NCAA eligibility decision leaves 2021 NFL Draft pool murky

The COVID-19 pandemic added another layer of complication to the 2021 NFL Draft on Friday when the NCAA Division I Board of Directors adopted a recommendation to provide an additional year of eligibility to all fall sports athletes, whether they compete in the 2020-21 academic year or not.

According to the NCAA’s release, which announced an assortment of adopted recommendations, “all fall sport student-athletes will receive both an additional year of eligibility and an additional year in which to complete it.”

The upshot for the draft is this: prospects who are seniors now have the option of returning to college for another season next year, which creates uncertainty for the 2021 draft pool and begs a range of questions that don’t yet have answers.

Among them:

  • What type of prospect would benefit most from an extra year?
  • How might seniors returning to college impact the quality of talent available in the draft?
  • At what point will the NFL require seniors to decide whether they’ll enter the draft?

“Every time something changes, it’s like 10 tentacles pop out. There are a lot of different variables,” said an NFC area scout.

Upper-tier senior prospects who have a good chance to be selected early in the 2021 draft aren’t likely to find the attraction of returning to college as appealing. But seniors who project as middle-to-late round selections in the draft figure to have a different outlook. They’ll now have the chance to improve their draft stock — be it by proving recovery from injury, sharpening their athleticism or rebounding from a underwhelming season — by returning in 2021.

Simply building a larger library of game tape would be of value, as well.

“There’s not much (draft) benefit in it for a senior who’s been a three- or four-year starter, because those guys are who they are,” said an AFC area scout. “But if you’re talking about a one-year starter, it allows them to continue developing and could make a real difference.”

The NCAA ruling’s effect on the level of talent in the 2021 draft depends on how many seniors stay in college and instead look to the 2022 draft. But it’s the end of the draft, not the beginning, where the difference would manifest.

“It might scope things down some. It could cause there to be some overdrafted players, because if a lot of seniors who would normally be fifth-, sixth-round guys decide to go back for another senior year, that’s going to mean guys who would otherwise be undrafted free agents will get picked,” said the NFC scout.

The option for seniors to return could also reduce the field for the 2021 Reese’s Senior Bowl, but it might make that pool all the stronger in 2022 as fifth-year seniors vie for invitations to the annual all-star game with fourth-year seniors.

The NFL faces a decision as well, on when seniors will be required to make their intentions known. Multiple scouts expect that seniors whose schools compete in the fall would likely face a deadline similar to the normal deadline for underclassmen in mid-January. But for those whose schools will play a winter or spring schedule after postponing the fall season due to the pandemic, the league could set a later deadline for both seniors and underclassmen, allowing prospects to make a more informed decision about draft entry.

As all players, not just seniors, have been granted another year of eligibility, the NCAA’s move could impact future drafts as well. The NFL rule requiring players be three years removed from high school for draft eligibility is a clock that continues to tick, but underclassmen now also have an extra year to play with in considering whether to enter the draft.

Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter @ChaseGoodbread.

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