The COVID-19 pandemic had an immediate effect on the NFL Draft last year, forcing it to become a virtual event. This year the hoopla and festivities will be in person again, a sign of a return to normalcy, but the virus has greatly impacted the way NFL teams have had to prepare for the selection process.
More than 100 draft-eligible players either opted out or had their 2020 college football season dramatically altered by COVID-19, including some of the top prospects. There is a chance that the player taken in the first round on Thursday night by the Giants — who have the 11th overall pick — will not have participated in a competitive game since the end of the 2019 season.
"There are guys in this draft that when they put pads on in August, it’ll be for the first time in 20 months," Giants general manager Dave Gettleman said recently. "Some of those guys are very, very highly rated, so you’ve got to think about that."
Added Giants director of college scouting Chris Pettit: "You’ve got to do a lot of projecting."
The Giants say they went back to watch as much film as they could of the players they are assessing, but that doesn’t always result in a lot of data. With edge rusher Gregory Rousseau of Miami, a possible Giants target, there is only one season of college football to watch from his redshirt freshman year.
"I feel like I showed a lot in the time that I did play. I feel like I proved a lot," he said after his pro day this spring.
Still, there is no way to replicate a lost year of on-field football development. Nor is there any way to return to football in full stride after missing so much time.
Another possible option for the Giants at 11, Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, said as much following his workout for scouts after an opt-out year.
"The only way to get in game shape is to actually play in games," he said. "Once I get drafted and get to OTAs and minicamp, I’ll be able to keep getting in better and better shape and play the way I want to play. It’ll come over time, but I think by the season I’ll be ready."
The Giants need to be ready by Thursday.
"Listen, they made a decision to opt out," Gettleman said. "Who am I to judge? When I get on the Zoom calls . . . we ask them specifically: ‘Tell me your story about the opt-out. What’s your journey like? Are you glad you did it?’ "
With no NFL Combine, most of the players who opted out were able to perform for NFL scouts at their pro day.
"Some of the opt-out kids did a great job, showed up at their pro days and were outstanding, outstanding," Gettleman said. "And there were a few of the opt-out guys who showed up looking like me, so that wasn’t really good for them."
Then there were a few others who were unable to participate fully in those pro day drills, such as another potential Giant, cornerback Caleb Farley of Virginia Tech.
"I put a bank on my pro day," Farley said, but he was unable to run that day because of a microdiscectomy procedure he needed in his back.
The lack of opportunity to show his abilities to scouts on the field did little to diminish Farley’s confidence.
"Really, the only negative about the situation is not being able to go put up the numbers that I was supposed to," he said. "I’m just thankful to still be in this position to showcase my talent at the next level, and whatever team grabs me is going to have the best corner in the draft."
That could be the Giants . . . if they can stomach the lack of recent actual football information they will have on Farley or anyone else who opted out.
"It’s almost like the NBA one-and-done; they go to college for a year and now, bang, they’re in the NBA," Gettleman said.
That’s a sport in which such jumps happen often, but this is the NFL, and teams are used to having J. Edgar Hoover-level dossiers on players before they make their selections. It’s also a league that, despite all of the attention 40-yard dashes and hand sizes and other measurables receive, always has stressed that the film and the production between the lines is the most important aspect of scouting.
Now, for many prospects, that element is gone.
A big part of the scouting process is having potential picks talk about the plays they made. NFL teams will call up some clips from the previous season and have the specimen under the microscope walk them through it, from the techniques to the reads to the decisions that came together to make that particular snap what it became.
Leading up to this week’s draft, though, there have been just as many questions about plays that were never made, asked of players who were not there to make them.
Said Gettleman, with his decades of NFL experience: "There’s nothing I can compare this to."
A look at three players who opted out of the 2020 college season but could be considerations for the Giants with the 11th overall pick on Thursday:
Was second in the country (behind Chase Young) with 15.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman in 2019 … Has good athleticism, enough that he played safety in prep school … Would fill the one glaring hole on the Giants’ current roster as someone who can consistently pressure quarterbacks … After building two Super Bowl championships on homegrown pass rushers, the Giants haven’t hit on a draft pick at that position since they took Jason Pierre-Paul in 2010’s first round.
LB, Penn State
As a sophomore in 2019 was named Big Ten linebacker of the year while recording 109 tackles and five sacks … Has inside/outside flexibility that should endear him to Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham and sideline-to-sideline playmaking abilities that make him valuable in today’s speed-driven game … There are off-field concerns any team will have to answer, including accusations in a civil lawsuit that Parsons played a role in hazing a Penn State teammate.
CB, Virginia Tech
Was first-team All-ACC in 2019 with 16 passes defended and four interceptions … Was a high school quarterback who was recruited as a wide receiver at Virginia Tech so still is new to defense … The Giants have enough talent at cornerback with James Bradberry and Adoree’ Jackson to take a chance on Farley, but the 11th overall pick might be too high to roll the dice on a player coming off recent back surgery who probably needs time to grow into the position.