Given cancellation, Big Ten, Pac-12 prospects may flood 2021 NFL draft

Rob Rang

The Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences officially announced Tuesday what so many college football fans feared – the cancellation of the upcoming fall season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both conferences held out hope that college football could return in the spring, but unless the NFL opts to change the date of its draft – currently April 29-May 1st - many of the best players from the affected teams will have left their programs by that point in the hopes of fulfilling their childhood dreams of playing in the pros.

While it would seem that the NFL simply pushing back its annual draft could be a solution which would benefit all, the league has bristled in the past at outside forces attempting to dictate its plans.

To do so would require foresight, flexibility and empathy that, quite frankly, few of the leaders in college sports (and elsewhere in this country) have shown throughout this global health crisis.

As such, no one should be surprised if the trickle of players already announcing their plans to skip the 2020 season and head directly to the 2021 draft becomes a steady flow in the coming days and weeks.

This is especially true for established players like Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell and Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade, already considered among the elite talents in college football and first round cinches in the 2021 draft, barring health or other off-field concerns.

The supremely gifted Buckeyes – the most talented team in the country in my opinion – could be especially hard hit by this news should redshirt sophomore quarterback Justin Fields and other young superstars opt out. While last year was his first on the field for the Buckeyes, Fields was brilliant, projecting as a likely top five pick and possibly No. 1 overall due to a dual-threat combination that reminds me of a young (and less polished) Russell Wilson.

Perhaps the most interesting decisions will be made by players with flashy traits or production but only one year of dominant play. This list is a long one, including Michigan senior defensive lineman Kwity Paye or its redshirt sophomore right tackle Jaylen Mayfield, for example, as well as USC's Jay Tufele, Oregon State’s edge rusher Hamilcar Rashed, Jr. and Washington defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike.

Similarly, players coming off injury – like offensive tackles Alaric Jackson (Iowa) or Walker Little (Stanford) – face very tough decisions.

Yesterday, when news broke that the Mountain West Conference was canceling its fall season, we released our ranking of the top prospects in the league who might be opting to head to the draft or look to transfer elsewhere in the hopes of playing this fall.

Today’s news eliminates 26 potential landing spots from that list.

The ACC, Big 12 and SEC currently remain on schedule to play this fall but could be influenced by the Big Ten and Pac-12’s decisions. The cancellation of the entire college football season, of course, could spark a flood of players heading directly to the NFL.

If that were to occur, the 2021 draft could be loaded with talent. Most players would be approximately 16 months removed from their last college game, however, making the evaluation of them much more difficult than in most years.

Some have suggested that an expanded Scouting Combine or player all-star games might take the place of the season.

However, if potential liability is, in fact, the underlying issue which forced the Big Ten and Pac-12 to pull the plug on their seasons – as many suspect - it remains to be seen how other entities could safely and cost-effectively provide this evaluation service.

As the dominoes fall, be sure to check in with NFLDraftScout.com’s 2021 NFL draft player tracker, a page we expect will need to be updated frequently. 

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