Could 'Opting Out' Remain a Trend in College Football Even After COVID-19?August 26, 2020
Less than four years ago, the idea of a player skipping his team's bowl game to prepare for the NFL draft was blasphemy. LSU's Leonard Fournette and Stanford's Christian McCaffrey were the trailblazers who sat out their teams' bowl games at the end of the 2016 season, and it immediately sparked a firestorm among sports media and social media alike.
The NFL didn't care, though. Both running backs were still selected in the top 10 of the 2017 NFL draft, and that lack of consequence jump-started a growing trend.
There were 16 players who—without even a fraction of the backlash that Fournette and McCaffrey faced—skipped bowl games to prepare for the draft this past season.
Five of them (Trey Adams, Hunter Bryant, Nick Coe, Trevon Hill and Brandon Wimbush) didn't even get drafted, but expect the number of skippers to continue increasing in future years as guys realize that the reward of playing in the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl or the Duke's Mayo Bowl isn't worth the risk of injury.
Following the 2018 redshirt rule change, another recent trend in college football has been players suiting up for up to four games before shutting it down in order to preserve a year of eligibility. Quarterbacks Kelly Bryant and D'Eriq King and wide receiver Jalen McCleskey were the most noteworthy players to exercise this option.
It's not quite the same as prepping for the draft, but considering each of those three guys transferred after taking that redshirt year, it's another understandable example of players putting their own best interests ahead of what's best for the team.
Is it possible that the COVID-19 pandemic will serve as the catalyst for the next logical progression: Players sitting out an entire season for draft purposes?
There have already been at least 30 players (and two Power Five conferences) opting out of the 2020 campaign because of coronavirus concerns, including likely first-round draft picks Gregory Rousseau (Miami), Micah Parsons (Penn State), Rashod Bateman (Minnesota), Rondale Moore (Purdue), Jaylen Twyman (Pittsburgh) and Caleb Farley (Virginia Tech).
Given the threat of myocarditis, the number of worldwide deaths connected to COVID-19 and the still-unknown possible complications from this virus, it'd be hard to blame any unpaid college athlete from deciding the risks aren't worth the reward. And, obviously, this situation is a whole heck of a lot different from a player deciding "I'm content with where I'm projected in mock drafts, so I'm done with college football."
It's fair to wonder whether the former could eventually lead to the latter, though.
If it does happen—I don't believe it will, but I'm entertaining the idea—it wouldn't be in one fell swoop.
It would likely start with a guy deciding there's no good reason to play the final game of the season for a sub-.500 team. (South Carolina's Javon Kinlaw certainly could've decided to start that trend last November but didn't.) Then, perhaps in the subsequent year, some first-round prospect on an underachieving team will sit out the final two or three games. After that, it's probably a guy who pulls the plug after four games to take a redshirt but later decides to just enter the draft.
And then, maybe five to 10 years from now, we'll see a guy like Rousseau or Ja'Marr Chase bail on the season before it even begins.
Why those two examples, you might ask? It has nothing to do with either guy's character or commitment but the situations they're in.
In Rousseau's case, he absolutely exploded as a redshirt freshman, going from a guy who wasn't even a projected starter on his team in late August to a way-too-early projected top-10 pick eight months later. Perhaps if Miami had national championship potential, it would make sense for him to continue playing.
But on a team that went 6-7 last year and has only marginally better potential this year, why risk injury and/or decreased production that could negatively impact draft stock?
In Chase's case, he already led the nation in receiving yards and touchdowns for an undefeated national champion. What more does he have to prove? If there were a college basketball freshman or sophomore who was that individually impressive on a dominant team, there's about a 125 percent chance he would have declared for the NBA draft.
But Chase wasn't allowed to do so following his true sophomore season and now risks injury or a significant drop in statistics with a new quarterback, either of which could take him from the No. 1 WR on draft boards to outside of the top five in a hurry. Even on an LSU team that reasonably could repeat as national champions, it could be wise for Chase—who would likely be a top-five pick if the 2021 draft were held today—to sit out.
There are plenty of reasons not to do it, of course. Love of the game, commitment to the team, the risks of being labeled as a quitter and the possibility of losing a step—or simply having scouts question whether you might have lost a step—are just a few off-the-top-of-my-head deterrents.
From a purely dollars and cents perspective, though, it might not be much longer before someone decides it makes sense.
The Wall Street Journal's Brian Costa wrote in January 2019 about why Trevor Lawrence should have considered sitting out both the 2019 and 2020 seasons, since he had already shown enough as a true freshman to be more or less locked in as the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft.
Costa's article ruffled a lot of feathers, but the crux of the argument is logical. By playing last year and by planning on playing this year, Lawrence will forever be a legend at Clemson, but the main thing he gains for 2021 and beyond—aka his money-making years—is additional wear and tear on his shoulder and his legs.
But while risking injury, Lawrence also gained invaluable experience, which is why I doubt we'll ever see skipping a season become a legitimate post-pandemic trend—particularly if guys are able to make money off their name, image and likeness.
Lawrence had some rough interceptions early in the 2019 campaign, but he got better at reading defenses and blossomed into a legitimate scrambling threat. He also showed NFL teams that he's durable, bouncing right back from that one vicious hit he took against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Moreover, once a player displays the skills necessary to become a top-10 pick, the NFL has shown in recent years that it isn't afraid of injury "risks." Nick Bosa missed all but the first three games of the 2018 season and was still the No. 2 overall pick in April 2019.
And despite two ankle surgeries in less than a year followed by a horrific hip injury in mid-November, Tua Tagovailoa went fifth overall to the Miami Dolphins five months later.
Maybe things will change in the near future, and we'll see some cautionary tales that encourage sitting out. After all, the injury suffered by Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith during the 2015-16 bowl season more or less led to Fournette and McCaffrey sitting out the following year's bowl games.
For now, though, it's much more of a theoretical topic for discussion than a serious, viable career path.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.