Could several 2021 NFL draft prospects bolt if college football moves to spring?

Eric Edholm
·9-min read

Urban Meyer doesn’t have to face the problem that many of his coaching contemporaries could in the upcoming months. The former Ohio State head coach doesn’t envy the situations they might be dealing with, especially if college football moves to the spring.

In that scenario, many talented players with potential pro futures would face a hard choice: stick with their teams or punt on the season to begin early prep for the 2021 NFL draft.

“It'd be hard for me not to advise them and tell them to play,” Meyer told Yahoo Sports. “To play in spring and then go play in OTAs in the National Football League, that’s not fair.”

The fate of college football hangs in the balance as August comes roaring closer, with multiple conferences having already said they’ll be playing conference-only schedules — if they end up playing at all this fall.

The effect of COVID-19 on the sport has college football on the brink, with some conferences, including the Ivy League, punting on playing in the fall.

“If you have a chance after you fulfilled your commitment to a university to go and earn a living playing football,” Meyer said, “I don’t know if I’d advise a guy to play a spring season before going to the NFL draft.”

For the coaches who are currently facing this frightening possibility, it could lead to an exodus of talent across the country. And not just the household names, either.

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, left, and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields meet after the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football playoff semifinal Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence (L) and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields meet after the Fiesta Bowl in 2019. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Who could leave early? Maybe more than you think

Does Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence, the presumptive top pick in the 2021 NFL draft, have anything to play for from a draft-stock standpoint? What about Ohio State QB Justin Fields? Those are the obvious ones.

There’s even buzz surrounding North Dakota State QB Trey Lance to where the talented redshirt sophomore could make the leap despite only one brilliant season at the FCS level.

Lance’s response to a suggestion of a spring season was telling.

And those are just the top three quarterbacks.

A slew of other non-QB, first-round draft hopefuls would have tough calls to make amid the uncertainty, among them: offensive tackles Penei Sewell (Oregon) and Samuel Cosmi (Texas); wide receivers Rashod Bateman (Minnesota), Ja’Marr Chase (LSU), Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith (Alabama); defensive linemen Marvin Wilson (Florida State), Gregory Rousseau (Miami) and Tyler Shelvin (LSU); linebackers Micah Parsons (Penn State) and Dylan Moses (Alabama); and defensive backs Shaun Wade (Ohio State), Patrick Surtain II (Alabama) and Jevon Holland (Oregon).

Bet on most, if not all, of them considering leaving without fall ball.

A slew of talented running backs who returned to school instead of declaring for the 2020 draft could have a change of heart, too: Clemson’s Travis Etienne, Bama’s Najee Harris, Mississippi State’s Kylin Hill and Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard, among them. It’s a position where extra experience is chalked up to more mileage, which isn’t considered a positive in draft circles.

Some early fall-or-bust messages are already trickling out.

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Wade, whom one general manager told Yahoo Sports could have been a first-rounder in 2020 had he come out, might not be a fan of the spring plan for him. His father told Firstcoast News that Wade would be “outta here, baby” if there’s no college football in the fall.

Expect more to come quickly if the fall season is canceled. There easily could be a slew of non-first-round prospects who bolt amid the uncertainty.

“There’ll be a significant amount of guys,” said a coach at a perennial top-20 program. “I think for a lot of those guys, they’re going to go into it and see the mock drafts already. If they are in the top 3-4 rounds, they’re probably just going to say, ‘I don’t want to get hurt.’”

People Yahoo Sports spoke to say the number of players could be in the triple digits, well north of 100 who come out early.

“Easily,” the agent said.

Prepare for chaos.

‘The worst case is looking pretty scary’

A Power 5 offensive coordinator recently looked at his depth chart and sighed. He counted potentially seven players on his side of the ball who could bail on the 2020 college football season and vault directly to the NFL.

And we’re not talking all Round 1 or 2 prospects, either. A few of that team’s players received Day 3 (or lower) draft grades from the NFL’s two major scouting services, BLESTO and National Football Scouting.

“Now, I have to look at it from a worst-case [perspective] here,” said the coach, who asked to remain anonymous, saying that he didn’t have a clear indication from the players who could consider leaving prior to the season. “But the worst case is looking pretty scary. And pretty real.”

