There’s just so much uncertainty and anxiety right now, a Power 5 football player said as he was leaving his apartment for an afternoon workout on campus earlier this month.
The player, who spoke to ESPN on the condition of anonymity, was in a meeting recently with school and conference officials to talk about a return to practice amid the coronavirus pandemic and came away feeling as if there was no clear plan in place.
“Personally,” he said, “I don’t think there’s the right protocol for us to play safely. If I’m being real, it’s just about generating money.”
For the schools and conferences, that is. The players, he said, feel like guinea pigs.
The player is a possible first- or second-round draft pick, and he’s pondering his NFL future. He wants to play this season, but he’s keenly aware of the risk associated with the coronavirus and he’s not at all comfortable with it.
He doesn’t want to test positive and have to miss two to three games because of a mandatory minimum 14-day quarantine. And along those same lines, he’s not sure how much he trusts his teammates to report their symptoms, for fear of losing playing time.
He’s worried about possible long-term ramifications such as reduced lung capacity.
Even if they’re lucky and there are no outbreaks, he sees another threat: the lack of a traditional offseason conditioning program.
“There’s a certain timeline that it takes to get ready for the season, and if you throw kids out there that’s an injury risk,” he said.
If his conference does play this fall, he won’t feel safe doing it. But it’s a risk he says he’ll have to take for fear of his draft stock falling.
The possibility of a spring season is another matter entirely, though.
“I would leave,” he said. “I don’t feel like it would be smart for me to participate in the spring and enter the draft.”
The injury risk combined with the quick turnaround to pre-draft events is just too much.
“I don’t know if the risk is as big as the reward,” he said. “I think a lot of guys would sit out rather than play.”
As conferences continue to grapple with the viability of a college football in the middle of a global pandemic, players, agents and athletic trainers are watching the calendar inch toward the fall, they’re seeing outbreaks of the coronavirus across the country, and they’re getting antsy. Decision time is coming for everyone, and they’re getting prepared to make a move sooner rather than later.
The first big domino to fall was Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley, a potential first-round pick, who announced in late July that he was opting out of the season to begin prepping for the 2021 NFL draft. Since then, Minnesota WR Rashod Bateman, Penn State LB Micah Parsons and Miami DE Greg Rousseau, all potential first-round picks, followed suit.
Multiple sources said that a number of pro prospects are already considering the possibility of leaving college in order to prepare for the NFL draft. A delayed season could send them packing. And a spring season? Forget about it. One longtime agent said players are already nervous and there’s “no chance” that the bulk of first-round prospects would play under those conditions as long as the draft calendar remains in place, and that many second- and third-round prospects would likely follow suit.
“If you’re a bona fide first-round pick and you’re that close to the finish line, are you really putting yourself in harm’s way?” the agent said, adding that if you’re in the position of a Trevor Lawrence, Ja’Marr Chase or Jaylen Waddle, you have “absolutely nothing to gain.”
CJ LaBoy, an agent at Wasserman, said college football is asking players to take on a “boatload of risk” under the current conditions. With no vaccine and no clear plan for a safe return to football, players are getting anxious and considering whether to withdraw from school and get a head start on training. LaBoy said he’s had those discussions with players and their families, and many are wanting to make a move “right now.”
LaBoy said he hopes agents aren’t preying on players’ fear and rushing them into an irrevocable decision. After all, it’s in an agent’s best interest to lock down as many prospects as they can as soon as possible. LaBoy knows it’s happening. Another agent, who spoke to ESPN on the condition of anonymity, said the pitch is simple: Leave school now so I can put you up in a nice apartment in a sunny state where you can train and become a pro.
The appeal is undeniable. After all, if they’re taking online classes anyway, what’s the harm in doing it off campus like every other student?
Mo Wells, who works with draft hopefuls at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, said he’s heard from “quite a few” over the past month about getting their clients to the training facility early. He and the staff are already putting together packages for that eventuality, offering a bubble environment where players can train in state-of-the-art gyms.
“It’s more so a when than an if,” Wells said.
EXOS, a leader in NFL combine training, started preparing for that possibility as well after getting calls from several agents and advisors. Prospects typically train at its facilities for eight weeks, but according to Trent Wilfinger, senior vice president of the sports division, the company has already formulated a blueprint for what an extended stay would look like.
