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Opt out rookies shined in NFL debuts, so tell me again why Bryce Young is playing at Alabama next season
I’ve written about this once already before and I think being repetitive about this topic is going to be a good thing. The NFL needs to change its draft rules and keep up with modern times because like so much else in 2022, we aren’t living by the same standards and adjustments are necessary.
If Bryce Young was eligible for the 2022 NFL Draft, he would be the number one overall pick. The Jaguars would probably make a pick swap with the Lions at number two, potentially receiving Detroit’s first round pick that they acquired from the Rams for Matthew Stafford, and now Jacksonville, Detroit, and Los Angeles would all have their franchise quarterbacks.
Instead, the top pick will be Evan Neal or Aidan Hutchinson or Kayvon Thibodeaux or who knows because the 2022 class lacks an elite quarterback prospect like Young or C.J. Stroud. Why?
Quite literally the only reason for this is because Bryce Young graduated high school in 2020 instead of 2019. Young, who will be 21 in July (the same age that Trevor Lawrence was last July), just didn’t graduate early enough. For that reason, the Heisman winner who passed for 800 yards in two games against the top-ranked college defense of the decade, will attempt to win another Heisman instead of rookie of the year.
Why? In part because Bryce Young didn’t have a “Bryce Young” to necessarily compare himself to in these rapidly evolving times. You know who did? Quinn Ewers. The top-ranked quarterback prospect in all of college, Ewers made sure to get out of high school as early as he could and not only did that reap him over $1 million in NIL deals before his first college snap, it could also get him an early start on the NFL; Ewers recently transferred to Texas and he will be paired with receiver Xavier Worthy, another prospect who is two years removed from a guaranteed top-10 selection—if only nothing disastrous happens.
Again I ask… why?
I believe the answer to that question, in its simplest form is, “Because that’s the way that it is.” We all know that historically speaking, rookies have been vastly overmatched by veterans and generally can get embarrassed early in their careers regardless of how good they are going to be, and in a violent collision sport like football I suppose that has made it seem “dangerous” for young men.
I do not know why it would be more dangerous at 20 than at 21, or why it would matter if you were two years or three years out of high school, but that is essentially what the NFL rule seems to be “protecting” prospects from. For years this was what I heard: “Herschel Walker is the only player who could have gone from high school straight into the NFL.”
It sounds nice, sure, but it is a) unverifiable and b) inconsequential in deciding whether or not Bryce Young or Xavier Worthy or Texas running back Bijan Robinson should be allowed to start their pro careers in 2022 instead of 2023 or 2024.
I mean what is “Ja’Marr Chase” as a football prospect if not someone who went from a four-star recruit in 2018 to catching 20 touchdowns with 1,780 yards for LSU in 2019 to a gym rat who was out of football in 2020 to a top-five wideout in the NFL in 2021? That is what Ja’Marr Chase is and why he wasn’t in the NFL in 2020 is a matter for the NFL to answer.
Under a better system, Chase could have been drafted by the Lions, Giants, or Dolphins in 2020 as a 20-year-old and he would’ve been the same age as Kyle Pitts and Penei Sewell in the 2021 draft. What was he being “protected” from other than the rights to 10s of millions of dollars at a time when he was worth that much to a team? And what do Pitts and Sewell prove if not that 20-year-olds CAN become acclimated and successful in the NFL immediately.
On Tuesday, the PFWA released their All-Rookie rosters and guess what? All four elite 2020 opt outs — Ja’Marr Chase, Penei Sewell, Micah Parsons, Rashawn Slater — made the list. So did Pitts, who eclipsed 1,000 yards in his first season with the Falcons.
Pitts, Chase, Parsons, and slater were all named to the Pro Bowl roster as rookies; Parsons was named a first-team All-Pro and is in the running to be the Defensive Player of the Year. He didn’t even play in 2020 and the talk leading up to the draft, whether people choose to remember or not, was that maybe these “opt out guys” would not be worth what they seemed to be worth on paper.
Gregory Rousseau, another opt out who went in the first round, said that every team without fail questioned him about opting out. It was common for players to be questioned, if not given red flags, for choosing to protect their interests for a long-term goal.
First the team officials on his Zoom screen start with small talk, lobbing softballs about his football background. “Like, ‘Walk me through your high school, walk me through getting recruited to Miami,’ ” says Rousseau, 21, a Coconut Creek, Fla., native whose 15.5 sacks as a sophomore in 2019 ranked second nationwide. Then the officials scooch closer to their cameras and someone segues with an ominous Soo . . . Rousseau knows what is next. “They always ask why I opted out,” he says. “It’s like clockwork.”
Rousseau, who turned 21 during the month of the draft, was a solid rotational player on the defensive line for a team that nearly beat the Chiefs on Sunday to go to the AFC Championship. I can’t think of a single reason that he’s been hurt by opting out of his final college season or why he’s not on a better path by getting to the NFL sooner.
Ambry Thomas, a 2020 opt out who was picked in the third round by the 49ers (by the way, it doesn’t seem like any prospect actually fell because of not having that additional season of tape; Thomas was a third round pick to begin with and Chase, Parsons, Sewell, Slater all went in the top-13) said that teams were especially skeptical of his opt out.
Ambry Thomas, who skipped his senior year at Michigan in part due to his ulcerative colitis, which requires him to take immunosuppressants, recounts a testy exchange that began when brass from an NFC team asked whether the defensive back considered himself a team player. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, without a doubt,’ ” Thomas, 21, says. “They were like, ‘Why did you opt out, then?’ And then they just started ramming me.”
Despite being a third round rookie, Thomas became a starting cornerback for San Francisco beginning in Week 14 and has been praised as one of the Niners best options at the position already. John Lynch called him a “starting corner for years to come” in December and Thomas’s injury status for Sunday’s championship game (he has a bone bruise) is a major sticking point for the Niners’ plans to beat the Rams.
So… NFL… what exactly are we talking about here with the three-year rule and the dangers of “not getting all the college football experience that is necessary”? Is this really the way of the world in 2022?
The pandemic has forced a lot of industries to reconsider how they do business, including the NFL. The NFL Draft will be forever changed in a number of ways. Teams will now do some things virtually for as long as we have a virtual world. Rosters have expanded, practice squads have expanded, players are making their season debuts in JANUARY because of new rules, and college football players can now make millions of dollars without having to do a damn thing other than grab five stars from some random recruiting website that probably never even watched them play in person.
The pandemic also forced some elite football prospects to sit out and unlike the cautionary tales like Maurice Clarett and Mike Williams, we now have direct contradictory evidence that another year of college football—and in some cases two—is only benefitting one entity: College football.
The NCAA has enough. They won’t be lacking great players like maybe college basketball has over the last decade because of evolving NBA rules and traditions. There are far too many football players, far too many recruiting sites that got it wrong, and far too many fans for it to matter if the game has one less Ja’Marr Chase or one less Micah Parsons or one less Bryce Young.
As we’ve seen, those guys didn’t need college football as much as college football needed them. I don’t need to see Bryce Young play for Alabama next season and neither do the Detroit Lions. The reasons that he’s not in the draft — maybe it’s time we opt out of those.
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