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The Top 2021 Rookies Took an Unconventional Path to NFL Stardom. Will Anyone Follow Their Lead?

Ja’Marr Chase, Micah Parsons, and Rashawn Slater all opted out of their 2020 college seasons. They were arguably the league’s three best rookies last season. Let’s break down what lessons we can take from their experience—and why the NFL seems so eager to move past them.

Getty Images/AP/Ringer illustration

Right from the start, Northwestern offensive line coach Kurt Anderson knew there was something different about Rashawn Slater. “He has an uncanny ability to take something from the meeting room, he’s never had a rep at it, just a what-if scenario, and when that what-if scenario pops up in a game, he executes it,” Anderson says. “He has immediate recall.”

Normally, offensive lineman is a position with a steep learning curve. Not only do players need to develop physically, by packing on muscle and bulk while remaining lean and powerful, but they also need to master technique and amass a stunning amount of football knowledge. These processes take time. But Slater aced this learning curve—twice. He started in the Big Ten as a true freshman in 2017 and was graded as the top freshman lineman in the country, according to Pro Football Focus. Slater went on to wow NFL scouts with a pair of standout performances against then–Ohio State edge rusher Chase Young in the 2018 Big Ten championship game and in a 2019 regular-season matchup.

That same right-off-the-bat excellence continued after Slater was drafted 13th by the Los Angeles Chargers in 2021. Slater not only emerged as one of the best rookies in his class, but as one of the best linemen in the NFL. He became the first rookie offensive lineman named to the Pro Bowl since Quenton Nelson in 2018; he became the first rookie offensive tackle named to the Pro Bowl in nearly a decade, going back to Matt Kalil in 2012. It’s rare for linemen to thrive as true freshmen in college or as rookies in the pros. Slater did both.

This sounds like a straightforward tale of football dominance. Slater is a massive lineman with great genes (his dad, Reggie, played in the NBA), who powered through college and pro opponents. But there was a critical hiccup in his development process—the same one that interrupted the whole world in 2020. Due to the spread of COVID-19, Slater’s senior season at Northwestern was canceled. Then it was un-canceled. For a moment, the Big Ten seemed poised to play an unusual spring football season as it tried to wait out the virus. How could a player participate in a spring season while simultaneously going through the draft process?

With the expectation that he would likely be a top pick in the 2021 draft, Slater decided to opt out of whatever was going on with the Big Ten and instead focus fully on his draft preparation. “With all the uncertainty around college football, I was going to make the best decision for myself and focus on what was guaranteed: next season,” Slater said in February 2021.

He moved back to his home state of Texas to train with Duke Manyweather, who has become well known for working with top offensive line prospects ahead of the draft. This year, Manyweather worked with Alabama’s Evan Neal, Mississippi State’s Charles Cross, and Northern Iowa’s Trevor Penning, all of whom are projected to become first-round picks.

In most years, that predraft process is a cram session. The college football season ends in January. The NFL combine is in February. Pro days happen in March, and the draft is in April. It’s a sprint, and, well, offensive linemen don’t typically like sprinting. But Slater was able to train with Manyweather for eight months. According to Manyweather, they were together for more than 200 workouts. Instead of getting rusty in his time away from football, Slater actually sharpened his game. “My technique has shot up since the last time I played,” Slater said last March.

This isn’t a knock on Slater’s coaches at Northwestern. Anderson is a former NFL offensive line coach with the Buffalo Bills who previously tutored another first-round pick turned Pro Bowler in Frank Ragnow and has helped Slater’s successor at left tackle, Peter Skoronski, become one of the top-rated offensive linemen in the nation. But college football players have to focus on playing college football games. They have to study game plans and execute. They even have to go to class. A college team may ask a prospect to play to his strengths to help it win games, when the best thing for that prospect may be to work on his weaknesses.

“At the university level, when you’re in-season, you’re focusing on football. Nothing gets in the way of ball,” says Brent Callaway, a performance coach at Exos, a company that trains hundreds of prospects per year for the NFL draft. In a full-time training program, “we don’t have to worry about what we’re going to do at practice or the bumps and bruises from playing Mississippi State last week.”

Slater had reached a point at which he didn’t have much more to gain from college football or getting game reps. And his experience was part of a larger trend that defined the 2021 NFL rookie class. More than 100 FBS players opted out of the 2020 season. (A list from The Athletic counted 140, including some who played a few games but left their college teams midseason.) Of those, eight became first-round picks in the 2021 draft. This group includes some prominent breakout stars.

Like Slater, Micah Parsons had to deal with the Big Ten’s flip-flopping in 2020. After opting out of his final season at Penn State and being drafted by the Cowboys, he thrived. He was unanimously voted the Defensive Rookie of the Year, and was named first-team All-Pro—the first rookie to receive that honor since 2018 and the first unanimous Defensive Rookie of the Year ever. The Offensive Rookie of the Year also didn’t play in the 2020 college football season. After winning the national championship and the Biletnikoff Award in 2019, Ja’Marr Chase opted out of his junior campaign at LSU. According to CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd, Chase didn’t necessarily have health concerns due to the pandemic—he opted out to boost his draft stock. It paid off, as Chase had the second most receiving touchdowns by a rookie in NFL history (behind only Randy Moss) and helped the Bengals make the Super Bowl for the first time since 1989.

