By Oz Jones
When Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley opted out of the 2020 college football season last week, draft aficionados took notice. He’s currently ranked as CB1 on a host of draft sites, and stands as a bonafide Day 1 prospect. But, he’s also a cornerback; and whether right or wrong, that’s not necessarily the sexiest position. Moreover, while draftniks are certainly familiar with Farley, the average football fan might not be aware of his skills.
However, Tuesday’s decision by stud Minnesota WR Rashod Bateman to also opt-out may have stopped some folks in their tracks. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Bateman was the B1G Wide Receiver of the Year in 2019, helping Minnesota (along with newly-drafted WR Tyler Johnson and 2021 draft-eligible QB Tanner Morgan) to an 11-2 record and a win over 12th-ranked Auburn in the Outback Bowl. He also put 200+ receiving yards on Penn State in the Golden Gophers’ home win over the Nittany Lions. As his decision also confirms, he’s one of the top WRs eligible for the 2021 draft.
Then, later the same day, Micah Parsons – currently PFF’s top-rated linebacker – opted out as well. And again, while perhaps not as much of a household name as Bateman, Parsons was termed by PFF “as complete a linebacker prospect as we’ve seen in our six years of grading at PFF.” Absolute dude? Absolutely. Football fans in general were looking forward to watching Parsons wreak havoc on B1G opponents this year. No more, unfortunately.
MOREOVER, as I was typing this, word came down that Gregory Rousseau, stud DE for the University of Miami, is also sitting the year out. He was a projected 1st-rd player as well.
All this to say: if you’re keeping score at home, that’s four legitimate first-round prospects that have opted out of the 2021 college football season, all for COVID-related reasons.
With that in mind, I thought it might be a fun exercise to 1. Consider some players – specifically, top-50 or top-100 guys – that don’t necessarily have anything else to prove (so to speak) on film, with an eye toward 2. Maybe getting a devy jump on guys that might have to pick up the slack next year if these (hopefully) stars-in-waiting don’t play this fall.
A brief note, then: this means that some players who currently appear on top-50/100 lists will not be here, because they simply don’t currently have the tape to warrant it. So, if you’re looking for Journey Brown and Zamir White to appear when I get around to looking at running backs…well, sorry.
A couple points before we begin. First: I do not expect the opt-outs to stop once the season starts. In fact, I’d expect them to actually pick up, especially once players (inevitably) get COVID and games are put on hold or cancelled. At that point, what’s honestly left to consider?
Second: I don’t fault guys at all for opting out. Their health, and the health of their families, should be of primary concern. I say that to make clear that if/when I note a player “should” come back, it’s from a production standpoint only, not because I’m trying to make a statement about their masculinity.
I’m going to limit this to the skill positions: QB, RB, WR, and TE. All of the potential opt-outs are ranked by at least one (reputable) site as being a top-100 player, at worst, and are listed in no particular order. Let’s dive right in, starting with Quarterbacks.
He has absolutely nothing to prove; he’s the likely first-overall pick next year. (Boy, would this be fun, especially in a year where Notre Dame gets to compete for an ACC title.) I think the easy choice would be to say that DJ Uiagalelei gets immediately thrown into the fire, but I’m not necessarily sold on that option. My gut says that the Tigers would, instead, open the year with RS freshman Taisun Phommachanh, the #4 Dual-Threat QB in 2019, if only because this off-season may impede Uiagalalei getting up to speed as quickly as he might have otherwise. The ACC is, once again, Clemson’s to lose. If Phommachanh can, at minimum, game manage effectively – and he’s also a threat to run – the Tigers should once again be competing for a national title. This would be an ideal scenario: give your talented freshman a year to learn, ride the redshirt as far as he can take you, and let a legitimate QB battle play out next year.
This is interesting. Ourlads currently has Kentucky grad transfer Gunnnar Hoak as the #2 behind Fields. But, Hoak didn’t have Jamie Newman-like success at his previous location. In 2018 – as a RS sophomore – he was beaten out by Terry Wilson for Kentucky’s starting gig. Wilson was an incoming JUCO transfer; Hoak already had two years in the system. After it became apparent Wilson had the starting gig locked up, Hoak grad transferred in 2019…and was then beaten out by Fields for the starting spot vacated by Dwayne Haskins. Simply put: is he really the guy Ryan Day would turn the team over to? The Buckeyes have the #2 (CJ Stroud) and #13 (Jack Miller) pro-style QBs in their 2020 class; Stroud is a top-50 overall player and was behind only Clemson’s Uiagalelei in the pro-style rankings. My prediction: Hoak gets the initial start, but Day won’t hesitate to pull him for Stroud should the Bucks offense stumble out of the gate (against Illinois and Rutgers, no less).
