Jaelan Phillips and Gregory Rousseau are both long, explosive and relentless. They can blow past linemen, corral quarterbacks and chase down ball carriers. They had similar production (1.5 tackles for loss per game) playing the same position (defensive lineman) at the same school (Miami) wearing the same jersey number (15).
With one significant difference: Phillips put up his monster numbers last year; Rousseau didn’t. While Phillips was finally living up to his five-star potential as a second-team All-American, Rousseau was watching from afar as one of the sport’s most high-profile opt-outs.
That puts the Hurricanes’ two projected first-round picks at the center of a variable that has even confounded ESPN analyst Mel Kiper.
“How you factor in the opt-outs against the guys that played …” Kiper said, “is going to be the most interesting storyline of this draft.”
It’s not just Rousseau vs. Phillips. At least a half-dozen first-round hopefuls sat out all of 2020, while a handful of other top-40 prospects left their teams during the regular season.
Their decisions give the Bucs and every other team differing, if not incomplete, sets of data. Front offices must evaluate the risks and rewards of a player’s potential based on year-old film and pro day performances.
The result is another layer of uncertainty thrown atop an already uncertain process — an only-in-a-pandemic dynamic with millions of dollars and the future of franchises at stake.
It started (sort of) with Leonard Fournette
When Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey skipped their bowl games in 2016, no one knew how NFL teams would respond. Would front offices view those choices as understandable business decisions or the red flag of a quitter?
The league shrugged. After both running backs were drafted in the top eight, skipping bowl games became commonplace. But sitting out for an entire year didn’t become viable until the pandemic hit.
The reasons differed by player. Opting out allowed Rousseau to help his mother, a nurse, retire early from the COVID-19 frontlines. Others did so because of money (preseason All-American Jaylen Twyman from Pitt), concern over family members’ health (likely first rounder Caleb Farley from Virginia Tech) lingering midseason injuries (Florida State receiver Tamorrion Terry) or simply to get a jumpstart on draft prep (FSU cornerback Asante Samuel).
College football’s collective indecision — like the Big Ten and Pac-12 canceling, then restarting their seasons — played a significant role, too.
“I didn’t feel comfortable going out there to play if they weren’t comfortable with us being out there playing,” said defensive back Ambry Thomas, a Day 3 prospect from Michigan.
By sitting out, Thomas and others no longer had to accept the extra risk of injury or illness, nor did they have to endure the season’s start-and-stop chaos. Instead, without a weekly opponent to prepare for, they could concentrate on themselves.
“Opting out, that gave me time to focus on the things that I needed to improve on my game,” said receiver Nico Collins, an early-round prospect from Michigan.
For Collins, that meant refining his route running. For Rousseau, it was increasing his flexibility.
Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater said the individualized training he received in Texas “definitely works to my advantage” as he vies to be the first offensive tackle off the board.
“Every single day I was learning something new,” Slater said.
Slater believes that knowledge has made him a better player. Maybe it will allow him to contribute more as a rookie or extend his career.
But how much will it help him on draft day?
Less information, more risk
As talented as some of the opt-outs are, their non-existent 2020 film creates an extra risk teams have to assess.
“A lot can change with the player between 2019 and now,” Bucs general manager Jason Licht said, “especially if they haven’t been playing and they’ve just been training.”
Teams don’t know how Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell, LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase and Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons would have progressed or regressed from All-America 2019 seasons. They’re stuck assessing eight-figure investments based on old information.
“We’re talking about top-10, top-15 players that you haven’t seen in over a year,” ESPN analyst Todd McShay said.
Rousseau is even riskier. Because he only made two appearances during his redshirt 2018 season, his resume consists of 13 games in 2019.
“I don’t have a lot of film, but I feel like I showed a lot in the times that I did play,” Rousseau said.
He did; his 15 1/2 sacks trailed only Chase Young (Washington’s No. 2 overall pick last year). But it’s still only one year, making his sample size outdated and small.
That puts a greater emphasis on Rousseau’s pro-day performance, which carries another pandemic-related challenge.
Because the traditional scouting combine was canceled, the apples-to-apples comparison of prospects doing the same drills on the same day at the same location no longer exists. Instead, teams must gauge players’ measurables on pro days that take place in different conditions across the country.
The numbers, McShay said, aren’t comparable. And in at least one notable case, they don’t exist at all.