Between Parsons, Chase, and Slater, the top three rookies in the NFL last season were all players who did not play college football in 2020. (Don’t take my word for it—look at the rookie rankings.) Fellow opt-outs Jevon Holland and Penei Sewell also made Pro Football Focus’s all-rookie team and were ranked among the top 15 in the rookie rankings, while edge rushers Greg Rousseau and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka were solid contributors to playoff teams.

Skipping a year of college football clearly did not hurt these players’ draft stocks, as NFL front offices were happy to draft them highly. And skipping a year of college football clearly did not hurt these players’ ability to excel on the field. In fact, taking all that time to focus on their own games almost seems to have given them a step up on the prospects who were actually playing the games. Just ask Callaway, who worked with Chase for close to six months—three times as long as the usual Exos pre-combine program.

“Think about the amount of change you can make with a person physically in eight weeks versus 24 weeks, which is almost the amount of time we had with Ja’Marr,” Callaway says. “It’s like rotisserie cooking a chicken versus flash-frying a chicken.”

After watching the opt-outs of 2020 turn into the stars of 2021, it appeared as if the football development industry had discovered a draft hack. Did top prospects gain an advantage by missing a season of college football to prep for the pros? Could this path become the new normal?

Suffice it to say … it does not seem like it. All 100 of the top 100 players on The Ringer’s 2022 Big Board played college football in 2021. And college football always has been resistant to change. Just as NFL fans watched 2020’s college opt-outs thrive in the pros, college football media somehow backtracked into a debate about whether it is acceptable for players to skip bowl games. (I thought we had moved past this years ago!)

As with many aspects of life, the football world seems eager to move past the uncomfortable interruption of COVID and return to its pre-pandemic rhythms. But shouldn’t we take a moment to consider the potentially game-changing implications of the 2021 rookie class?

The process of training players for the NFL combine is wildly profitable. An entire industry has sprouted up to help players improve their 40-yard dash times, vertical leap scores, and positional drill performances. NFL agents pay a fee of up to $25,000 to put their clients through a regimen that ensures they’ll crush the combine. It’s a smart investment: A good combine showing means a better draft position for the player and a bigger commission for the agent. The leader in this field is probably Exos, which trained 174 of the players invited to this year’s combine at four separate facilities.

Normally, each facility hosts dozens of players at a time, and the predraft training cycle lasts about seven weeks. In 2020, however, a handful of prospects trained at the company’s facilities for months. The first to show up was cornerback Caleb Farley, who left Virginia Tech and began working at the Exos location in Pensacola, Florida, in August. By October, Callaway had a small crew of five long-term clients at the facility in Frisco, Texas, including Chase.

Chase worked at Exos for six days a week, gaining muscle and speed. There was no NFL combine in 2021, but Chase clocked the sixth-fastest 40-yard dash and fourth-fastest shuttle time of any prospect in the pro day circuit. A video of Chase’s prep at Exos, titled “Ja’Marr Chase trains like Batman for NFL Draft,” racked up more than 500,000 views on YouTube.

Callaway says the biggest difference between the usual eight-week combine training program and the extended 2020 version was the “acclimation period” at the start. Before players can dive completely into combine prep, they need to adjust their bodies to speed and strength training that they can’t do during the college season. They also need to stop eating “the college kid diet” and start an “all-pro diet,” according to Callaway. With the five long-term clients in 2020, Callaway says, “We could elongate that beginning phase, and that really helped substantially with our athletes. It’s like we were four or five spots ahead of where we would be normally.”

Specifically, Callaway says that Exos was able to use this period to increase Chase’s mobility in certain joints. This “gave him a big leg up when it was time to actually start training for the combine.”

Slater had a similar experience. In addition to his positional work with Manyweather, Slater worked with a training company called Michael Johnson Performance. “We started to notice a tremendous change in his body,” Manyweather said last April on the Chargers’ official podcast. “He went from being a big guy, 310 [pounds], had some size, some muscle, clearly strong as hell, but then, he started to fill out and start to get really muscular and start to get really lean … we checked that box in the first six to eight weeks.”

Callaway is used to working with players who’ve just finished a four-month-long football season. In 2020, he worked with players who had nothing else to do but try to get better as prospects.

“The nature of the college season is to get all of the athletes as ready as they can to play the next game. What we see historically is an athlete starts off up here”—Callaway signals with his hand—“and over the course of the season, they slow down. … For us to be able to reset that and really focus on the athlete’s body and the demands of the NFL combine, they were a big step ahead. They didn’t have to deal with the injuries, they didn’t have to deal with the tactical demands, they didn’t have to deal with the meeting structure.”

