Why the debate around opting out to prepare for the NFL draft has never been louder

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Representatives from all 32 NFL teams showed up for Alabama's pro day in late March to get a look at offensive tackle and future No. 7 overall pick Evan Neal and eight other players scheduled to participate. Jameson Williams, arguably the most explosive receiver in college football and the future No. 12 pick, was on hand, too, as he rehabbed a torn ACL.

As the event was getting started, another star player entered the indoor practice facility through a set of glass doors in the attached weight room. A 6-foot-4, 243-pound outside linebacker, he was dressed in street clothes and smiling from ear to ear as he dapped up teammates and moved through the crowd of coaches, scouts and other personnel.

Immediately, Will Anderson Jr. became the best player in the building. If rules prohibiting underclassmen from entering the draft didn't exist, the sophomore would have been in the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick in last month's NFL draft.

Instead, he could only watch, stepping back a few paces to get a better look at the broad jump exercise. His grin vanished and his eyes narrowed, as if he was peering into the future.

Every few years a top player comes along and prompts the question: Why bother with another season of college football? Considering the risk of injury, why not sit out?

To be clear, no one interviewed for this story suggested that Anderson, who led the country in sacks (17.5) and tackles for loss (34.5) last season, is preoccupied with his professional career. No one hinted that he would sit out to prepare for the 2023 draft. His former teammate and current Washington Commanders defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis said emphatically, "He ain't that type of guy."

But that doesn't mean he's not an archetype for the conversation. There's a reason Alabama coach Nick Saban stood in front of a group of reporters at pro day and struggled to come up with a single area in which Anderson might improve. Instead, Saban called him "one of the most dominating defensive players in the country last year" and said vaguely that Anderson continues to challenge himself to get better.

"If Will could come out this year, he'd be ready," Mathis said. "For real. I'm that confident in him."

A source familiar with draft evaluations acknowledged as much, saying Anderson "has nothing left to prove."

There used to be a fear among players and NFL executives about what would happen if someone opted out -- what all that time off would involve and whether stagnation would turn to rust. Before the 2020 season, there had never been a voluntary opt-out. Former South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said that defensive end and No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney was encouraged by some to skip his junior year in 2013, but it never materialized.

Then, two years ago, COVID-19 caused a flood of opt-outs. Ja'Marr Chase, a receiver from LSU, skipped his junior season and was selected fifth by the Cincinnati Bengals. Former Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons opted out and was taken with the 12th pick by the Dallas Cowboys. In February, they were named the NFL Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year.

The blueprint they revealed, combined with college sport's increasing financial opportunities for players, have reframed the debate about when, if ever, we'll see someone voluntarily sit out a season in preparation for the draft.

Now, what's stopping Anderson or any other pro-ready underclassmen from opting out to preserve their health and prepare for the NFL? Trainers say they're ready, and agents would be thrilled to sign a top prospect early. Opportunities to earn money from name, image and likeness (NIL) deals -- which didn't exist when this conversation surrounded Clowney and Leonard Fournette -- mean some players will be able to afford the cost of sitting out a season and training on their own.

Brent Callaway, vice president of performance at EXOS, a prominent athletic training company with facilities in California, Arizona, Texas and Florida, sees it on the horizon.

"It's a rare circumstance that you have all the right ingredients to step back and go, 'My draft stock will increase if I don't play the game,'" he said. "But that was the situation Ja'Marr was in. So I think every year you might get one or two that kind of fit that have all the accolades and maybe have a national championship underneath their belt, and everything just lines up right.

"I think it will probably happen again, but I don't think it should be the norm."

TWO YEARS AGO, NFL front-office personnel were worried. One executive told ESPN, "It's hard to improve by yourself if all of your teammates are busy playing."

The exec asked, "What are they doing if they are not playing? How are they going to get better?"

Callaway was part of the answer.

He was instrumental in getting Chase ready for the draft -- a journey that began a few weeks after Chase opted out in September and culminated with an impressive pro day five months later that cemented his status as the best receiver available.

Callaway, who also trained three of the top four picks in this year's draft, is quick to point out that Chase is a remarkable athlete who worked hard to prepare himself for a professional career. The credit for his standout rookie season is his alone, Callaway said. But he'd be lying if he didn't see benefits from opting out.

There's the reduced wear and tear from not playing a college football season, which can't be understated.

"They come in with a lot of battle wounds that have to be healed up," Callaway said, "and that actually detracts from your training time because you have to get them back into a workable shape again."

Without rehab to consider -- and with twice as much time to train -- Callaway and his team were able to be more intentional in 2020. With Chase, they fine-tuned his diet, helping him to carry less body fat. They were also able to spend extra time on ankle and hip flexibility, which was beneficial in certain combine drills.

And after so many more reps on those drills -- not just the 40-yard dash, but also broad jump, cone drills and others -- Callaway said he saw an increase in confidence when pro day finally did arrive. Chase went from a roughly 4.6-second 40-yard dash when he arrived at EXOS in October to an impressive 4.34 less than six months later.

Asked if that prolonged process could be replicated in the future, Callaway responded: "Yeah, of course."

