The 2021 NFL Draft process was rather unlike any that we have seen in some time, perhaps ever. It was the first college football season played with the modern-era’s infrastructure that took place during a global pandemic, which had wide-reaching implications on the ease of availability of access and information.
It also, to put it simply, ended a lot of players’ college careers, in one way or another. In the cases of many, they participated in conferences who elected not to play ball in 2020, or who originally made that decision only to try to work their way back, at which point a number of prominent athletes had already made the decision to declare for the draft. Other players simply opted not to play through a pandemic.
Whatever the reason might be, the Pittsburgh Steelers were among those teams who are clearly on record as saying that recent participation — in other words, those who had 2020 tape, and quality tape — would have a slight advantage in their evaluation process, something head coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged after the draft, and which he volunteered in response to a question about whether or not they prioritized seniors.
“I know that we really were interested in guys that had an opportunity to play in 2020,” he said. “No disrespect to those who didn’t play in 2020, or who participated in conferences who had uncertainty in that area. We just had a certain level of comfort with people who had fluid resumes and participation in 2020.”
I don’t have an exact count on the number of players who opted out last season who ended up being drafted. I know that Caleb Farley was among the most prominent players, and he managed to be drafted in the first round. I’m sure somebody will study and publish this information to view. All nine of the Steelers’ draft picks played last season.
“When it was close, as [general manager Kevin Colbert] had mentioned on several occasions leading up to this weekend, we were going to lean toward those who played in 2020,” Tomlin added, referring to both pre-draft comments and remarks even dating back to last year that Colbert had made, reflecting a consistent position.
Prior to the draft, the Steelers also made sure to make it clear that by no means were they averse to drafting a player who did not participate last season, but simply that having done so would serve as a tiebreaker for players who had similar evaluations that were otherwise too close to call.
A part of me does wonder what would have happened if Najee Harris were drafted, but Farley were available, when the Steelers picked at 24, but in truth I have no idea how they rated Farley, and the reality is that they allowed the cornerback position to go unaddressed until the seventh round. So who knows how much they felt they needed help there.