PITTSBURGH — Steve Muench went to college with Todd McShay. The two played football at Richmond in the late 1990s, got into the business together and have been colleagues for 20 years at what is now Scouts Inc., ESPN's scouting and evaluating partner.
Year after year, Muench, McShay and their team have grinded tape and set the tone for how hundreds of prospects are perceived ahead of the three-day circus that is the NFL draft. But this year, the circus is more unpredictable than ever before.
Sure, the early days of the pandemic put a strain on scouts, coaches and executives in 2020, canceling pro days left and right. But next weekend, six players who chose not to play in the fall could hear their names called in the first 20 picks. Forty prospects who either didn't play or left their teams midseason might be drafted.
Ever since high-profile players — including Penn State's Micah Parsons and Pitt's Jaylen Twyman — made their decisions last summer, 2020 became the year of the opt out in college football. That has extended into this month's draft as 32 franchises try to assess an unprecedented season and the players who didn't take part.
"I've spent more time going back to 2019, to the year before, than I ever have. I'm just trying to get a feel for players that I haven't seen in over a year, which is really weird," McShay said on a recent conference call. "Talking to guys in the league, general managers and head coaches, everyone's kind of, I don't want to say frustrated, but it's just so different from what you're used to having."
"I get it. It's a strange, strange year," Muench told the Post-Gazette. "Kids were being told all these different things. It's hard to get into that room and criticize a kid for making a decision that they think is going to help them the most. ... It's just muddy."
It's muddy for both parties: NFL teams and most opt outs. Take Twyman for example.
The former Pitt defensive tackle was a preseason 2020 All-American after receiving national recognition the year before. Twyman broke out with 10 1/2 sacks in 2019, helping Pitt lead all Power Five programs in sacks per game. But the All-ACC selection's draft stock is all over the place after not adding any new tape this past fall.
Twyman went in the fourth round of a recent mock draft by Sporting News. CBS Sports' Ryan Wilson had him pegged as a fifth-rounder. Meanwhile, Twyman went undrafted in the most recent mock by The Athletic's Dane Brugler. Twyman said himself at Pitt's pro day on March 17 that there are "a wide range of different ways it could go."
McShay, Muench and Scouts Inc. have Twyman as their 13th-ranked defensive tackle, which would place him in the mid-round category.
"The tough thing for him is, he really has one year of production," Muench said. "He was disruptive. Defensive tackles who can get after the quarterback are highly sought after. I liked his tape. ... But if Twyman plays again this year and has another 2019 type of performance, is he in that second-round area? Did opting out hurt him? Eh. I think it's more, did he miss an opportunity?"
Regardless, Twyman is at peace with his decision. When he opted out and signed with Rosenhaus Sports, the Washington D.C. native did so "trying to help my mom and my little brothers financially." The risk of getting hurt or contracting COVID-19 and its potential long-term effects — myocarditis was a hot button topic when opts outs flooded in last summer — wasn't worth it to Twyman.
At the very least, he didn't hurt himself at pro day. He logged 40 bench reps, something only four defensive tackles have done in the last 10 gatherings of NFL prospects combined. Twyman also posted a 32.5-inch vertical jump at 301 pounds. Not bad for a big fella.
His former teammate and fellow opt out didn't fare as well. Pitt safety Paris Ford's pro day was less than ideal last month, clocking a 4.83-second 40-yard dash and recording a 28.5-inch vertical. Afterward, Ford turned the page and focused on the show he put on the grass at Heinz Field, not the turf at Pitt's indoor facility.
"The proof is in the pudding," Ford said. "The film speaks for itself."
There's little denying Ford is an aggressive ballhawk. In 2019, he led Pitt in tackles with 97 stops and had more passes defended (14) than any safety in the ACC. Through seven games last year, Ford was guiding Pitt again with 45 tackles.
Then, he left the team in October to focus on the next level. The decision was abrupt, though understandable given where Pitt was in its season. A blowout loss to Notre Dame made the Panthers 3-4 overall and out of ACC contention. But some evaluators were still perplexed by Ford's choice. Even head coach Pat Narduzzi said after Pitt's pro day that he and his staff "highly recommend guys not to opt out."
