Will delayed college football season lead to mass exodus of elite talent to NFL draft? 'Everyone is scared'

Before Wednesday afternoon, few outside of the ACC footprint and NFL draft circles could tell you much about Caleb Farley. The Virginia Tech corner earned All-ACC honors last season, and is considered by scouts to be a first-round NFL draft pick.

Continued stardom seemed imminent for Farley heading into this season, but he’s suddenly become one of the buzziest players in the sport. Farley’s Instagram announcement on Wednesday that he’s opting out of the 2020 college football season for the NFL draft makes him a likely trendsetter in the college football space.

Farley’s decision sent a shockwave through the college coaching ranks, especially with a majority of the conferences yet to solidify their attempted path forward this season.

“I think everyone is scared of the opt out right now,” said a Power Five head coach. “The fact that we can present no clear answers to anyone. If you have no certainty, how many games [we are playing] and when there’s practice. At least opting out provides clarity for them.”

One industry source predicted to Yahoo Sports that 10 to 12 players could follow Farley’s lead. Prominent quarterback tutor Quincy Avery said that number could be around 35 or 40. Guessing a number is difficult, of course, because the college football season is shaping up to be a moving target. But the longer it’s pushed back, the more players are expected to follow.

“I know it’s on a lot of players’ minds right now,” said an industry source. “I wouldn’t be surprised if 12 of the 20 top picks don’t play their season. That’s a lot of good players not playing. It only takes one, and other people start to follow.”

Caleb Farley points in celebration during a game.
Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley, middle, celebrates after an interception against the Miami Hurricanes on Oct. 5, 2019. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

To be clear, there aren’t many players of Farley’s caliber in college football. He’s considered an elite cover man and NFL scouts predict he’ll be a first-round pick.

“We thought he was one of the most talented corners that we played, not just last year but in the last two or three years in the conference,” said Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson. “He was exceptional. He has really good movement skill, really good ball skills. He was someone as we go back and watch the film, he really stuck out as one of the most outstanding defensive players in the ACC.”

Will the other elite players follow?

The uniform expectation around the sport is that if the season gets pushed to the spring, there will be a relentless wave of players who declare for the NFL draft. Even if the draft process gets pushed back, the idea of playing a college season and then entering NFL OTAs a few weeks later makes for a potentially unhealthy workload.

As the season continues to shift, other top players are certain to follow Farley.

“I’d be shocked if Caleb Farley is the only guy,” said Eric Winston, the former president of the NFLPA. “I think every guy that’s going to be an NFL player has to make a business decision. They have to do what’s right for them, whether that’s playing in a bowl game or a season with questionable at best protocols at the college level. They have to do what’s right for them and their family.”

The uncertainty that’s hovered over the sport for months has led to a sped-up agent process for many of the elite players in college football. It’s not uncommon for high-end players to have agents picked out at this time, putting the process behind them before the season starts. (They formalize the relationship after the season.)

Playing in the spring is still regarded as a last resort, which means start dates creeping back and the overwhelming feeling of delays and cancellations could lead to more players leaving.

“I think we’ve always approached spring as the alternative to no football,” Clawson said. “Not as the alternative to fall football. The desire of all of our coaches is to play football in the fall. Spring is only an alternative to no football, not to fall football.”

Those NFL prospects who haven’t fully engaged in the agent process — think third-year juniors who have flashed but not starred — are now getting inundated by agents and financial advisers.

“I have a guy who is getting hammered,” said another Power Five coach. “He’s getting it every which way, every day.”

That same coach held a Zoom call with his team yesterday to address the idea of opting out for the draft. He wanted to illustrate to his players that many of the NFL players were making business decisions, as their contract gets pushed back a year. A player like the Patriots’ Dont’a Hightower pushes his $8 million salary for 2020 back a year, essentially attempting to mitigate any risk that this season is canceled and he’d only get a prorated version of that salary if the season is cut short.

“I wanted them to know what’s going on at the pro level and why guys are opting out,” the coach said. “I wanted them to know that everyone is not opting out because of COVID.”

Avery said that a line of demarcation for players could end up being the ability to play in the College Football Playoff.

“When kids find out they can’t win a national championship, that’s going to change the dynamic,” Avery said.

How much would the product suffer if there’s a wave of opt outs and the season starts? That’s difficult to discern, but coaches are bracing for more announcements.

“Will it happen?” said another Power Five coach. “It’s going to happen. There will be more than Caleb Farley. Will it wreck the game? Or is the product fans watch going to suffer? I don’t think so.”

NFL front offices are facing a season where they are expecting limited in-person scouting access. One NFL front office source said he doesn’t think college players will be opting out of the season in near the same numbers as those in the NFL.

The NFL is also awaiting a draft process that appears destined to be fluid, as there’s an expectation the league will be nimble with the combine and draft to best accommodate teams in getting the most accurate gauge of prospects.

Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy told Yahoo Sports he’s open to having a Senior Bowl buildup that lasts up to two-and-a-half weeks if there’s no college football this season. That would both help players acclimate to playing after extended time off and give the NFL personnel a bigger window to both evaluate the prospects as players and people.

The lack of campus visits would likely mean canned information given to scouts over Zoom, as opposed to more candid in-person conversations. Nagy said he’s also considered going to the NFL and asking that all players who’ve declared for the draft — not just seniors or graduated juniors — be eligible for the Senior Bowl.

Nagy, a former NFL scout, was more conservative about the numbers of players who would opt out of the college season.

“There’s only a small handful for guys who can rest on their junior tape,” he said. It would be a small, small handful. The scary part for me is where are the kids getting the information, that’s the hardest part of the whole process, getting credible information.”

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