Sometime in the next 10 days we should know what the game plan for the sport will be, as the SEC, Big 12 and ACC approach a soft deadline to decide those conferences’ approaches. The Big Ten and Pac-12 already have said they’ll be playing a conference-only schedule.

The offensive coordinator, who previously worked as an assistant in the NFL and has spoken to his former colleagues in the league, isn’t in full panic mode yet — even though his quarterback, who isn’t roundly considered a first-round pick yet next spring, could be among the early departures if the college season is delayed or moved to the spring. He’s still “hoping for a Hail Mary” of sorts from his conference and the NCAA to salvage a fall season, even though “we’re kind of out of timeouts now.”

One matter at hand is indeed time. Can a college season start in January in, say, Minnesota? If not, a full spring season could stretch into May. That would wipe out the traditional all-star games for prospects, such as the Senior Bowl, currently scheduled for the week of Jan. 25. A month later is the all-important NFL scouting combine.

The 2021 NFL draft is currently slated for April 29-May 1 in Cleveland, and sources have told Yahoo Sports that the league appears to have little inclination of moving it back.

College coaches could be left in the lurch

The potential exodus of players if the season is pushed back to the spring leaves two unique options for college football coaches.

One is that they’d have to recruit mid-year enrollees or transfers, specifically to positions that the draft will leave vacant. That’d leave the awkward scenario of the position groups with some of the best players on the roster being filled in with the least experienced.

The other unique spring scenario coaches expect would be a player putting together a handful of games of good film in the spring and then leaving for the NFL. They'd do just enough to impress scouts but also to make sure they have time to train for the testing — or perhaps the scouting combine — and get ready for OTAs in a few months.

With a player going through a full spring season and then declaring, the top-20 coach added, “your body isn’t going to recover in time for you to be fresh for OTAs.”

At Ohio State, Meyer implemented a system where the Buckeyes capped the number of “competitive snaps” his players received in a calendar year to 2,000. Those that reached that threshold were typically held out of spring practice.

“There’s a reason why you have to give kids time off and healing time,” Meyer said. “We’d give players [in the] 1,000-rep club a break; they didn’t do much in the spring. And for two-year starters in the 2,000-reps club, you didn’t do much at all.

“It’s almost like a pitch count. It’s concussions. Shoulders. Our experience is that your body is going to break down.”

From a college football standpoint, having a spring season and then trying to go forth with a fall 2021 season feels impossible to Meyer from a health standpoint. The same thing applies to a 2021 draft prospect who would play a college season in the spring and then jump right into an NFL camp.

“I physically think it’s impossible to have 2,000 reps in a calendar year,” Meyer said. “I don’t think your body can do it.”

Alabama head coach Nick Saban leads his team onto the field before an NCAA football game against LSU Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)
Coaches like Alabama's Nick Saban could have some big roster shifts if college football moves from the fall to spring. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

Glimmer of optimism? Maybe.

An assistant for a title-contending team said he predicted that none of his team’s draft-eligible prospects would sit out a fall season, shortened or not, citing the program’s strong culture and championship aspirations as the biggest reasons.

“They’re trying to win and improve their draft stocks,” he said. “The only way you do that is by playing.”

What if the season moves to the spring?

The assistant wouldn’t bite, saying he couldn’t predict that happening given that his and the school’s beliefs were that there will be football — in some form — in the fall.

Is it a shortsighted view? Perhaps. But an agent who represented a high first-round pick this spring, and who typically targets a select group of higher-rated players for clients each year, said the players he has spoken to this summer — mostly ones with first-, second- and third-round grades entering the season — have indicated that they’re sticking in school with the idea of playing ball this fall.

Naturally, if the season is canceled none of that matters. But if they find a way …

“I think if we get to 10 games and lay out a great plan for this fall, where everyone feels safe about it, we can make everyone happy,” the Power 5 offensive coordinator said. “We have our season and [the players] have their chance to make some money in the draft. Half the first-round picks every year play their way in their final season.

“But I just don’t know how that’s going to work, or if it is. I really don’t.”

Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel contributed to this story.

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