Now, the safety's stock is, like Twyman's, volatile. Sporting News projected Ford landing with the Dallas Cowboys in the third round. Meanwhile, he was pick No. 259 — Mr. Irrelevant — and undrafted in mocks by CBS Sports and The Athletic, respectively. Scouts Inc. moved Ford to its 16th overall safety after his pro day.
Muench said Ford's 40-yard dash is a "major red flag" after having months to prepare and with so many unbelievably low times coming out of pro days across the country.
One of those times was from Parsons, who ran his 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds. It served as a reminder to anyone who forgot that the linebacker is an athletic marvel.
Parsons, a consensus All-American in 2019, opted out to avoid injury and secure his future for himself, his family and his 2-year-old son. The former Nittany Lion was one of the few opt outs who had a first-round grade last summer and maintained it while sitting idly by for the 2020 season. He's rated by many, including Scouts Inc., as the top defensive player in the draft.
"With Parsons, it's the ability to do everything," NFL Network draft expert Daniel Jeremiah said on a conference call last month. "I would have loved to have seen him this year, but I get it. He put so much good stuff on tape in '19 that he made the decision that he did. He would fit in with that versatility that everybody is looking for."
What Parsons has going for him more than anything else is he's unique. There are talented linebackers in this draft class, like Notre Dame's Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Tulsa's Zaven Collins and Kentucky's Jamin Davis. But it's clear to experts and executives alike that Parsons — despite sitting out a year, despite admittedly needing time to get back into football shape — is the top prospect at his position.
Offensive tackle opt outs Penei Sewell and Rashawn Slater can say the same. So can LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase. But Miami defensive end Gregory Rousseau can't. Neither can Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley. And those are guys with first-round grades.
Where the opt-out related uncertainty really spikes is with mid-round prospects. We've seen it in the pre-draft process already for Twyman, Ford and others. And we could see it again next weekend.
"Normally, you've got 12 to 15 games that you've just seen of these players. ... So it's challenging," McShay said. "If you have a similar grade on a guy who didn't play in 2020 versus a guy that played in 2020, you're probably going to go with the guy who played this past season because you feel like you have more information on him."
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It's scary that a 10-win team with such a good coach and plenty of young talent also has four picks in the top 50. The Dolphins are desperate for wide receivers who can get open and it's clear that will be the target here (or they wouldn't have made this deal with the Eagles). Miami mimics Cincinnati by reuniting a top receiving prospect with his old college quarterback. A healthy Waddle is the most explosive all-around athlete at receiver in this class and his addition will only expedite former Crimson Tide teammate Tua Tagovailoa's development. Top needs: WR, RB, LB
In most drafts, Sewell would be the consensus No. 1 overall pick and he'd pair nicely with Taylor Decker, giving the Lions bookend tackles. The 2019 Outland Trophy winner — he opted out last season due to the threat of COVID-19 — isn't flawless, but his ceiling is as high as they come (he'll only be 21 in October). Top needs: WR, LB, DB
A classic Vic Fangio defense usually features a playmaking linebacker at its core. Parsons is another elite prospect who opted out of the 2020 season, citing "the potential risk to the health and well-being" of his young son due to COVID. He recently dazzled scouts with a 4.39 40-yard dash at his pro day. This would be the first time in my lifetime the first defensive player off the board lasts this long. Top needs: Edge, OT, LB
The Giants are in need of another pass rushing threat to go opposite Leonard Williams. Paye is already an impressive run defender against the spread offense, which is becoming increasingly important in the NFL, and there are athletic indicators he will continue to improve as a pass rusher. Top needs: OL, Edge, LB
Is it me or does it seem like the Eagles are always in need of help at receiver? The Heisman winner took his game to another level after Waddle was sidelined in 2020 — he had 1,300 yards on 72 receptions and 19 touchdowns in his last eight games. The only blemish is his size. Top needs: WR, CB, LB
Signing All-Pro center Corey Linsley is a step in the right direction for a very bad offensive line. Slater opted out this season due to COVID, but handled the mighty Chase Young as a junior while playing left tackle and didn't allow a single sack his last season. He's versatile and talented enough to play all five offensive line positions. He did nothing during his pro day to hurt himself. Top needs: OL, CB, DL
