What spring college football means for the 2021 NFL Draft and pre-draft process, future opt outs and more

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You have a lot of questions about what a college football season postponed into the spring looks like for the NFL. I understand that, and I’m here to tell you that there really aren’t many concrete answers.

Why?

Because the NFL is primarily focused on starting its regular season on time in one month from now, playing a 256-game schedule safely and then crowing a legitimate champion in Tampa on Feb. 7 after a full postseason. That is what consumes the thought process of those at 345 Park Ave.

But NFL executives can walk and chew gum at the same time, and so they will also be considering what spring college football could mean for their annual inventory of rookies by way of the 2021 NFL draft. As the Big Ten and Pac 12 push their football seasons to the spring—and as others already have or soon will—the questions of how that jibes with a January Senior Bowl and February combine and April draft are fair.

First, the draft. According to the collective bargaining agreement, the seven-round draft can be held at any time between Feb. 14 and June 2, and the date is set by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. It’s typically held at the end of April, and the 2021 draft is scheduled for April 29-May 1 in Cleveland.

If the NFL were to move the draft to a later date in the spring, it would be done to give teams a longer evaluation period. NFL scouts and GMs had a hard enough time this year evaluating prospects without pro days and individual workouts, so moving the draft back would be a one-time olive branch of sorts from the league to its clubs to feel comfortable with their evaluations after a difficult 2020.

If you noticed the last six months, the NFL doesn’t stop for anything. If adjustments must be made, it does so only because it has to. That said, if enough of the Power 5 conferences move away from the fall, the NFL can’t stick its head in the sand.

There’s already nearly four months from the final college football game of the season to the first day of the draft. The pre-draft process doesn’t have to be that long. Calendar items that were once considered essential to draft evaluation may be cast aside in an odd 2021 just like they were forced to be eliminated in 2020. But nothing—and I mean nothing—in the pre-draft process matters more than the combine.

Just like we saw the league deal with not having rookie minicamp and OTAs and mandatory minicamp all to preserve the start of training camp, I think we’d see the NFL do all it could to protect the combine at the risk of losing all other supplemental pre-draft information.

What does it mean for the Senior Bowl and other all-star events normally played in January? I don’t know, but the NFL would remain spinning on its axis if a year went by without it. Individual pro days on campuses? Team personnel hated not being able to further evaluate draft prospects this spring, but the draft still happened with a fraction of players showcasing their skills during their own pro days.

But the combine? That absolutely has to happen. The medical information gathered in Indianapolis combined with the standard measuring of skills cannot be replicated or assembled anywhere else. It doesn’t have to be held in late February—though it makes all the sense to have it before the start of free agency—but it has to take place before NFL teams conduct a draft. You could argue that there can’t even be a draft with a combine.

I’ll have more on this later in the week, but there were already several projected first-round picks who have been readying to hire agents. They planned to follow the lead of Caleb Farley, Micah Peters and Greg Rousseau to opt out this season and begin training for the draft.

You’ve noticed that the opt-outs have quieted in the past few days as college football’s future has been in limbo. Trust me, some top names have been ready to announce. The thought has essentially been ‘I don’t have to announce I’m opting out now if we don’t have a fall season anyway.’ Do not at all be surprised to see big names from the Big Ten, Pac 12 and the conferences that follow them announce in the subsequent 48-72 hours that they’ve hired agents and are preparing for the 2021 draft.

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