Junior-year opt-outs: Will Ja'Marr Chase and Micah Parsons be trendsetters?

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The NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year is almost assuredly going to be Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons.

The NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year very well may be Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase (unless New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones wins it).

What do Parsons and Chase have in common, besides having brilliant first seasons?

Neither played college football in what should have been their junior seasons. Citing COVID-19, both Parsons and Chase sat out the 2020 college seasons at Penn State and LSU, respectively.

Instead they turned to individual training and took extra time to prepare for the NFL draft process and eventually their professional careers. NFL rules require players to be three years out of high school before becoming draft-eligible. They established themselves as bona fide prospects in their first two college seasons.

Chase went fifth overall to Cincinnati, where he has caught 79 passes for 1,429 yards and 13 touchdowns in helping the Bengals win the AFC North. Parsons went 12th overall and his 13 sacks and 84 tackles have helped the Cowboys win the NFC East.

These are two of the biggest stars in the NFL. Already. Parsons has even merited discussion as Defensive Player of the Year. While it is possible another season of traditional college football would have prepared them even more, there is no telling that. And, clearly, they aren’t any worse for wear.

In fact, missing a season of pounding and practice, it could be argued, helped them be fresher for this season. Or perhaps they actually benefited by stepping away from team-centric coaching and game preparation to focus on individual development.

Yes, that’s a cold, bottom-line concept that ignores the joys of actually playing the game or competing as part of the team … but this is a business.

All of which brings up an intriguing question that was discussed on this edition of the College Football Enquirer: Could star college players, secure in their draft status as sophomores, begin sitting out their junior seasons?

No college fan wants to see that. No coaches or anyone else either. And since both Chase and Parsons stepped away from their teams during the COVID-impacted 2020 season, this doesn’t seem like much more than a blip.

Still, some young player — or perhaps his family, agents and others — is going to notice that the NFL’s two best rookies didn’t need college football like everyone assumed great players needed college football.

It wasn’t long ago, after all, that the idea of a player opting out of his team’s bowl game was considered shocking and taboo and something NFL teams would hold against them. Now it’s commonplace for top talent to protect themselves from injury and get a jump on training for the combine and pro days.

Could, to use as an example, Ohio State wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who just lit up the Rose Bowl with 347 receiving yards and three touchdowns, look at Chase and decide he doesn’t need his third year in Columbus to become a star? Would he thus just start training for the 2023 draft?

Could, to use as an example, Alabama linebacker Will Anderson, whose 17.5 sacks and 97 tackles has helped push the Crimson Tide to the national title game, look at Parsons and decide to follow that path, not the more traditional one?

There is no indication either one will. In fact, both are expected back for their junior seasons even though both have done more than enough to be selected in the top 10 whenever they turn pro.

But at some point, will someone do that? If history is an indication, probably.

There was a time when basketball players skipping their senior season of college was considered a shock. Eventually though the NBA was plucking future Hall of Famers (Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James) out of the prep ranks. The NBA now requires a player to be one year removed from high school.

Football is a different sport and the NFL’s three-year rule has been good for both the game and the players, who generally need time to physically develop for the violence, demands and challenges ahead.

Still, sometimes guys are ready early. Or in this case, have shown enough that risking further injury, poor play, coaching malfeasance or anything else isn't in their best interest.

Parsons and Chase were two of those players. Here’s guessing they won’t be the last.

Also on this episode of the College Football Enquirer:

  • Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard ignite an opt-out debate.

  • Nick Saban discusses an expanded playoff.

  • Kentucky and Arkansas cap big-time seasons in the SEC.

  • Left for dead in August, the Big 12 has a big season and a promising future.

  • Ohio State flexes in the Rose Bowl.

  • What to make of Marcus Freeman’s Notre Dame debut.

  • A private part’s “People’s Court.”