Effect Of COVID-19, NIL On NFL Draft

The NCAA has effected many changes of late in college football and, while they ultimately won’t change the overall talent pool in the NFL, there is a latent period of adjustment that the NFL will live within for the next few years. The biggest difference during this adjustment period is the thinning of the talent pool behind projected Day One draft picks, according to Jason La Canfora of The Washington Post, specifically the quarterback talent pool.

The changes that have created this lag in middle-class talent are ones that make it more attractive for players to stay in college longer. For instance, the NCAA granted every college athlete an extra year of eligibility when many sports lost a full season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Athletes are initially given four years of eligibility with the opportunity to take a redshirt year and extend their eligibility to five years. Sometimes medical redshirts are granted for season-ending injuries or other serious situations. Most athletes who exhaust their eligibility play four to five years, while a select few sometimes play six seasons.

There are extremely rare cases that exceed even this. University of Miami tight end Cam McCormick is such a case as he prepares for his eighth season as a college athlete. After originally signing with Oregon, McCormick redshirted his first year in 2016, appeared in seven games as a redshirt freshman in 2017, received a medical redshirt after suffering a season-ending injury in the Ducks’ first game of 2018 as a redshirt sophomore, missed the entire 2019 season due to injury as a redshirt junior, sat out the entire 2020 COVID season as a redshirt senior, once again suffered a season-ending injury in the 2021 season opener as a sixth-year senior, and utilized his extra year of eligibility from COVID-19 to play as a seventh year senior in 2022, appearing in all 13 games.

McCormick utilized his regular redshirt, his medical redshirt, and his extra year of COVID eligibility to play seven seasons in Eugene and still missed two of his eligible seasons due to injuries suffered in the season opener. Before his decision to transfer to the Hurricanes, the NCAA granted McCormick two more years of eligibility for those two lost seasons, meaning, this season, the 24-year-old will be an eighth-year senior, and he will be eligible to return as a ninth-year senior in 2024. This is a clear example, albeit an egregious one, of how the NCAA’s allowance of extra eligibility keeps a player in college long after they would otherwise have exhausted their allowable years.

Another way players have found their way to staying in college longer is through the transfer portal. Transfers have often been a helpful tool for college athletes who find themselves in unfavorable situations due to coaching dismissals or slipping down the depth chart. There have long been stories of success from players who decided to make the move to start over at a new school.

Recent changes to transfer rules have made transfers much more prevalent in the sport. Before the changes, coaches had the ability to block certain schools as transfer destinations and many players were forced to sit out for a year, causing many to reconsider a change of scenes. But with waivers available to help athletes play immediately and full and open recruiting of players in the transfer portal, the prospect of changing schools becomes much more attractive.

An old trend would see players who had started for two or three years declare early for the NFL draft even if they likely weren’t a top selection because they saw the writing on the wall that they would be losing playing time to an underclassman. These days, those same players will instead choose to transfer and spend their last few years of eligibility with a school that will allow them to continue to develop and display their ability before potentially going to the NFL.

Lastly, the newest (and most drastic) change in college football: Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL). NIL allows college players to profit off of their personal brand through sponsorships and other similar types of deals. This perhaps affects the NFL talent pool the most.

Many different situations used to lead to players declaring early for the draft for financial reasons. Sometimes an injury-prone player would accept their place as a middle-round draft pick just so that they could sign a multi-year contract and guarantee themselves a paycheck, rather than waste a potential healthy year in college where they can only benefit off of their scholarship. Similarly, underclassmen who had phenomenal years and don’t want to risk losing draft stock by playing another year unpaid in college would declare early and, again, ensure the money in hand, even if it wasn’t top-end money.

Those same players now have motivation to stay and play in college with a paycheck. NIL deals have made it possible for star college players to make potential millions of dollars while still in college. Those players with impressive underclassmen seasons that are worried about the risk of losing stock in the following year now are able to get paid while potentially increasing their draft stock even more with another strong year.

All of these factors have led to players staying in college for longer tenures, and this is the first year that we’re seeing it truly affect the depth of the draft’s talent pool. An agent that normally represents what he calls “a middle class of quarterbacks” spoke under the condition of anonymity and said, “I counted like 19 kids who would usually at least think about declaring for the draft who decided to stay in school.”

The agent believes that after the first round, prospects like Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett and TCU quarterback Max Duggan won’t hear their names called until the third day of the draft. Quarterbacks projected as Day Two picks like Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa, Oregon’s Bo Nix, and South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler are finding it more and more enticing to stay in college and earn NIL money while they attempt to improve their draft stocks.

This won’t last forever. The lag in talent will eventually catch up to the draft in a few years, negating this effect. Until then, though, NFL teams will face a new, significant challenge in finding a wealth of talent in the middle rounds of the draft.

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