Coach Mike Zimmer didn't hold back when he called his defense the "worst one I've ever had," but the offensive line is priority here considering the Vikings don't have a pick in the second round. Darrisaw would be the first Hokie offensive lineman to be drafted in the first round since 2008 ( Duane Brown). Top needs: OL, S, Edge
If you're a fantasy player who is excited about Chase Edmonds' potential as a featured back now that Kenyan Drake has moved on, don't get your hopes up. Harris has evolved into an all-around threat. Of course, he's a powerful runner with his size (6-foot-2, 230 pounds), but he's also developed into a great receiver out of the backfield and he's improved significantly in pass-protection. Top needs: CB, RB, OL
The Raiders must address their atrocious secondary. Moehrig-Woodard's skillset is scheme-proof. He's a hard hitter who led all safeties in pass breakups in each of the past two seasons. Top needs: OT, S, LB
One way to alleviate the pressure off of a young quarterback is to give him a dynamic running back who is a three-down threat and capable of scoring every time the ball is in his hands. Etienne, a three-time All-American and the ACC's career rushing leader, fits the bill perfectly. Top needs: WR, RB, LB
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say Taylor Heinicke isn't the quarterback of the future for the Football Team — or Ryan Fitzpatrick for that matter — but there's not a QB on the board worthy of this pick. Owusu-Koramoah is an explosive athlete who can make plays from sideline-to-sideline. The ACC Defensive Player of the Year also won the Butkus Award (nation's top linebacker) and was a consensus All-American. Top needs: QB, LB, Edge
I expected the Colts to be aggressive seeking their next quarterback in the trade market and they didn't disappoint. The next biggest priority is to continue building their pass rush. Ojulari was a semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award (the nation's top defensive player) with 8.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and 25 quarterback hurries. He's only scratching the surface of his talent. Top needs: Edge, OT, CB
The Titans will need to address their secondary (after releasing Kenny Vaccaro and Malcolm Butler) in a major way. Horn — his father Joe was a Pro Bowl wide receiver — is a very talented, uber-aggressive press corner with elite speed, good size (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) and can make plays in run support. Top needs: WR, CB, DT
If past is prologue, once head coach Robert Saleh has his quarterback situation figured out, he'll focus on building a pass rush. Phillips stepped up in Gregory Rousseau's absence after transferring from UCLA. The former highly-touted recruit is a relentless pass rusher who produced eight sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in 10 games as a Hurricane. Top needs: QB, OT, LB
The Steelers are facing difficult decisions at almost every major position after this season, but it's clear the offensive line has to be a priority. Vera-Tucker was one of the best offensive tackles in the country, but could also shine on the interior in the NFL. Top needs: OT, RB, LB
The Browns need to upgrade their pass rush outside of Myles Garrett, but they also need to improve their linebacker corps. Collins has the size (6-4, 260), athleticism and positional flexibility that will cause most defensive coordinators to drool. He received the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, awarded by the Football Writers Association of America to the top defensive player in college football. Top needs: LB, Edge, DL
Yannick Ngakoue and Matt Judon are gone. It's been almost two decades since a Hurricane defensive end was taken in the first round ( Jerome McDougle in 2003). Rousseau finished with 15.5 sacks in 13 games as a redshirt freshman, but opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. Top needs: Edge, C, LB
Emmanuel Sanders' release and no money for free agency might necessitate this move. Moore would be a nice fit opposite a healthy Michael Thomas. An impressive pro day should boost him into the back-end of the first round. Top needs: QB, DB, WR
Offensive tackle Daryl Williams was resigned, but the Bills still need to address the interior. Mayfield features the versatility and athleticism to thrive in offensive coordinator Brian Daboll's system. Top needs: DL, G, CB
The greatness of Patrick Mahomes has made up for the mediocrity of his offensive line since he became the starter. Joe Thuney was a nice addition at guard. Cosmi is capable of starting at right tackle day one, but has the ability to protect Mahomes' blindside eventually. Top needs: OT, LB, WR