Should the Steelers Avoid Drafting Players Who Opted Out?

During his annual pre-draft press conference on Monday that co-starred head coach Mike Tomlin, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert did was he usually does: He said a whole lot of nothing and did so quite well.

 

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2019 pre draft press conference

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their 2019 pre draft press conference.

Don’t get me wrong, Colbert enlightened the media and fans with a lot of his answers, but he didn’t necessarily shed more light on any particular topic that folks were interested in.

For example, will the Steelers trade up or back? He said some stuff, mostly about Pittsburgh probably not trading up, but what else was he supposed to say? Why would a general manager tip his or her hand about the team’s desire to trade in any direction in the days leading up to the NFL Draft? The second a gm seems eager to make a trade, that gm loses a ton of leverage. Colbert said a bunch of other stuff, including his thoughts on the draft depth at various positions. For example, inside linebacker is deep, but defensive line is not.

  • I believe even the casual draft fans already knew that.

Colbert also didn’t rule out the possibility of the Steelers drafting a running back in the first round and that the team, despite the popular opinion out there that the position has severely slipped in value over the years, will pick the player that it thinks is the best one at 24 regardless of the position. Ah, yes, the old Colbert pre-draft standby: “We recognize the serious need at (insert position here), but we’re going to pick the best player on our board (Best Player Available).”

However, there was a particular nugget from Monday’s presser that I found extremely interesting, and that had to do with Colbert’s thoughts on players who opted out for the 2020 college football season due to concerns about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Below is a quote from Colbert, courtesy of NFL.com:

As I stated in the summer, if a player chooses to opt-out for whatever reason, that’s their decision and we will respect it. However, if a player played in 2020 and those players are of equal value, the one that didn’t play and the one that played, we’ll take the one that played because we don’t know what the opt-outs will be like in their first season back in football.

“We believe it’s hard to sit this game out,” Colbert continued. “Sometimes it happens because of injury, but this time it was pandemic-related for the most part. But we will take the players, again if they’re close. It’s not to say we’re not gonna draft somebody that opted out. I couldn’t say that. But if I have a choice and we have a choice, we’ll take the one that played if their value is close.”

If true, that’s pretty revealing. I realize the game of football is complex, even at the collegiate level, and if a player isn’t constantly honing his skills and developing as a prospect, it will make it that much harder to evolve and master the game at the professional level.

However, even Colbert indicated that players miss entire collegiate seasons all the time due to injury. Don’t a lot of those players not only get drafted but go on to have decent-to-great careers?

  • That was a rhetorical question, because they do.

This is just my opinion, but I’d be much more concerned about a serious injury than I would an opt-out due to a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic. I know a lot of old-school football people are just–old-school–including Colbert, but I don’t think I’d evaluate a player who opted out of 2020 any differently than one who played.

If a team likes a prospect who opted out even slightly more than one who played, I think that team should go with its gut and pick the player it wants more.

  • Take Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, for example.

He opted out of the 2020 season but is still considered one of the top defensive prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft. Parsons is likely going to go in the top 10 but could slide based on team needs and, of course, the always interesting quarterback class and which passers go where.

It’s doubtful Parsons, who turned in one heck of a performance at Penn State’s Pro Day, slides to the Steelers at 24, but what if he does? Would Pittsburgh have a seriously hard time picking him if he and, say, Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins were both there? I realize Colbert said the opt-out situation would only come into consideration if two players were close in terms of draft grades, but who’s to say what the Steelers are thinking? What if they assumed Parsons was never going to slide to 24 and spent so much time evaluating Collins, it has now given them a false sense of who he is as a prospect?

Obviously, the annual draft is a crapshoot, but maybe that’s why over-thinking things is often the biggest mistake teams make.

There are plenty of reasons to be cautious about a draft prospect. A healthy and productive player who opted out of his final collegiate season shouldn’t be one of them.

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