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NFL to adapt scouting due to college football hiatus

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence could opt out of the college football season in 2020 and still be a top NFL Draft pick, but his school and the Atlantic Coast Conference still plan to play football this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic. File Photo by AJ Sisco/UPI
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence could opt out of the college football season in 2020 and still be a top NFL Draft pick, but his school and the Atlantic Coast Conference still plan to play football this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic. File Photo by AJ Sisco/UPI | License Photo

Aug. 17 (UPI) -- NFL dreams are in limbo as fall college football season hopes deteriorate. Agents don't think spring football is a viable plan for prospects and NFL teams are prepared to alter evaluations of college players.

"Some of these guys may never get a chance to play football again," Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst told reporters last week. "There will be a draft. We will have to acquire players, but do it a few different ways."

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Most Division I colleges had seasons canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Big Ten and Pac-12 hope to play in the spring. The other Big Five conferences -- the SEC, ACC and Big 12 -- plan to start football in September.

Those whose teams were affected by canceled schedules could fall outside consideration as one of 250-plus players chosen from April 29 to May 1 in the 2021 NFL Draft. This is largely due to lacking game tapes for NFL talent evaluators.

RELATED Big Ten, Pac-12 postpone football, fall sports due to COVID-19

"I feel for all college athletes right now," Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow tweeted this week. "I hope their voices [of wanting to play] are heard by the decision-makers.

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"If this happened a year ago I may be looking for a job right now," said Burrow, who was a backup at Ohio State and transferred to LSU before becoming No. 1 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Instead of a season surge similar to Burrow's, underclassmen who didn't receive a lot of playing time or played poorly in 2019 might not play in 2020 and will need to skip this draft cycle if they want to provide scouts with their highlights before the 2022 NFL Draft.

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Agent Leigh Steinberg told UPI that "nothing will make up for the lack of more game film."

Steinberg also sees NFL teams filling the gap of no fall football by jumping right back into the scouting mode they were in after the 2019-2020 college season. Those evaluations will include scouting some of the same players they scouted last year.

"What I think you will see is a second season of scouting, which is exhaustive," Steinberg said.

RELATED Atlantic 10 postpones fall sports due to coronavirus

Old footage

NFL teams will be forced to judge some college players based on old game footage. Players allowed to play in 2020 will have an advantage over those who don't play, as they produce more recent game highlights to provide to NFL teams.

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Agents expect February's annual NFL scouting combine to expand, with teams allowed to meet with more prospects for longer periods. More one-on-one campus visits between teams and prospects also are expected.

The lack of game tape and recent production for underdeveloped prospects means some general managers could opt to draft players who have a more sustained history of success instead of taking a risk on those just with potential.

"We've done our homework on a lot of these guys already," Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell said. "We can make good educated decisions on the players with a play history and [who have] a lot of video out there."

NFL talent evaluators expect to give more weight to non-game data, like 40-yard dash times and other workouts -- as well as character evaluation -- than they have in the past.

Teams could rely more on play from annual pre-draft All-Star games like the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Bowl. The NFL has been in contact with producers of both events to determine when they can be played before the 2021 NFL Draft.

The draft can be held as late as June 2, according to the NFL's collective bargaining agreement.

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"I think everyone is talking," agent Kenny Zuckerman, president of Priority Sports and Entertainment, said of the NCAA, NFL, players, agents and other entities involved in the planning.

Prospect options

Many college football players hope to compete in the spring, but a spring season might conflict with pre-draft events like pro days, team visits and the combine.

The prospect of a spring season also has plans on hold for some players, as they could start draft preparation earlier if they knew the season was canceled.

"The players are nervous because the [college] coaches don't want them to leave school," Zuckerman. "They want them to be available to play in the spring, if possible."

The draft field features some players who already are top prospects and don't want to risk injury -- and millions of dollars from a potential NFL contract -- by playing another year of college football.

Dozens of players have opted out of the 2020 college season, with some preparing for the draft and others planning to return to college football next fall.

Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley and Miami's Greg Rousseau were two of the top prospects from the Atlantic Coast Conference to opted out, despite their conference's plan to play this fall.

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Farley -- another projected first-round pick -- was the first college player to opt out.

"Though the competitor in me badly wants to play this season, I can't ignore what's going on in my heart, and I must make the decision that brings me the most peace," Farley said in July.

Rousseau, a red-shirt sophomore defensive end, and Farley are expected to be first-round picks in 2021. Unlike Rousseau, the bulk of college players are rarely ready for the NFL after two seasons.

The NCAA council has recommended eligibility relief, which would allow athletes an additional year of college eligibility -- if 50% or fewer of their planned competitions are completed during the season.

The pandemic's disruption on college sports has resulted in some schools that had to eliminate sports from their program due to budget issues. Football is the biggest moneymaker for many athletic departments and the lack of a season puts the sport's future in doubt on those campuses.

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Steinberg and Zuckerman -- agents who represent draft prospects every year -- believe more players will transfer from smaller schools to more stable programs, like those in the Power Five conferences -- the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC and Big 12.

Two of James Madison University's best players recently transferred to Virginia [in the ACC] after their school canceled play this fall. They are eligible to play immediately.

"I think it would be smart for college players to look at possibly transferring if they can," Zuckerman said. "Schools like UConn [which canceled its season] may never get rolling again.

"Before any player makes a decision, I think they have to wait for more information, like if they are a top-four or five-round pick or a first or second-round pic. You have to look at all your options and make an educated decision."

Power Five conferences typically produce the most NFL players annually and are stabilized by multi-billion-dollar TV contracts, unlike less prominent conferences.

"The economics of the Power Five are so much more powerful and profitable [than smaller conferences] and some [Power Five schools] may play," Steinberg said.

"Players who are looking to college football as a gateway to the NFL will want to play where football is more stable and secure."

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