After leaving Virginia Tech, Farley said he put “a lot of bank in” his pro day. Except he was unable to participate in it after having surgery on a pre-existing back issue.
“Really the only negative about (opting out) is just not being able to go put up numbers that I was supposed to go put up,” Farley said.
We don’t yet know how much, if at all, that negative will hurt his draft stock. Before Farley’s surgery, Kiper said another year of solid production would have solidified him as a top-10 pick. Instead, Kiper sees Farley going later in the first round — a potential multi-million-dollar slide. Then again, if Farley had played and gotten ill or injured, he might have fallen even more.
All the uncertainty leads to an array of yet-to-be-answered questions. Kiper wonders whether the incomplete evaluations will cause some lower-tier opt-outs to drop an entire round. Will the extra risk lead some teams to trade out of this year’s draft and into next year when the process, hopefully, is more normal?
“If you have a similar grade on a guy that didn’t play in 2020 versus a guy that did play in 2020, you’re going to probably go with the guy that played this season,” McShay said, “because you just feel like you have more information on him.”
Which makes Miami’s No. 15 from 2020 seem a lot more appealing than the one from 2019.
2021 NFL Mock Draft: Trades shake up first round
2021 NFL Mock Draft: Trades shake up first round
6. Miami from Philadelphia (4-11-1) — Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama, Jr.
It's scary that a 10-win team with such a good coach and plenty of young talent also has four picks in the top 50. The Dolphins are desperate for wide receivers who can get open and it's clear that will be the target here (or they wouldn't have made this deal with the Eagles). Miami mimics Cincinnati by reuniting a top receiving prospect with his old college quarterback. A healthy Waddle is the most explosive all-around athlete at receiver in this class and his addition will only expedite former Crimson Tide teammate Tua Tagovailoa's development. Top needs: WR, RB, LB
7. Detroit (5-11) — Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon, Jr.
In most drafts, Sewell would be the consensus No. 1 overall pick and he'd pair nicely with Taylor Decker, giving the Lions bookend tackles. The 2019 Outland Trophy winner — he opted out last season due to the threat of COVID-19 — isn't flawless, but his ceiling is as high as they come (he'll only be 21 in October). Top needs: WR, LB, DB
9. Denver (5-11) — Micah Parsons, LB, Penn St., Jr.
A classic Vic Fangio defense usually features a playmaking linebacker at its core. Parsons is another elite prospect who opted out of the 2020 season, citing "the potential risk to the health and well-being" of his young son due to COVID. He recently dazzled scouts with a 4.39 40-yard dash at his pro day. This would be the first time in my lifetime the first defensive player off the board lasts this long. Top needs: Edge, OT, LB
11. N.Y. Giants (6-10) — Kwity Paye, Edge, Michigan, Sr.
The Giants are in need of another pass rushing threat to go opposite Leonard Williams. Paye is already an impressive run defender against the spread offense, which is becoming increasingly important in the NFL, and there are athletic indicators he will continue to improve as a pass rusher. Top needs: OL, Edge, LB
12. Philadelphia from Miami through San Francisco (6-10) — DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama, Sr.
Is it me or does it seem like the Eagles are always in need of help at receiver? The Heisman winner took his game to another level after Waddle was sidelined in 2020 — he had 1,300 yards on 72 receptions and 19 touchdowns in his last eight games. The only blemish is his size. Top needs: WR, CB, LB
13. L.A. Chargers (7-9) — Rashawn Slater, OL, Northwestern, Sr.
Signing All-Pro center Corey Linsley is a step in the right direction for a very bad offensive line. Slater opted out this season due to COVID, but handled the mighty Chase Young as a junior while playing left tackle and didn't allow a single sack his last season. He's versatile and talented enough to play all five offensive line positions. He did nothing during his pro day to hurt himself. Top needs: OL, CB, DL
14. Minnesota (7-9) — Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech, Sr.
Coach Mike Zimmer didn't hold back when he called his defense the "worst one I've ever had," but the offensive line is priority here considering the Vikings don't have a pick in the second round. Darrisaw would be the first Hokie offensive lineman to be drafted in the first round since 2008 ( Duane Brown). Top needs: OL, S, Edge
