The 2021 NFL Draft cycle comes with a variety of unique factors that scouts and talent evaluators have never had to navigate. The decision of many top recruits to opt-out of their final college football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented circumstance for front offices. It also can lead to savvy devy fantasy football owners capitalizing on talent that may be out of sight and out of mind for casual fantasy football players.
This is a non-exhaustive list of some of the most noteworthy players that decided to forgo all, or a significant portion of, their final collegiate football season. Honorable mentions not included in this article include Damonte Coxie (Memphis), Jhamon Ausbon (Texas A&M) and Warren Jackson (Colorado State).
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Ja’Marr Chase, Wide Receiver, LSU
While his decision may have been disappointing to fans of the defending national champion LSU Tigers, it surprised few in the NFL Draft circles. The 6-0, 210-pound wide receiver dominated the 2019 season: setting SEC single-season records for receiving yards (1,780) and touchdowns (20). Chase is a well-rounded wideout who runs the entire route tree well and displays game-changing athleticism.
His decision to opt-out will unlikely alter his NFL Draft position. He is expected to come off the board early on the first night of the upcoming draft in April, with a high likelihood that he is the first receiver to hear his name called.
Kenneth Gainwell, Running Back, Memphis
The decision for Gainwell to forgo his final collegiate season was much more surprising. The 5- 11, 191-pound back took the college football world by storm in 2019 when he rushed for 1,459 yards and 13 touchdowns, while pulling in 51 receptions for 610 yards and three touchdowns. When he announced his decision to not return to Memphis, Gainwell did acknowledge that he and his family were personally affected by COVID-19.
The NFL Draft Combine and team interviews will be critical for Gainwell’s draft stock. As a redshirt sophomore, he does not have the ability to participate in showcase games such as the Senior Bowl. His explosiveness, fluidity and athleticism will not be lost on NFL front offices, though and he should hear his name called on either Day Two or Day Three of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Jamie Newman, Quarterback, Wake Forest
When he decided to transfer from Wake Forest to Georgia for his graduate season, Newman drew the attention of many draftniks. He then drew ire and criticism after opting out of the 2020 season without ever taking a snap for the Bulldogs.
The Senior Bowl could be a re-launching platform for the 6-4, 230-pound dual-threat quarterback. He threw for 2,868 yards and 26 touchdowns, while rushing for an additional 574 yards and six touchdowns in 2019. His big arm and mobility provide him with enough tools to be considered an early Day Three pick at the latest in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Nico Collins, Wide Receiver, Michigan
This is one of the toughest players to pinpoint a value on for the 2021 NFL Draft cycle. Collins has flashes of brilliance on tape; at times showing tremendous athleticism, contested catchability and successful route-running. His 6-4, 222-pound frame will catch the eyes of evaluators and should help keep him in the Day Two conversation for the 2021 NFL Draft, despite his lack of impactful production during his time with the Wolverines.
Tammorrion Terry, Wide Receiver, Florida State
At times Terry looks like a top-three receiver in the 2021 NFL Draft. He possesses a unique level of athleticism, great acceleration and is comfortable with the ball in his hands after the catch. However, he tends to struggle with inconsistent hands and had an unsuccessful first half of his 2020 season. Terry chose to opt-out after six games, amid a chaotic environment, highlighted by a coaching change and poor quarterback play.
He currently projects to be a Day Three selection with incredible upside. He could possibly jump into Day Two of the 2021 NFL Draft, if he puts his athleticism on display at the 2021 NFL Draft Combine.
Kylin Hill, Running Back, Mississippi State
His journey to the NFL Draft, makes Newman’s path seem linear. Originally, Hill informally declared for the 2020 NFL Draft after rushing for 1,350 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Bulldogs in 2019. He quickly reversed course and decided to return to school for his senior campaign; a move that excited many when they learned Mike Leach would be introducing his air-raid offense to the SEC.
Unfortunately, Hill did not take to the new offense and chose to opt-out after three games, while receiving just 38 touches. Hill is a fluid and powerful, between-the-tackles runner and can be a nightmare for defenders in space. Hill did catch 23 passes during his three games for Mississippi State in 2020, which is more than he pulled in during 13 games in 2019: showing some level of dual-threat ability. Hill might not come off the board until Day Three of the 2021 NFL Draft but there is a strong sense that he can make a high impact at the next level.