Purdy appears on all sorts of top-50/100 boards, and for good reason: he has as legitimate a claim to be the 3rd QB drafted (after Fields and Lawrence) as anyone. Lance has the measurables? Purdy has the production against P5 opponents. Were Purdy to opt out, however, the next man up behind him is Aidan Bouman, the 582nd-ranked player in the 2020 class. Purdy sitting out would throw a wrench into ISU’s plans to compete for a Big-12 title, however. While the Cyclones should be able to go 3-0 to start the season (South Dakota, Ball State, and UNLV) even without Purdy, none of the conference games will be a cake-walk, especially with a true freshman forced to play. Honestly, who knows how good Bouman is. We do know, however, that Purdy was ranked the 839th player (seriously) coming out of high school, so certainly anything is possible with Bouman. But if Purdy doesn’t play, does anyone other than ISU fans bother tuning into a Cyclones game this year?
Very simply, if Newman sits out, JT Daniels plays. But does Newman sit out? I don’t think so, frankly. In fact, I think this year is mandatory for Newman to prove he’s worthy of a 1st-rd grade. Is he talented? Sure. But his completion percentage was only 60.9 (up from 59.6% in 2018); moreover, Wake was only 7-5 last year. Having a chance to A. show you can effectively run one of the top offenses in the country in B. the toughest conference in the country, as well as C. have a legitimate shot at making the College Football Playoff had to have factored into his decision to transfer. If he doesn’t transfer and instead stays at Wake, are we really having this conversation about his potential top-100 status? Certainly not top-50, right? And on that note: opinions are divided on him. While PFF has him as their 5th-best QB, The Draft Network has him as their 91st overall prospect. Which renders a discussion of Daniels moot, then, but still: if Newman were to sit, Daniels would find himself in a great position to prove his talent.
He would not be a top-100 player for me. Sporting News, however, is a different story – and he ranks as their 40th-overall player. He made no other lists; as such, this is really just my chance to promote incoming 4th-ranked dual-threat QB Haynes King. He was a three-sport star in high school and is absolutely oozing with upside. According to a recent 24/7 article, he’s the highest QB recruit for Jimbo Fisher since Jameis Winston. King can move, has an arm, and exudes confidence. He was also a three-sport star in high school, so there’s some serious athleticism there. Were Mond to sit out (which I find highly unlikely), it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see Fisher turn the reins over to King.
Others Under Consideration:
Tanner Morgan: Is he picked in the first two days? I don’t know. I like him more than some others, but while I love how much he improved from 2018 to 2019 I do wonder how high his ceiling actually is. Certainly, if both he and Bateman opt out the chances of the Golden Gophers having a season akin to 2019 fly out the window. Minnesota would almost certainly go back to Zack Annexstad, who lost the job to Morgan two years ago. And with their first four games against Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin, there’s no room for error anyway, even with Morgan under center. I think the chance of Morgan opting out is low; then again…
Trey Lance: Why is he here? Because while his measurables are excellent, and he had a heckuva 2019, is a team really spending a top-50 pick on a QB with one season of (admittedly great) production at the FCS level? If he sits, he’ll then train for the combine (whenever that arrives). Assuming he shows out there, which is at least even money, then…yes, he probably will get drafted in the first round – and let’s be perfectly realistic: he’s probably one of the first three QBs taken in 2021 (Sigh.) So, yeah, he should probably be noted above. Look, his 2019 stats were impressive as all get out: a 28/0 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 66.9% completion, and 1100 rushing yards (seriously!) is nothing to sneeze at. But again: it’s FCS competition, and it’s one year. In a sense, then, I almost think that Lance opting out would be the ultimate litmus test for NFL teams: do we draft a QB (the most important position on the field) who has great measurables and a year of production against so-so competition, or less impressive measurables and multiple years of P5 production? Moreover, with recent news that the FCS is seriously considering pushing their season to the spring, it makes almost no sense for Lance to suit up to play.
So, two options then: sit and train (which I’d personally lean toward), or transfer to a conference that’s prepared to play this fall (at least, at this moment in time; the pessimist in me gives the actual likelihood of college football in the fall, at best, a 50/50 shot). If he transfers, where does he go? That I couldn’t begin to tell you. I’ve seen people on Twitter say “Lincoln Riley + Trey Lance = awesome.” Okay, sure…but what happens to Spencer Rattler? That move is highly, highly unlikely. Also unlikely: LSU. Myles Brennan already knows the position, and he’s waited his turn. A third contender I saw: Florida State. From a production standpoint, this would seem to make sense, as James Blackmon hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. (Then again, to be fair, the FSU o-line hasn’t been particularly good either – and that’s probably understating the situation.) But again, Lance would have to transfer and then assimilate the playbook in (checks calendar) five weeks? Do-able? Maybe? Likely? Doubtful. Again, my guess is that Lance simply removes himself from the equation altogether, trains for the combine, shows out, and waits to hear his name called in the first ten picks next April.
I’ll take a look at the other offensive positions in the coming days. Obviously, again, this is more a thought exercise than anything else. (Checks Twitter update): And now Rondale Moore is sitting as well. The floodgates have officially opened. Cue The Doors.
More to come…