16. Arizona (8-8) — Najee Harris, RB, Alabama, Sr.
If you're a fantasy player who is excited about Chase Edmonds' potential as a featured back now that Kenyan Drake has moved on, don't get your hopes up. Harris has evolved into an all-around threat. Of course, he's a powerful runner with his size (6-foot-2, 230 pounds), but he's also developed into a great receiver out of the backfield and he's improved significantly in pass-protection. Top needs: CB, RB, OL
17. Las Vegas (8-8) — Trevon Moehrig-Woodard, S, TCU, Jr.
The Raiders must address their atrocious secondary. Moehrig-Woodard's skillset is scheme-proof. He's a hard hitter who led all safeties in pass breakups in each of the past two seasons. Top needs: OT, S, LB
18. Miami (10-6) — Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson, Sr.
One way to alleviate the pressure off of a young quarterback is to give him a dynamic running back who is a three-down threat and capable of scoring every time the ball is in his hands. Etienne, a three-time All-American and the ACC's career rushing leader, fits the bill perfectly. Top needs: WR, RB, LB
19. Washington (7-9) — Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame, Sr.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say Taylor Heinicke isn't the quarterback of the future for the Football Team — or Ryan Fitzpatrick for that matter — but there's not a QB on the board worthy of this pick. Owusu-Koramoah is an explosive athlete who can make plays from sideline-to-sideline. The ACC Defensive Player of the Year also won the Butkus Award (nation's top linebacker) and was a consensus All-American. Top needs: QB, LB, Edge
21. Indianapolis (11-5) — Azeez Ojulari, Edge, Georgia, So.
I expected the Colts to be aggressive seeking their next quarterback in the trade market and they didn't disappoint. The next biggest priority is to continue building their pass rush. Ojulari was a semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award (the nation's top defensive player) with 8.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and 25 quarterback hurries. He's only scratching the surface of his talent. Top needs: Edge, OT, CB
22. Tennessee (11-5) — Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina, Jr.
The Titans will need to address their secondary (after releasing Kenny Vaccaro and Malcolm Butler) in a major way. Horn — his father Joe was a Pro Bowl wide receiver — is a very talented, uber-aggressive press corner with elite speed, good size (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) and can make plays in run support. Top needs: WR, CB, DT
23. N.Y. Jets from Seattle (12-4) — Jaelan Phillips, Edge, Miami, Jr.
If past is prologue, once head coach Robert Saleh has his quarterback situation figured out, he'll focus on building a pass rush. Phillips stepped up in Gregory Rousseau's absence after transferring from UCLA. The former highly-touted recruit is a relentless pass rusher who produced eight sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in 10 games as a Hurricane. Top needs: QB, OT, LB
24. Pittsburgh (12-4) — Alijah Vera-Tucker, OL, USC, Jr.
The Steelers are facing difficult decisions at almost every major position after this season, but it's clear the offensive line has to be a priority. Vera-Tucker was one of the best offensive tackles in the country, but could also shine on the interior in the NFL. Top needs: OT, RB, LB
26. Cleveland (11-5) — Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa, Jr.
The Browns need to upgrade their pass rush outside of Myles Garrett, but they also need to improve their linebacker corps. Collins has the size (6-4, 260), athleticism and positional flexibility that will cause most defensive coordinators to drool. He received the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, awarded by the Football Writers Association of America to the top defensive player in college football. Top needs: LB, Edge, DL
27. Baltimore (11-5) — Gregory Rousseau, Edge, Miami, So.
Yannick Ngakoue and Matt Judon are gone. It's been almost two decades since a Hurricane defensive end was taken in the first round ( Jerome McDougle in 2003). Rousseau finished with 15.5 sacks in 13 games as a redshirt freshman, but opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. Top needs: Edge, C, LB
28. New Orleans (12-4) — Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue, So.
Emmanuel Sanders' release and no money for free agency might necessitate this move. Moore would be a nice fit opposite a healthy Michael Thomas. An impressive pro day should boost him into the back-end of the first round. Top needs: QB, DB, WR
30. Buffalo (13-3) — Jaylen Mayfield, OL, Michigan, Jr.
Offensive tackle Daryl Williams was resigned, but the Bills still need to address the interior. Mayfield features the versatility and athleticism to thrive in offensive coordinator Brian Daboll's system. Top needs: DL, G, CB
31. Kansas City (14-2) — Samuel Cosmi, OT, Texas, Jr.
The greatness of Patrick Mahomes has made up for the mediocrity of his offensive line since he became the starter. Joe Thuney was a nice addition at guard. Cosmi is capable of starting at right tackle day one, but has the ability to protect Mahomes' blindside eventually. Top needs: OT, LB, WR