When news broke that LSU wideout Ja’Marr Chase was opting out of the 2020 college football season and preparing for the 2021 NFL draft, it made perfect sense on the surface.
After all, we are talking about the 2019 Biletnikoff Award winner, given annually to the nation's best receiver, and a unanimous first-team All-America pick. Chase set SEC records for touchdown catches (20) and receiving yards (1,780) in a season in 2019. The Tigers won a national championship. Chase’s Heisman Trophy-winning QB, Joe Burrow, is in the NFL.
Even if people on LSU’s might have been surprised, the neutral observer could hardly blame Chase. He’s going to be a top-10 pick, and possibly top five.
“To me, he’s Torry Holt,” a senior-level college scout told Yahoo Sports this summer.
Every NFL team would love to have Chase. Here’s what was striking about the initial report Chase’s decision apparently wasn’t related to COVID-19. At least not predominantly.
Here’s the excerpt from Dennis Dodd’s report:
“Sources said Chase's decision is not specifically related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather, it is believed agents may have simply convinced Chase to leave before his third collegiate season. NFL rules state a player cannot be drafted until three years after his high school graduation.”
If there wasn’t already concern among college coaches about the opt-out effect, this should be the biggest warning flare of them all. Chase is likely going to be the tipping point for top prospects from now on.
Opt-out wave is likely here to stay
One year from now, for all we know the coronavirus might be well under control via vaccine or improved treatment. But there likely won’t be a salve to cure the itch for talented players to skip their junior seasons. And where there are talented prospects with little to prove, agents will be in tow.
“It’s already happening,” said a veteran agent with nearly 20 years in the business. “Look, I don’t know [Penn State linebacker] Micah Parsons, but it’s my personal belief that Parsons left school because he could leave school and still be a top-10 pick.
“Now that’s two [top-10 picks] who have opted out, with Chase, and I guarantee it carries over to next year. And pretty soon, that bar will drop; we’ll be seeing players opting out who are viewed as first-rounders, or the top-50 guys. I don’t know how they’ll prevent it.”
The first week of August, Ja’Marr’s father Jimmy told 247Sports.com that his son was going to play. Not long ago, LSU people were confident that Chase bought into the culture there, wanted to cement his legacy at the school and chase another title.
“He’s going to play the season out,” Jimmy Chase said. “He’s locked in with his team, and as long as everybody is healthy, he’s said he wants to play with his team and his teammates.”
Asked if he thinks anything could change Ja'Marr's mind, Jimmy said: "Not really, not really. If I can't have the conversation with him, Ja'Marr is one of those people if he has his mind made up, he's stuck with it. You know?"
Something got to Chase between Aug. 5 and Sunday, and it wasn’t the pandemic.
The point of this isn’t to drag Chase or his father. Not at all. What exactly did Chase have to gain from an NFL perspective this season? Nothing. He theoretically could have only hurt his cause, via regression or injury or the unknown. If Chase had stayed, it would have been to hoist another trophy.
The point here is to send up the bat signal. These opt-outs are here to stay. The virus has little to do with the big picture on this.
College coaches must be concerned
If the college football powers-that-be dragged their feet on finding solutions to play ball this season, they had better not delay a plan for the opt-out trend that is underway now. They’ve had plenty of premonitory signs on this already.
Nick Bosa essentially opted out in the 2018 college football season, even though there was an injury involved. He had suffered a core muscle injury halfway through the third game of Ohio State’s season, and it was clear soon afterward that that Bosa had played his final college football snap.
Bosa could have tried to return later that year. But why risk a top-five draft slot when you’re as good as he is? The 49ers drafted him No. 2 overall, and Bosa was named Defensive Rookie of the Year. He made the right call on his future, and no one in the NFL was going to ding an elite talent for that.
Now, the worry is that if prospects are being lured by agents, those prospects had better know where they’re getting information from. Having one agent tell a player, “I’m hearing you could be a first-rounder” might be enough to seal the deal for an opt-out.
And that’s a frightening idea.
A few years ago, the father of a a former five-star prospect at a Power-5 school — one who had underachieved in college — saw his son’s name listed in the first-round of an online mock draft on a website. It didn’t matter that the majority of early summer grades on the prospect fell well below the first-round mark. Never mind that anyone who spent five minutes talking to people at that school would know the player was nowhere close to being a first-rounder yet.
The father believed his son was a first-rounder, the school quickly found out. He had read it on the internet, after all. The issue that long has plagued college basketball appears headed for a gridiron near you.
And though the player in question laced up for his final season as a junior a few years ago, sources say he often went through the motions throughout the course of the year, sat out practices with minor injuries, missed some games and occasionally appeared disconnected with the coaching staff.
That player declared early for the draft. And no one picked him. Not in Round 1, Round 7 or anywhere in between. His signing bonus was about one-quarter of what a seventh-rounder typically would earn.
He’s still in the NFL. It took a serious wake-up call from the team that signed him as an undrafted free agent before he realized how fine a line he was walking with his career.
How to prevent bad draft declaration decisions
Players get bad advice all the time when it comes to leaving or staying in school. That will be exacerbated if this opt-out trend continues.
The College Advisory Committee, which typically gives grades to underclassmen who are considering coming out in December and January, might need to adjust its timetable and be prepared to issue summer evaluations and suggestions.
Right now, the most concrete information prospects could get their hands on — even though it’s closely guarded — are the summer grades from the two independent scouting services that NFL teams subscribe to, BLESTO and National Football Scouting.
NFS, which grades select underclassmen, issued only a handful of first-round grades for non-seniors this summer. Three of them — Greg Rousseau, Parsons and Chase — are done with college football. Hard to argue with their decisions.
It’s understandable why other prospects who fell below that first-round summer threshold this year might opt out. Theirs might have been very reasonable COVID-related decisions.
But post-COVID? Future prospects will opt out ahead of their third years in college because they believe they should, whether it ends up being the right call or not. That wave is coming.
And really, it might already be here. COVID-19 just helped coax it out faster.
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