when talented players set their minds on lofty goals.

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