The NFL Draft is a little over a week away, and teams are putting the finishing touches on their draft boards.
This has been a challenging offseason for the NFL college talent evaluators with the cancelation of February's NFL Scouting Combine due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Teams have to rely on pro day workouts and virtual meetings to try and get a good grasp on this year's prospects.
One other unique area teams have had to navigate this offseason is the evaluation of players who opted out of the 2020 season due to the pandemic.
"I don't want to say that you punish a player for doing an opt-out," Lions general manager Brad Holmes said this offseason. "At the end of the day, there's some very good football players that have chosen to opt out. It just makes sure that it actually holds you more accountable from an evaluation standpoint and a process standpoint, which that's what we're doing."
Some of the players that opted out of the 2020 college football season are expected to be selected high in next week's draft in Cleveland, like LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell, Northwestern offensive tackle Rashawn Slater, Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley and Miami edge rusher Gregory Rousseau, just to name a few.
Chase, Sewell, Slater and Parsons could all be players the Lions consider with the No. 7 overall pick. What will be interesting to see is how teams will approach players with similar grades on their board, but one played in 2020 and the other opted out. Teams have more information and more tape on the one who played in 2020. Will that make a difference in the selection?
"I've spent more time going back to 2019, the year before, more than I ever have in my process, and just trying to get a feel for players I haven't seen in over a year," ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said in a conference call earlier this month.
"Talking to guys in the league – general managers and head coaches – everyone is just kind of, I don't want to say frustrated, but it's so different than what you're used to having. Normally, you've got 12 to 15 games that you've just seen of these players. We're talking about top 10, top 15 players that you haven't seen in over a year, so it's challenging. There's a difference between working out and being in good shape and football shape.
"If you have a similar grade on a guy that didn't play in 2020 vs. a guy that played in 2020, you're probably going to go with the guy that played this past season because you feel you have more information on him."
The opt-outs and the other challenges the 2020 college football season faced has put more pressure on NFL scouts, general managers and coaches to do even more homework this season, especially on the players they haven't seen on the field since 2019.
"It hasn't deterred us in any part of the process in terms of he's going to get punished or he's going to get pushed down the line because he has been an opt-out," Holmes said. "It's no different than, let's say there's a unique case where a player could not be eligible to play this season.
"It's definitely more unique than what we've experienced. But again, I think it's going to hold you accountable to make sure you have a very, very dialed in process from an evaluation process, which is what we're doing right now."