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'A strange, strange year': How college football's opt outs complicate the NFL draft
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'A strange, strange year': How college football's opt outs complicate the NFL draft

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Opt-out decisions throw wrench into NFL draft options

File-This March 31, 2021, file photo shows LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase catching during a drill at an NFL Pro Day at LSU in Baton Rouge, La. Caleb Farley of Virginia Tech was the first top prospect to make the decision that has added a whole new layer of uncertainty to the annual crapshoot that is the NFL draft. Farley had plenty of players follow his lead, including several others set to be high draft picks next week like LSU receiver Chase, Oregon tackle Penei Sewell, Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater and Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons.

PITTSBURGH — Steve Muench went to college with Todd McShay. The two played football at Richmond in the late 1990s, got into the business together and have been colleagues for 20 years at what is now Scouts Inc., ESPN's scouting and evaluating partner.

Year after year, Muench, McShay and their team have grinded tape and set the tone for how hundreds of prospects are perceived ahead of the three-day circus that is the NFL draft. But this year, the circus is more unpredictable than ever before.

Sure, the early days of the pandemic put a strain on scouts, coaches and executives in 2020, canceling pro days left and right. But next weekend, six players who chose not to play in the fall could hear their names called in the first 20 picks. Forty prospects who either didn't play or left their teams midseason might be drafted.

Ever since high-profile players — including Penn State's Micah Parsons and Pitt's Jaylen Twyman — made their decisions last summer, 2020 became the year of the opt out in college football. That has extended into this month's draft as 32 franchises try to assess an unprecedented season and the players who didn't take part.

"I've spent more time going back to 2019, to the year before, than I ever have. I'm just trying to get a feel for players that I haven't seen in over a year, which is really weird," McShay said on a recent conference call. "Talking to guys in the league, general managers and head coaches, everyone's kind of, I don't want to say frustrated, but it's just so different from what you're used to having."

"I get it. It's a strange, strange year," Muench told the Post-Gazette. "Kids were being told all these different things. It's hard to get into that room and criticize a kid for making a decision that they think is going to help them the most. ... It's just muddy."

It's muddy for both parties: NFL teams and most opt outs. Take Twyman for example.

The former Pitt defensive tackle was a preseason 2020 All-American after receiving national recognition the year before. Twyman broke out with 10 1/2 sacks in 2019, helping Pitt lead all Power Five programs in sacks per game. But the All-ACC selection's draft stock is all over the place after not adding any new tape this past fall.

Twyman went in the fourth round of a recent mock draft by Sporting News. CBS Sports' Ryan Wilson had him pegged as a fifth-rounder. Meanwhile, Twyman went undrafted in the most recent mock by The Athletic's Dane Brugler. Twyman said himself at Pitt's pro day on March 17 that there are "a wide range of different ways it could go."

McShay, Muench and Scouts Inc. have Twyman as their 13th-ranked defensive tackle, which would place him in the mid-round category.

"The tough thing for him is, he really has one year of production," Muench said. "He was disruptive. Defensive tackles who can get after the quarterback are highly sought after. I liked his tape. ... But if Twyman plays again this year and has another 2019 type of performance, is he in that second-round area? Did opting out hurt him? Eh. I think it's more, did he miss an opportunity?"

Regardless, Twyman is at peace with his decision. When he opted out and signed with Rosenhaus Sports, the Washington D.C. native did so "trying to help my mom and my little brothers financially." The risk of getting hurt or contracting COVID-19 and its potential long-term effects — myocarditis was a hot button topic when opts outs flooded in last summer — wasn't worth it to Twyman.

At the very least, he didn't hurt himself at pro day. He logged 40 bench reps, something only four defensive tackles have done in the last 10 gatherings of NFL prospects combined. Twyman also posted a 32.5-inch vertical jump at 301 pounds. Not bad for a big fella.

His former teammate and fellow opt out didn't fare as well. Pitt safety Paris Ford's pro day was less than ideal last month, clocking a 4.83-second 40-yard dash and recording a 28.5-inch vertical. Afterward, Ford turned the page and focused on the show he put on the grass at Heinz Field, not the turf at Pitt's indoor facility.

"The proof is in the pudding," Ford said. "The film speaks for itself."

There's little denying Ford is an aggressive ballhawk. In 2019, he led Pitt in tackles with 97 stops and had more passes defended (14) than any safety in the ACC. Through seven games last year, Ford was guiding Pitt again with 45 tackles.

Then, he left the team in October to focus on the next level. The decision was abrupt, though understandable given where Pitt was in its season. A blowout loss to Notre Dame made the Panthers 3-4 overall and out of ACC contention. But some evaluators were still perplexed by Ford's choice. Even head coach Pat Narduzzi said after Pitt's pro day that he and his staff "highly recommend guys not to opt out."

Now, the safety's stock is, like Twyman's, volatile. Sporting News projected Ford landing with the Dallas Cowboys in the third round. Meanwhile, he was pick No. 259 — Mr. Irrelevant — and undrafted in mocks by CBS Sports and The Athletic, respectively. Scouts Inc. moved Ford to its 16th overall safety after his pro day.

Muench said Ford's 40-yard dash is a "major red flag" after having months to prepare and with so many unbelievably low times coming out of pro days across the country.

One of those times was from Parsons, who ran his 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds. It served as a reminder to anyone who forgot that the linebacker is an athletic marvel.

Parsons, a consensus All-American in 2019, opted out to avoid injury and secure his future for himself, his family and his 2-year-old son. The former Nittany Lion was one of the few opt outs who had a first-round grade last summer and maintained it while sitting idly by for the 2020 season. He's rated by many, including Scouts Inc., as the top defensive player in the draft.

"With Parsons, it's the ability to do everything," NFL Network draft expert Daniel Jeremiah said on a conference call last month. "I would have loved to have seen him this year, but I get it. He put so much good stuff on tape in '19 that he made the decision that he did. He would fit in with that versatility that everybody is looking for."

What Parsons has going for him more than anything else is he's unique. There are talented linebackers in this draft class, like Notre Dame's Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Tulsa's Zaven Collins and Kentucky's Jamin Davis. But it's clear to experts and executives alike that Parsons — despite sitting out a year, despite admittedly needing time to get back into football shape — is the top prospect at his position.

Offensive tackle opt outs Penei Sewell and Rashawn Slater can say the same. So can LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase. But Miami defensive end Gregory Rousseau can't. Neither can Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley. And those are guys with first-round grades.

Where the opt-out related uncertainty really spikes is with mid-round prospects. We've seen it in the pre-draft process already for Twyman, Ford and others. And we could see it again next weekend.

"Normally, you've got 12 to 15 games that you've just seen of these players. ... So it's challenging," McShay said. "If you have a similar grade on a guy who didn't play in 2020 versus a guy that played in 2020, you're probably going to go with the guy who played this past season because you feel like you have more information on him."

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