NFL Draft 2021 - College football opt outs create an unprecedented challenge for NFL scouts, execs

These highlights showcase the best defensive players in the 2021 NFL draft (0:57)

Check out highlights from players like Penn State's Micah Parsons and Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley as they look to be picked high in the 2021 NFL draft. (0:57)

Walker Little looked at his choices, though truthfully, he had no choice. After the Pac-12 announced last August that the football season was postponed in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, all he could think was, "What now?"

Little had planned to play in 2020, hoping to show NFL scouts he had fully healed from a knee injury that cost him all but one game in 2019. But now, with the situation appearing grim, Little called his Stanford coach, David Shaw, to ask for some advice.

"I had a lot of concerns, like, is this thing ever going to get going?" Little said. "We had a great conversation, and just decided it would be best to move on to that next step. He gave me his full faith that I was fully prepared for this next step and mature enough for it, both physically and mentally. And that there's no sense waiting on Stanford to see if we would play or not."

So Little opted out to prepare for the 2021 draft, knowing full well NFL scouts and teams would have an incomplete scouting report on him. Little had two full seasons of game tape, as a freshman and sophomore at Stanford, where he emerged as one of the best offensive tackles in the country. He was a projected first-round pick headed into the 2019 season. But the last year and a half erased any certainty he may have had about his draft future since he hasn't played a game since getting injured in that 2019 opener against Northwestern.

Though he is completely healthy and says he is in the best shape of his career, Little only had his team Pro Day last month to show that to scouts. Little was pleased with his performance and yet, he has no idea where teams have him pegged. He could still be a first-round pick, or he could drop much further down.

"Everybody I've talked to has little doubt that Walker is an NFL player, have little doubt that he's got a chance to be very good," Shaw said. "It's now, 'OK, how, how do I put down a defensible grade for a guy who hasn't played in a year?' And the last time he's on the field a year ago, he wasn't healthy. That's the crux of it. I do believe in my heart that he's an NFL starter. I do believe that it will happen relatively early in his career. I think whoever takes him is going to be very glad that they have him."

In his latest mock draft, ESPN analyst Todd McShay had Little going late in the second round to Kansas City, writing, "Little is massive and an effective run blocker, but he missed essentially the entire 2019 season and then opted out in 2020. There's plenty of risk here."

There is risk any time a player goes through the draft process, coronavirus pandemic notwithstanding. But the situation facing players who opted out is unprecedented because there is no template among NFL scouts and teams to help fill in the blanks on their evaluations.

"What I'm hearing from other scouts is, there's a lot more viewpoints in the room," said one NFL player scout. "Maybe in a normal year, people are seeing the same player and they have the same grade. Now, you could you could have opinions all over the place. ... What are we going to value? The workout? Or limited tape, or a mixture of both? The testing numbers, and how those relate to the rest of the draft class? That's going to be different for every team."

There are those opt outs who had outstanding 2019 seasons that are not going to be affected -- LSU receiver Ja'Marr Chase, Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons and Oregon tackle Penei Sewell remain projected Top 15 picks. But other opt outs like Little, without stellar 2019 seasons on their resumes, have no idea where they stand. Perhaps it is why this NFL draft process has been met with even more wracked nerves, uncertainty and an overall feeling of helplessness. Opting out may have been the only choice for many players, but the choice was an either-or proposition based on best guesses and faith that their decision would not end up costing them.

"That's something that all of us this year have had to learn, is to roll with the punches and live with this uncertainty," Little said in an interview with ESPN. "Obviously, it's tough when this uncertainty is dealing with something you've dreamt of for so long. Now, it's just kind of been moved around so much. It hasn't been easy, but this year hasn't been easy for anyone. So it's just something you have to work through and whenever the opportunity is given to you, go out and try to crush it."

UCF cornerback Tay Gowan can relate. After starting his career at Miami (Ohio) and then transferring to Butler Community College for a fresh start, he landed at UCF in 2019. He had high hopes to improve his draft stock with a big year in 2020, but Gowan got COVID-19 last summer.

It took a toll on him. Gowan says he lost 10 pounds and ended up spreading it to his mother, who required hospitalization. That was scary enough. Once he resumed workouts, he didn't feel like himself.

"That's when I had to shut it down," he said.

