This college football season will be unlike any we’ve experienced. The effects will not just impact NCAA teams, players, coaches, but also prep for the 2021 NFL Draft.
The NFL Scouting Combine in February will be the most important one of all-time, assuming it happens.
Why? Consider the extra stress on the area scouts, personnel directors and general managers who won’t have a year of football to evaluate several prospects prior to the 2021 NFL Draft.
In the Big Ten, Pac-12, MAC, Mountain West and overwhelming majority of FCS schools, games have been canceled due to ongoing concerns about the coronavirus, COVID testing and the uncertain long-term effects.
There’s a sliver of hope the Big Ten will get a late-fall, winter season underway and play 6-8 games. Regardless, with the rest of the college football season underway, they will be on the sidelines and it’ll cause ripple effects into the spring when the draft arrives.
Not only the Big Ten and Pac-12 decisions have deprived us of seeing notable first-round prospects, but the looming threat of the coronavirus has seen players opting out despite their school and conference moving forward.
On my preseason Big Board, there will only be two of the top 10 players in action this fall. Of the top 32 overall prospects, only 17 will be playing as they attempt to solidify their draft status.
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is my No. 1 prospect, and he’s been the No. 1 prospect since capping off his historic freshman season with a record 30 touchdowns and a national championship win over Alabama.
Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II is the other top-10 prospect playing this autumn. He has the bloodlines and the pedigree as an Alabama defensive back to be picked early in the first round.
Yet this is where it gets dicey.
We won’t see Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell snatch souls before going to the NFL. He could be the best offensive tackle prospect since Walter Jones more than two decades ago. He won’t see his draft stock affected by not playing, but it’ll be imperative he — and all other players not playing — remain in shape and don’t balloon up and put on bad weight, which would send up one red flag after another a the combine.
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields is a notch below Lawrence but needed another year of tape after one outstanding season with the Buckeyes as a sophomore. He’s not a one-year wonder, but teams will ask internally if he is. They’re doing their due diligence, and when it comes to the quarterback position, they’ll be looking back to his high school tape to evaluate what he can do.
Playing this fall, Fields would have had the opportunity to prove he could be the No. 2 pick — and he may still be — but there is no room for error. If Fields is able to play a few games late this fall or winter, he’ll only need a few reps to eliminate, or at least, greatly reduce those concerns.
Fields’ teammate, Shaun Wade, is the top cornerback on my Big Board, continuing the legacy of DBU at Ohio State. Without a season to prove himself, he could fall behind Surtain in the cornerback hierarchy and thereby lose millions in the process through no fault of his own.
Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons opted out of the season ahead of the Big Ten’s decision to postpone the campaign. He’s a talented off-the-ball linebacker who is similar to Patrick Willis or Luke Kuechly as the best inside linebacker we’ve seen in a long time. He’s not Isaiah Simmons, though, who has rare coverage skills as more of a hybrid linebacker-safety.
Will NFL teams want to invest a top-10 pick in a linebacker who will be more than a year removed from his last game?
A pair of receivers will be among the most under the microscope, for two different reasons, this spring. LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase opted out after being Joe Burrow‘s top target and winning the Biletnikoff last year following 20 touchdown receptions. He may be the closest thing we’ve seen to Julio Jones but teams will ask if he was a product of the system and a one-year wonder. Some of that is not fair, but we know it’s not a fair system.
Clemson’s Justyn Ross underwent spinal surgery in the offseason, so his medical checks at the combine will be vital to restoring his draft stock as the No. 2 receiver in the class. He’s got the size, talent and production to be a top-15 pick if healthy.
Bateman broke out in a big way for the 2019 Minnesota team that nearly won the Big Ten West. Moore was sensational as a freshman two years ago where he looked like the next Tyreek Hill, but injuries robbed him of much of his sophomore season. With Moore, teams will be evaluating tape as a freshman from two years ago before determining if he’s worth a high pick. That’s an expensive gamble.
Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley is behind Wade and Surtain at the position but he opted out with the hopes of preserving his health ahead of the draft.
The biggest loser when it comes to the season is North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance.
As a redshirt freshman, Lance led his team to an FCS National Championship and threw 28 touchdowns to zero interceptions, along with 1,100 yards rushing and 14 more touchdowns on the ground. He was the latest star at the Alabama of the FCS. He would have had a chance to soar up draft boards with a season.
Instead, he’ll have a one-game season where NFL scouts will put a ton of weight into his performance in those four quarters. He may decide to return to school for a full season in 2021 if he decides this isn’t the way he wants his college football career to end. Returning for ’21 could position Lance to be the No. 1 overall pick if he continues his ascent along with North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell.
Ultimately, the biggest ripple effects of this weird college football season will be felt in the middle-late rounds. The prospects who aren’t already solidified as first-round talents or safely in the Day 2 mix.
This time last year, Joe Burrow was thought of as a Day 3 pick with his career outlook looking like a backup for the first few years of his career who could be a spot-starter when the starter is injured.
One year later, Burrow had the best single-season by a quarterback in college football history and the Bengals made the Ohio native the No. 1 pick in the draft and the hopes of the franchise have never been higher since Sam Wyche, Boomer Esiason and Anthony Munoz were in town.
Those are the players most affected this year. The unheralded, underrated and hidden gems who need a season to open eyes, turn heads and raise their stock. These players won’t get that opportunity to help their cause to pursue their dream of playing in the NFL and providing for their families.
That’s really sad they didn’t get this opportunity, but if they decide to leave school, the pressure of winning the combine and running a blazing 40 at their pro days could literally push a prospect up a few rounds, add a few million in their bank account and position themselves for a seamless transition to the NFL.
No pressure or anything.