2020 was a unique college season due to college players opting out due to COVID-19 and play a partial season or not at all. There were many questions about draft stock for those that didn’t play their full 3 years, but it didn’t seem to hurt the most talented players. 22% of first round picks (7 of 32) opted out of the season. Though there were some horror stories of opt outs falling late or out of the draft (like QB Jamie Newman and WR Sage Surratt) the most talented players still were drafted highly.
The next question is if this year off has had an effect on the development of these players and if they would be ready for the NFL. Most teams expect their first round picks to contribute immediately, so looking at if the first round opt outs are contributing and having success may help us see if players truly need that 3rd year of development as elite talents.
Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
After an outstanding 2nd year culminating into a National Championship, Chase opted out of his junior season as LSU faced a rebuilding year. The dynamic WR caught a lot of flack in preseason for dropping balls and not looking prepared for the NFL, but his play in the regular season has been nothing short of dynamic.
He topped my article last week of the impact rookies in the NFL so far this season, and continued playing at a high level last week. With a 77.1 PFF grade, 4th highest among all rookies, the opt out doesn’t seem to have had an affect on Chase’s NFL development.
Penei Sewell, OT, Detroit Lions
Sewell was the top prospect in the draft for many (my top non-QB). When the Bengals passed on him, many were astounded. Ultimately, the Lions benefitted and grabbed the stud OT. The Lions played Sewell seemingly out of place at RT during the preseason, but when LT Taylor Decker got hurt, Sewell moved to the left side and had more success.
Now dealing with injuries himself, Sewell hasn’t exactly lived up to the huge expectations, but there also isn’t a lot of help from the rest of the Lions line. A PFF grade of 56.8 is modest at best.
Micah Parsons, LB, Dallas Cowboys
Parsons came into his junior season as one of the premier prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft. Being a top 12 selection and the first LB off the board despite opting out, he is proof that he didn’t need a 3rd year to have a solid draft stock.
Parsons came in at #5 on my list of impact rookies in the NFL last week, and his versatility on the Cowboys defense has shined through the first 5 weeks. His PFF grade of 75.4 is 6th best among all rookies. Utilized in coverage, as a pass rusher, and off the ball against the run, Parsons has been asked to do the work of a veteran so far in the NFL season. The time off has not appeared to affect his play so far being the leader of the Cowboys defense.
Rashawn Slater, OT, Los Angeles Chargers
Seeing a Northwestern OT opt out of his junior season for the draft surprised many, but Slater’s success as a sophomore against elite talent Chas Young showcased his NFL ability. There was even some debate leading up to draft night about if Slater would be selected over Penei Sewell. Ultimately, Slater fell a little more than expected due to teams going for defensive talent, but #13 overall isn’t too shabby.
Slater has been pretty dominant through the first 4 weeks with a PFF grade of 77.9, the 3rd highest among all rookies. Operating on Justin Herbert’s blindside, Slater has continued consistent good play, despite not playing football for 15 months.
Caleb Farley, CB, Tennessee Titans
Farley was one of the players opting out of his junior season due to COVID, but he also had some medical red flags that cause a slight fall to #22 in the first round. A dynamic DB at Virginia Tech, Farley could have played Cornerback or Safety in the NFL.
Farley has started the year off as a reserve and rotational piece for the Titans defense. After low scores for his play early in the season, Farley has bounced back to a PFF score of 62.9 through the first four games. He seems to be improving steadily and not missing much of a beat despite the missed season.
Gregory Rousseau, EDGE, Buffalo Bills
Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, EDGE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The two EDGE rushers to go #30 and #32 went to high-end teams in need of reserve help in rushing the passer and stopping the run. Rousseau had a record-breaking 2019 season for Miami (FL) with 15.5 sacks. He used his length to get into the backfield and make plays. Tryon-Shoyinka also led the Washington Huskies in sacks in 2019 and has impressive athleticism that got him into the first round.
Most thought these two would fall into Day 2, mainly because of them opting out and not being in the mind’s eye. Ultimately, the experts were wrong and both made it into the first despite opting out.
So far this season, Rousseau has a PFF grade of 60.9 and Tryon-Shoyinka has a 65.4 through four weeks. Both are solid grades for rookies, especially since neither are consistent starters. The time off didn’t seem to affect their stock or their play so far.
Having 22% of first round picks be opt-outs and the grades through the first 23.5% of the season running from modest to excellent seems to disprove that opt-outs wouldn’t be NFL ready. It isn’t definitive proof, but may give some insight for high-end prospects in the future to opt out themselves and prepare for the NFL.