Gowan opted out before 2020 started, not only for his own health but for the well-being of his young daughter. After he started to feel better, Gowan worked out on his own in Orlando, then began formal training in Fort Lauderdale at XPE Sports. While there, he worked out with Duke cornerback Mark Gilbert and South Carolina cornerback Israel Mukuamu -- two players who opted out midway through the 2020 season because of injury.

Gilbert missed all of 2018 and 2019 with a hip injury, and then opted out of the 2020 season with a nagging foot injury. A lingering groin injury forced out Mukuamu. Though all three believe they have enough on game tape to satisfy scouts, they all put outsized pressure on themselves to perform well at their respective Pro Days.

With either no or limited game tape from 2020, and the in-person combine in Indianapolis canceled, Pro Day would be the only time they could each impress scouts in person. Like Little, none of them have a clear idea about where they could get drafted. In ESPN's latest positional rankings, Gowan is currently the 13th best CB available, while Mukuamu (26th) and Gilbert (38th) are lower on the depth chart.

"That's why I was kind of upset when we didn't have a combine because I felt like that national publicity would have raised my stock even more because it's rare to see someone big like me be able to move the way I know how to move," said Mukuamu, who is 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds.

"When people hear 6-4 corner, they just automatically think, 'He's too big. He's too slow. He can't move.' For me, it's different because, yes, you can watch film, but you actually have to come and see me in person because, sometimes, film can tell a lie because I'm so big. So it might look like I'm a step slower, but in reality I'm faster than what people expect."

Unfortunately for Mukuamu, he was unable to run the 40 at the South Carolina Pro Day because he had a sore hamstring, but he believes he did enough in position drills to leave an impression -- noting the Cowboys, Bucs, Broncos, Bears and Bengals gave him good feedback.

In Orlando earlier this month for his Pro Day, Gowan had to constantly remind himself to relax. Because of his winding journey to get to UCF, Gowan only has one year of FBS game tape to show scouts -- so his performance in front of such a large NFL contingent could be make-or-break.

"I know this is a big interview in front of all 32 teams, so my whole mindset was relax and breathe," Gowan said. "I know I'm doing it for my daughter so don't get too emotional. It's regular football, you've been doing it since you were 5 years old, so just go out there and have fun."

Gowan wanted to run in the 4.3s, but said his best time was a 4.41 -- though some scouts had an unofficial time of 4.47.

"The film speaks for itself, and I guess my mindset would be they can look at me as a player who can develop into a natural lock down corner because I have a lot of potential and a lot of growth in me, and so I think teams want to invest in that," Gowan said. "I showed a lot of explosiveness, ball skills, speed and I'm only getting bigger and stronger from this point on."

Little said he was prepared for his Pro Day in Palo Alto, Calif., but he knew he had to quell those lingering doubts about his knee -- even though he fielded question after question about it during Zoom calls with teams leading up to the day. He also had to specifically show how he moved in offensive line drills. To get ready for them, Little spent the past seven months working out at EXOS in Pensacola and then at Michael Johnson Performance in McKinney, Texas. He also received specific training from offensive line experts Paul Alexander and Duke Manyweather.

When it came time to perform in front of the scouts, Little felt confident.

"I thought I showed the athleticism, the explosiveness, obviously the body frame, showed them I'm a bigger, stronger version of myself," Little said. "Those O-line drills were definitely critical, just seeing me move again. Making sure I was the same player. I think I was able to do that, and everything I've heard since then has been positive."

Still, making those final evaluations remain vexing for teams because they simply don't have as much information as they usually do.

"Little is going to be a very interesting case study moving forward," the scout told ESPN. "You're going to grade every snap he's played, and you have to understand you're dealing with a young freshman and sophomore when you're watching that. Then, you have to put a little more stock into his Pro Day performance. I don't think it's a stretch to say if you took a vote of all 32 teams, some teams are going to bet on the ceiling of a player, and then there are going to be other teams that say, 'Worst-case scenario, what is he?' And then place him there, saving themselves just in case."

That is the additional factor at play. Coaches and general managers are judged based, in part, on how they perform on draft day. How willing they are to take a chance on players, perhaps more so this year, could end up being make-or-break decisions for their own careers, as well.

The only question for Little, and the many other opt outs, is how long they will have to wait.