The big football news of the week has, for the most part, been college football news. Schools and conferences are engaged in the perhaps impossible task of figuring out how and whether they can play sports, including football, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Big Ten and Pac-12 announced Tuesday that they were postponing fall sports. The ACC and SEC announced that they were still figuring it out. The Big 12 went ahead Wednesday and announced a fall football schedule with games starting next month.
What ends up happening with college football in 2020 remains anyone's guess, but it's sure to impact the NFL in some ways. From opening potential new game windows on different days of the week to making 2021 NFL draft prospects far more difficult to evaluate, the issues facing the college game will ripple in the pros. Based on conversations with various NFL officials over the past few weeks, we take a look at the ways in which this might happen:
What's the NFL's plan if college football is completely canceled or pushed to the spring?
First of all, it's important to state here that NFL team owners have not yet discussed this in a formal capacity. During a recent owners call, one topic that came up was whether NFL scouts would be allowed on college campuses this fall (they currently are not), but sources say that has been the extent of the college football conversation in a formal setting.
The league wants to be respectful of the college leagues' decision-making process and hasn't wanted to speculate on the outcome, although now the Big Ten and Pac-12 have announced that they won't play in the fall.
Fine. But people around the league must be talking about this. What would it mean for the NFL schedule?
Yeah, again, this is all speculative, but if college football is canceled or pushed to the spring, don't be surprised to see the NFL schedule some games on Saturdays or even Friday nights. And it's not just about taking advantage of suddenly open TV windows. The NFL is looking ahead to a season of uncertainty, in which positive tests or COVID-19 outbreaks could force the postponement or rescheduling of games on a moment's notice, as has happened in Major League Baseball. Having Friday and Saturday windows available could help with the rescheduling process.
For example, if a team can't answer the bell on a given Sunday for COVID-19 reasons, and the following Sunday is still too soon for enough of its players to return to the field, its game could be rescheduled for the following Thursday, Friday or Saturday. It's complicated, obviously, and it would impact other teams' schedules, and it might not work at all. But the more potential flexibility the NFL calendar has this year, the better. Nobody can predict how this is all going to go.
Are teams at least bracing for possible Friday and Saturday games?
In a word: Yes. Multiple team sources reached this week said they are at least expecting discussions on the issue, though the league hasn't broached anything yet with its management council. As one team business exec put it: This is a chance to make regional NFL games national, and the league has to tap into that. There are so many Sunday games that the average fan doesn't get to see. At a time when additional revenue is crucial, capitalizing on fruitful TV windows could be a wise move.
OK, what about the 2021 draft -- would the NFL consider moving the date?
It does not seem, according to the sources to whom I've spoken, that the league would want to do that. The NFL likes the way its calendar is set up, and it didn't change the date of the draft or the start of free agency this spring with the pandemic still in its early stages.
A hypothetical spring college season could theoretically still be in progress on April 29, the scheduled first night of the draft, and that could force the NFL's hand. But Major League Baseball holds its draft while college baseball season is still going on, and players play in College World Series games after they've been selected by MLB teams. So it's not inconceivable to think an NFL draft could be held during an in-progress spring college season.
Two other important notes to consider:
The collective bargaining agreement signed in March stipulates that the draft must be held between Feb. 14 and June 2. That means the NFL and NFLPA would have to agree to move the date past then.
Coaches and general managers likely wouldn't be pleased if rookies don't show up to their campuses until June or July. They already went through an offseason with limited access to rookies who are behind in development and don't want that again.
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Would top draft prospects even play in the spring?
The widespread expectation is that they would not play, no. Take Clemson junior quarterback Trevor Lawrence, for instance, who has a chance to go No. 1 overall. Risking injury during a fall 2020 season is one thing, because he'd be trying to give NFL teams another season of performance to study. But risking injury by playing in the months leading up to the draft, when the NFL season is already over, the draft order established and teams are deep into their draft planning process would be another story.
One of the reasons many people in the industry are skeptical about the feasibility of a spring college season is the likelihood that the vast majority of draft-eligible prospects would choose not to participate, and the leagues would be devoid of stars.
How many players could opt out of playing the college football season?
It could be at least 100, or 200, and that's not hyperbole. Several prominent agents who are on the recruiting trail are hearing about strong opt-out candidates in all forms -- from Day 1 picks to projected late-rounders. Execs who are already skeptical of a spring college football season say lots of prospects won't want anything to do with it.
How will players who sit out be viewed by NFL teams?
Many evaluators are torn on this subject, because mastering football requires reps and development, but the logistics will force them into leaving early. One NFC exec summed up the situation well:
"I think it's understandable in some cases -- it's really just an extension of the bowl games that we have seen the last few years. Also, we are preparing for the possibility that no one plays in 2020," the exec said. "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."
How will the NFL further evaluate players who opt out?
The All-Star circuit will be huge, and likely expanded to accommodate varying talent, from stars to uncovered diamonds. I'm told the Senior Bowl, an event that is usually held in late January, would strongly consider accommodating seniors and juniors in the game. That would require a formal request to the NFL, which could keep its offseason calendar intact with the bowl games and combine but tweak the dates of the draft if necessary. The Senior Bowl also could expand the event over two weeks to showcase more players.
Would the 2021 NFL combine stick with the same date?
The annual scouting combine is usually held the last week of February and/or the first week of March. This could conceivably happen before a potential spring season, though as we've already discussed, combine prospects might already have opted out of such a season. The combine could be the most up-in-the-air aspect of all of this. More than any other NFL event, it puts players, coaches, scouts and team executives in close proximity to one another in hotel rooms and bars throughout downtown Indianapolis. It is exactly the type of event that medical professionals would warn you about if you want to avoid spreading COVID-19. It's exactly the type of event that the NFL and its teams are urging players and other team personnel to avoid during the season.
Barring major, major advancements in the treatment and/or prevention of COVID-19, it's difficult to imagine the combine as we know it happening in any form six months from now, no matter what happens to the college football season. We will all know a lot more by the time a decision would need to be made on the combine. At that point, the NFL season might have been completed, might have been aborted or might never have happened at all.
But a 'mini-combine' has already been suggested, right?
Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst mentioned this to Green Bay media and suggested it could happen in December. It's feasible but also a logistical challenge. One AFC exec said creating a bubble to host that many players -- along with doctors and club personnel -- could be an issue.
"If travel restrictions improve, I could see some pro days this fall where teams talk about their prospects in person and then have us work them out," the exec said. "That might be more viable than a combine."
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But if, say, the SEC, ACC and Big 12 play games, players from those conferences wouldn't be happy to see players sitting out get a leg up in drills and facetime. With every hurdle cleared, there's another one to vault.
If there are no college games, how will NFL teams scout during a lost season?
Lead college scouts from several teams say they have or will have graded every player of note over the past two years. Some teams have not completed background checks since many schools don't discuss underclassmen in depth or at all. But they plan to dig in on that this summer and in the early fall to better understand prospects, relying on coaches they trust and whatever else they can find.
Also, scouting services such as BLESTO (which includes about six NFL teams in a pool of talent evaluation) help with background. Teams have tape of every game and will isolate matchups and players.
But no amount of legwork will normalize an imperfect process. As one veteran NFL scout said, the best teams at evaluating talent will find ways to unearth it by adjusting to the uncertain climate -- while others will struggle mightily.