This would seem to be a paradigm-shifting finding. And the results from the 2021 season speak for themselves. Except it isn’t that simple. No one—not even Callaway—is endorsing a wholesale change to the draft preparation process as we know it.

The biggest stars of the 2021 draft class were players who took a year off. But the projected top pick in 2022 is another Callaway trainee—and he wasn’t anywhere near the top of draft boards at this time last year.

“Ja’Marr was a special case. … He had won the Biletnikoff, a national championship, and his quarterback [Joe Burrow] had left. He’d achieved everything he’d set out to achieve,” Callaway says. “This year, I had a player named Travon Walker from Georgia. He did not come into this year looking at the Defensive Player of the Year award. He was a guy who had been grinding. And it took him throughout the season to get better. He had to play games to get better.”

Before we draw any long-term conclusions from 2020, let’s remember that 2020 was weird. (Remember Zoom happy hours? Yikes.) At Northwestern, the coaches were able to work with their players more than usual because typical in-season rules didn’t kick in when they weren’t expecting to play a season—something Anderson says gave Slater a leg up. As the season kept getting pushed back, it seemed like games might conflict with the usual draft process. That left Anderson begging Slater … to leave.

“[Head coach Pat Fitzgerald] and I had to convince him the best thing for him was to go,” Anderson says. “At the time, there was no way of knowing if we were going to get this thing off. To put him in that position was unfair. It would’ve been selfish to say, ‘Stay here, be a left tackle.’”

On the one hand, we have Callaway, a combine training guru, insisting that many players would develop best by playing college football instead of going straight to him. On the other hand, we have Anderson, a college football coach, telling his star to maximize his future by leaving college football altogether. The simplest explanation may be that different players require different developmental paths. Anderson relates it to his past life as a teacher. “Everybody learns differently,” he says. “Some people are visual learners, some are audio learners, some are kinesthetic learners, and you’ve got to find out how each of your guys learns to teach the individual.”

It’s easy to see how this logic applies to football. “Some guys need those game reps,” Anderson says. “Some guys, the practice reps are more valuable. Some guys go out from practice to a game and revert back to what feels natural instead of attacking a new technique.”

This year’s NFL draft class includes players with varying backgrounds. Some of the projected first-rounders are 20-year-olds who left school as soon as possible, declaring for the draft after the minimum of three seasons in college. Others are 24-year-olds who stayed five years in college—some of whom transferred, and some of whom took an additional year of eligibility due to COVID. But after seeing the success of the 2020 opt-outs, the sport has gone back to a one-size-fits-all approach to draft prep. Everybody is expected to play college football in their last year before joining the league.

But that may not be what’s best for players like Chase and Parsons, who thrived as true freshmen and were All-Americans as sophomores. Should the next round of sophomores who have already put first-round-caliber performances on tape be forced to play a third college season? And what about players like Slater, who Anderson describes as an instant learner who thrives in individual workouts? For prospects with that learning style, is additional games the best thing for their development?

I can think of three potential alternatives for the football world to consider. The first would be eliminating the rule forcing players to take three years between high school and the pros, most likely by reducing it to two years. Maurice Clarett famously (and unsuccessfully) sued the league to eliminate the rule in 2004; more recently, college coaches like Jim Harbaugh and Les Miles have argued that players should have the right to decide to go pro earlier. In 2015, ESPN reported that “almost no one in the NFL” supported a rule change. But it seemed revolutionary for the league to reduce the requirement from four to three years in 1990. Now juniors declaring early is commonplace.

The NFL could also keep its three-year rule, but take a more active role in guiding prospects from high school to the pros. This would be similar to what the NBA has done: The league has kept its famous one-and-done rule, but started the G League Ignite program, in which top prospects get paid to spend a year playing in the NBA’s minor league. Yes, they have to play games, but the focus is on their own personal development rather than, say, making the Elite Eight. In the program’s first year, it produced Jalen Green, who was the no. 2 pick in the 2021 NBA draft and looked like one of the league’s best rookies. This could also benefit players who have already played three college seasons, like Slater—and even those who have already played in the league but are pursuing additional growth.

And, of course, there is an option already available: It is totally legal for players to take a year off from college football to prepare for the draft just like Slater, Parsons, and Chase did. The circumstances that forced these players into their alternate paths may have been unusual, but there’s no reason this path can’t be replicated and perfected moving forward. By thriving as rookies, this trio unwittingly created a blueprint for taking an unconventional route to the pros.

But while this route is still possible, it seems to have quickly become viewed as unacceptable. Nobody has followed their lead. And while no one is arguing that opting out of college football should become the new normal for the majority of players—it’s clear how much the college game offers to many prospects—we just saw the impact that taking a new path had on some of the sport’s most promising players.

It is daunting to consider new options for developing football prospects when the current model is so popular, but these players just took one. Yet instead of asking what we can learn from the 2021 rookie class, the football world seems set to complete its own opt-out: This could be an opportunity to examine whether the draft prep process could be improved. Instead, the NFL is ignoring those lessons and reverting back to old rhythms.