One of the many unusual ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic that so defined the lives of virtually everybody last year is the fact that it left so many people in so many different fields with choices to make about the risk and reward of continuing their path or putting it on hold.
Every major sports league in the United States offered players in some form or fashion the ability to opt out of the 2020 season without penalty. Some NCAA players also made the decision to skip the season, including some top-rated players who have declared for the 2021 NFL Draft.
According to Pro Football Talk, at least one owner of an NFL team that holds a Top 10 pick in this month’s draft has expressed some reservations over committing draft resources to a player who made the decision to opt out of the season a year ago.
As it stands, the teams drafting in the top 10 are the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons, Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Doolphins, Detroit Lions, Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos, and Dallas Cowboys.
(I don’t think anybody would be surprised if it were Jerry Jones).
Last month, the Las Vegas Raiders released three players who decided to opt out of the 2020 season. They are the only three players for the Raiders who opted out. All three were fringe roster candidates to begin with, but the optics of the move did raise some eyebrows.
Collegiate players’ decisions to opt out have raised from eyebrows with NFL teams as well, in one sense or another. Cornerback Caleb Farley, perhaps the most high-profile player to opt out, said a number of teams asked him questions about his choice during the pre-draft process.
“It was something that I couldn’t ignore it, you know, I didn’t have peace about the situation,” he said, about his decision to opt out. “It didn’t matter if I was the only one. I had to play it cautious. That’s just what I felt in my heart. And I don’t want to look back and regret.”
He was far from the only college player to decide not to play, of course. Every single team in the NFL except for the Pittsburgh Steelers had at least one player make the decision to opt out, though former Steelers tackle Marcus Gilbert was among those to opt out.
While there is this report of one owner expressing reservations about players who opted out, I’m quite certain that that’s far from a unique circumstance. Ohio State head coach Ryan Day drew some heat earlier this year for comments made about such players, defending quarterback Justin Fields’ work ethic while calling into question the love for the game of those who decided not to play. “You don’t love the game if you’re doing something like that,” he said.
Fair or not, it’s unavoidable that people in positions that afford them the power to make decisions for NFL teams will have opinions about players who chose not to play football last season. Nobody will ever overtly admit it. But it will certainly be interesting to see how the draft positions of notable opt-outs play out relative to what is expected.