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NFL front offices are still navigating what figures to be another year of taking an unusual path to the draft.
As things stand now, the Pac-12 and Big Ten conferences remain closed for a fall season, even with some glimmers of hope that continue to crop up. Maybe they’ll play; maybe those reports turn out to be fool’s gold.
But for any NFL draft prospect who is forced to miss (or who chose to miss) the 2020 college football season, they’ll have to find ways to convince teams that having done so shouldn’t be held against them.
One NFL general manager who might need extra convincing is the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Kevin Colbert.
In an excellent interview with The Ringer’s Kevin Clark, Colbert said that the combination of conferences shutting down and other prospects opting out of the 2020 season and entering the 2021 draft — well-intentioned as those moves might have been — could create a negative stigma against those players in his eyes.
“The one thing, the conferences that chose not to play, and the players that opted out, we understand all that,” Colbert said. “Obviously, they are doing it for safety and health, first and foremost, and we respect that. However, the players that get the opportunity to play and choose to play, we feel more comfortable in their evaluations.”
The worry from Colbert’s perspective is the information void for those players having not played in a competitive football game for, in some cases, well over a year prior to the 2021 NFL draft.
“Because I just don’t know, sitting out a year, what those players are going to look like having missed the season,” Colbert said. “There’s just not a real natural source of information saying, ‘Well, when this player sits out, he’ll be this,’ because we just don’t know.
“We respect the fact that they aren’t playing, but we also have to make the best decisions, and I think the best decisions we’ll be able to make are the ones where we can see them play in 2020.”
You can see where this is going.
Credit Clark for asking Colbert point blank: All things being equal, will you draft a player who played in 2020 over one who didn’t?
“No doubt,” Colbert said. “If there are two players that are close or equal, we’ll take the one that has played most recently. We’re hopeful that the other conferences get up and running. If they do, we’ll add that to the evaluations. If they don’t — again, all we have is 2019 and we’ll make the best decisions we can.”
But let’s also keep perspective. The reality is that if Oregon OT Penei Sewell or LSU WR Ja’Marr Chase or one of the draft’s top quarterbacks (with Ben Roethlisberger entering the twilight of his career) were to magically fall to wherever the Steelers end up picking, rest assured that they won’t pass on a superior talent.
This does not read straight up as a get-off-my-lawn statement from the 63-year-old general manager. But it does highlight how certain players who had football taken away from them — or who chose not to play — could be at a disadvantage in a tiebreaker type of situation.
And we’d be willing to bet that this isn’t going to be the way every NFL team addresses this conundrum. But it would be naive to think that others won’t fall into a similar line of thinking as Colbert and the Steelers.
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