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College Football’s Fractured Season Will Change How the NFL Operates

The college game is the backbone of the pros, providing players, coaches, and ideas. How will the NFL adapt with so much of the college season postponed, or mired in uncertainty?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

College football is the backbone of the professional game. It is where the NFL gets its players, its ideas, and more than a handful of its coaches. It is the NFL’s free minor league that not only develops players but also makes them so famous that the best of them are superstars before they attend a rookie minicamp. The NFL could, conceivably, be the $15-billion-a-year juggernaut it currently is if the college game did not exist, but no one in the league wants to find out. Tuesday was not just an important moment for the college game, as two Power Five conferences scrapped their fall seasons. It represented a shift—perhaps a lasting one—for the pro one.

Here is what we know, which—as with all things related to the COVID-19 pandemic—is constantly evolving and confusing: The Big Ten and Pac 12 will not play this fall. The other major conferences—the SEC, the ACC, and Big 12 are planning to go forward with their seasons perpetually on the brink. Conducting a season with nonprofessional players who are also students on a college campus is a risk, and how many games can be played by the conferences that push forward is unknown. The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach reported that a rare heart condition, myocarditis, which has been found in patients who have had COVID-19, has been detected in several Big Ten athletes. “The conference is aware of at least 10 players who have myocarditis, an alarmingly high number for an otherwise rare condition, on the eve of preseason camp,” Auerbach wrote. The biggest issue, a source from a Power Five conference told Stadium’s Brett McMurphy, “is the unknown long-term impact of COVID [and] liability issues involved.” These concerns have contributed to a wave of postponements thus far.

In conversations with NFL personnel in the past week, it was hard to find a corner of the sport they didn’t think would be touched by these developments. Teams might turn to college coaches as consultants or analysts for pro schemes. College prospects will fall through the cracks of the NFL’s development system. More teams might trade draft picks to avoid a confusing draft cycle. I was on the phone with an NFL general manager on Tuesday when the Big Ten announced its postponement. After I delivered the news, he let out a heavy sigh. Everything, we both knew, was going to change.

The most obvious change is the draft: Even in the best-case scenario for player evaluation—that the SEC, ACC, Big 12, and some smaller conferences press on—NFL evaluators will be missing game film for hundreds of players. In addition, among the conferences that are still on track to play this fall, stars are already announcing their intention to sit out. Defensive end Greg Rousseau is sitting out the season, even if his Miami Hurricanes don’t.

“The most important thing is, we’ve already seen several guys opt out, and the only thing we can control is that they played football in 2019,” Titans general manager Jon Robinson told me Friday. “We do spring scouting where we watch last year’s film, whether those guys were juniors or redshirt sophomores, and are going into their junior or senior year. Well, we watched three games on player A. We’ve got time, so let’s go back and watch the entire season on that player. Maybe there’s a game or a series that will crystallize your evaluation or change your opinion.”

Game tape is invaluable to scouts and GMs, not just for the obvious reasons—to watch prospects play—but for the nuances. Robinson, for instance, likes to gauge a player’s competitiveness by how he performs late in blowouts.

The current collective bargaining agreement calls for the draft to be held no later than June 2. That could be amended, especially if leagues like the Big Ten and Pac-12 attempt to play games in early 2021, but there’s no real reason to draft much beyond that date. The NFL is not going to delay its 2021 season, which is scheduled to start with training camp in July, and teams need to know who is on their roster by then. Setting dates aside, the general consensus in the league is that there’s not an appetite for top prospects to play in the spring. If there is any spring football, but the best players aren’t participating, it might be hard for NFL teams to figure out how much legitimacy to lend it.

“This is going to be complicated,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff told me about the draft cycle. In today’s NFL, a scout is a combination of an evaluator and a researcher, and the researcher side will need to now kick into high gear.

Dimitroff continued: “For scouts, it’s ‘OK, let’s think about digging into research, evaluate all the video you haven’t seen thus far.’ Most scouts have not seen entire seasons from underclassmen. The problem is it’s not going to be fresh for us. College scouting already requires projecting, and now they will have to be even [bolder] in their projections.”

The result will be a deeply unfair evaluation process. Remember, at this time last year, Joe Burrow was not even on draft radars; by January, he was a runaway top pick, a point Burrow himself made earlier this week. Football moves so quickly now that the past three no. 1 selections spent their final year of college answering any and all questions scouts had about them. Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray were not even close to consensus top picks before the final few months of their college careers. It’s a tough bet for any player ready to break out in 2020: Even excelling in a disjointed college season might not be enough to shoot up draft boards in a traditional way.

The reality, of course, is that the pandemic has created deeply unfair circumstances for huge swaths of players. This is true of people in nearly every facet of life. This is, simply, a deeply unfair year. Hundreds of players who in previous years would have tried out for teams as undrafted free agents couldn’t even set foot on a pro field this offseason. Many rookies that were signed as free agents were later cut as teams cut their rosters from 90 players to 80 in order to better socially distance.

In the next draft cycle, any college player on the fringes will miss out on the chance to work out for teams. In the absolute best-case scenario, they’ll have to wait an additional year. Earlier this summer, an NFL team employee compared this year’s rookie class to job seekers graduating into the Great Recession a decade ago. You will never get this chance back. It is a bad time to be a young football player trying to make it.

You might, however, see a little more college football influence in the NFL than you would have otherwise anticipated. The past decade of pro football, schematically, has been defined by the liberal borrowing of college schemes. In short, the scheme world is flat. This evolution always has involved a lot of phone conversations between pro coaches and college coaches about what schemes work and how to implement them. This includes Josh McDaniels and Dan Mullen, or any number of coaches, calling Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley. After Chris Ault, who popularized the pistol offense, retired as Nevada coach, he worked as a consultant with the Chiefs when Alex Smith was their quarterback, helping Andy Reid with schemes that would eventually take over the league. The wrinkle, if more of the college football season is scrapped, is that current coaches would be available for more than a brief chat. They would be available for entire weeks at a time. A handful of NFL decision-makers I spoke with this week said there would be a massive amount of interest in bringing in current college coaches as informal consultants. In fact, teams might recruit them with the same fervor college coaches recruit high schoolers.

“I think people are going to be really focused on doing anything that’s going to create a competitive advantage, and that marginal-gain idea could be getting insight from a college coach who is normally not available except for a quick phone call,” Dimitroff said. (As an aside, “marginal gains” is a reference to Dimitroff’s studying of famed cycling stars Team Sky.)

Teams, of course, need prospects to stay active to get some evaluation. I wondered what that looked like, so I called Quincy Avery, a private quarterback coach who has coached Deshaun Watson, Jalen Hurts, and Dwayne Haskins. Avery told me he has a plan for the college quarterbacks he works with who won’t be playing this fall: He intends to meet them in Atlanta and start working out in late September, installing an NFL-style playbook and recruiting local wideouts and cornerbacks to play seven-on-seven games to get live reps. “We can run the NFL concepts that teams want to see,” Avery told me. Among current college players, Avery has worked with Ohio State’s Justin Fields, Miami’s D’Eriq King, and Boston College’s Anthony Brown, among many others. He said he wants to work with college coaches who have worked in the NFL to flesh out the training program. There are limitations to this plan; Avery said prospects could show off their arm strength but not, say, their pocket presence without full contact. “We’re not going to be able to show a real-life situation where there’s bodies flying everywhere.” He equates these reps to a much more elevated version of a pro day, “with the added element of competition,” he said.

For a generation of prospects, the key this year is to prove themselves when the system to do so has broken. It is tempting to say it will be strange, but that’s too easy. What it will be is extremely 2020.