Former Michigan tight end Jake Butt tries to put himself in the position of a current junior or senior in college and winces at what has to be a difficult decision. The uncertainty he’s dealing with as a member of the Denver Broncos right now is hard enough, he said, “but those guys aren’t getting paid.”
Butt knows better than most about the risk of playing when the draft is on the horizon. He tore his ACL during his final game as a Wolverine and saw his stock plummet. The former Mackey Award winner was ultimately selected in the fifth round, which he said cost him “quite a bit of money.”
Considering every option is something draft hopefuls have to do, and there won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach, Butt said. But if the NFL calendar doesn’t change and the college season is delayed, he said his advice to pro prospects would be to consider not playing.
“The awareness part is a big thing,” he said. “It used to be that kids would say I’ll play for my school regardless and play to win the game and pride. But, man, there’s life-changing money involved now and there’s risk to it.”
An NFL executive said it would be “understandable in some cases” if players decide to sit out.
“It’s really just an extension of the bowl games that we have seen the last few years,” he said. “Also, we are preparing for the possibility that no one plays in 2020. In the end, though, we are in the business of practicing and playing football. What are they doing if they are not playing? How are they going to get better? It’s hard to improve by yourself if all of your teammates are busy playing. In all reality there are only a few players that can ‘get away with it.’ Most would benefit from putting out additional film.”
Lead college scouts from several teams say they have or will have graded every player of note over the past two years. They have tape of every game and will isolate matchups and players, and they can rely on scouting services such as BLESTO, which includes about six NFL teams in a pool of talent evaluation, to help with background.
The pre-draft evaluation circuit could become even more important, and would likely expand to accommodate varying talent, from stars to uncovered prospects. The Senior Bowl would strongly consider bringing in juniors and could expand its event to two weeks in order to showcase more players. That would require a formal request to the NFL, which could keep its offseason calendar intact with the bowl games and the combine but tweak the dates of the draft if necessary.
In other words: There are options other than staying in school.
A veteran starter in the SEC, whom coaches say has pro potential but isn’t a likely first- or second-round pick, told ESPN he had a number of unanswered questions about safety protocols. He was apprehensive about traveling to play in potential hot spots for the virus and how forthcoming opponents would be about their positive cases. Regardless, he said he wouldn’t play in the spring. He’s had a serious injury once in his career and said the idea of another injury so close to the draft presents too much risk.
Seeing so many NFL players opt out of the coming season only shines a harsher light of the realities of playing during a pandemic.
“There’s a renaissance going on in sports with the younger generation and an understanding of the leverage they have and the power they have and the influence they have, and they’re understanding how the system is set up,” LaBoy said. “They’re the talent. They’re the entertainers who make money for their schools. They don’t make money from it, and guys don’t like that. They’re not going to put their livelihoods at risk for the good of the University of Whatever. These kids are significantly smarter than they get credit for.”
He added: “There are going to be players who throw their hands up and say, ‘I’m tired of this. I’m already putting my body on the line. I’m not going to take on more risk.’ … You’ll start to see players start defecting and start jumping.”
And once that happens, all bets will be off. Because while there might be only a select number of sure-fire draft picks in college football right now, there are many more players who see themselves in that same light and there are agents and advisers who will gladly encourage them to bet on themselves and leave school early.
Ultimately there’s still time, and the uncertainty that is driving so many of these conversations is also what’s holding players back from making a decision.
There’s an argument to be made, voiced most notably by Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, that a spring season could actually be a positive for the pros.
“Now, if the NFL does play in the fall, I promise you they’d love to be able to send their head coaches and coordinators to actually come out and watch these guys play football games,” he said. “I’ve spoken with a number of NFL head coaches that love that idea. I think from an evaluation standpoint, it would be fine and you’d obviously have to do something with the draft.”
Maybe conditions improve. Maybe a season can be played in the fall. Or maybe it’s in the spring and the NFL either pushes back the draft or holds firm.
Anything can happen, but one thing is certain: The clock is ticking.
And Caleb Farley just made the first move.