Obviously it wouldn't be easy. It's why Callaway warned his COVID opt-outs in 2020, who included former Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill and former Stanford cornerback Paulson Adebo, "This is going to be a long grind." Chase was in Texas for six months, removed from his family and the structure of college.

Looking back, Callaway said simply, "A lot of football players want to play."

"In order to be a really good professional football player, you have to see a lot of snaps as a college player and you have to understand tactics and strategies," he added. "As a wide receiver, you have to see those different coverage scenarios and you have to see the different strategies that a long, rangy corner is going to put on you versus a shorter, more explosive corner. You have to be able to survive both scenarios, and hone your craft. It would be the same thing for any position.

"So it really does, I think, take an interesting set of scenarios to be able to say, 'I'm not going to do that. I'm going to take my time to work on myself.'"

Callaway brought up Will Anderson Jr. -- "or someone like that" -- who won a title in 2020 and took home the Bronko Nagurski Award last season in 2021. A direct path to the NFL for someone like him isn't possible under current rules. In 1990, the league changed draft eligibility from four years after high school to three, but there has been no movement since. Former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett tried to challenge the rule after the 2003 season, suing and appealing to the Supreme Court, but was denied.

USFL rules allow for players with two years of college experience to play, but at an average salary of $4,500 per week, it hardly seems worth it for top prospects.

Callaway said talented, accomplished second-year players might have to ask themselves, "What do I need to do next?"

"Well, the next thing for me to do is to dominate this draft process," he said. "I already had a great season. Do I have to go have another great season to prove that I am the No. 1 or No. 2 overall pick?"

THERE IS A COST to consider: a six-month training program at EXOS comes in at roughly $30,000.

Which brings up the double-edged sword of NIL and players' earning potential.

Recruits are now making money the minute they arrive on campus. Last year, Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers skipped his senior season of high school to enroll early at Ohio State, where he signed a deal worth $1.4 million with a marketing company. In March, The Athletic reported that a quarterback recruit in the 2023 class had a deal that would pay him more than $8 million by the end of his junior year.

With millions in the bank after one or two years of college, sitting out and paying for a training program like EXOS' is well within the budget.

But would anyone be willing to walk away from an entire season's worth of income?

"The only thing that's keeping these guys from sitting down is NIL, point blank," a source who works closely with high-profile draft prospects each year said. "It's, 'Let's see if I can get rich before I can get rich. I made $1 million last year. Can I make $2 [million] or $3 million? Let's build some wealth before I ever sign an NFL contract.'"

Darren Heitner, a lawyer and agent who advises a Florida NIL collective, said promises of NIL earnings have quickly become part of the calculus for players deciding whether to turn pro. He pointed to college basketball and Kentucky forward Oscar Tshiebwe, the consensus national player of the year, returning to Lexington as a prime example of this dynamic coming into focus publicly.

"I saw the commentary concerning his capacity to maybe earn upwards of $2 million in the open market by coming back, and that's obviously a significant sum of money," Heitner said. "You know, yes, he could go pro and he would be drafted high and earn a guaranteed salary. But who's to say that he would also be as marketable as a professional from an endorsements standpoint as he would and will be at Kentucky?"

Similar to Anderson at Alabama, LSU receiver Kayshon Boutte has the résumé to suggest he could skip his junior season. In his past eight games, he has scored 13 touchdowns.

Former LSU defensive lineman Neil Farrell said some college players are ready for the NFL right now.

"He's one of them," Farrell said of Boutte.

What's more, Boutte is coming off a season-ending ankle injury and is going through a coaching transition after Ed Orgeron was fired in October and replaced with former Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly.

ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay projects Boutte as the 21st pick in next year's draft, but an SEC source speculated that Boutte might fall to the second round if he doesn't play. The source said it was a moot point, however, because "he's locked in now," alluding to an NIL deal Boutte signed with Baton Rouge attorney Gordon McKernan.

But, technically speaking, that's not true. While the NCAA hasn't done much in terms of NIL legislation, it has made it clear that deals can't be tied to playing time. They can be contingent upon enrollment at the university, however.

"The deliverables [in the contract] have to be separate and apart from any playing obligations," Heitner said. "If a brand tried to escape payment based on that, I think it would be a good lawsuit for the player."

What would be beyond reproach is an opt-out due to injury. And this is where several sources agreed there's a potential path forward, citing former Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, who suffered a core muscle injury during the third game of the 2018 season. A month later, Bosa announced he was leaving school to rehab and train. A year after that, he was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

If a top prospect rolls an ankle -- even if it's there's no significant structural or ligament damage -- don't be surprised if he elects to hang up his cleats and doesn't play college ball again.

"It may be right before fall camp or the first couple of games that something happens," a source said. "There's no middle ground. It's either early or late, right? So sitting out those bowl games or finding out your team won't be bowl eligible or finding out that one game ruined your playoff chances.

"You're making a business decision then."

Farrell said it's complicated, and he should know. He initially opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID concerns and later decided to return, appearing in all 10 games. And rather than turn pro after the season, he came back for a fifth year. But when the 2021 regular season was over, he skipped the Texas Bowl to begin preparing for the draft, in which he was selected in the fourth round.

Every player's situation is different, Farrell said. What worked for Chase and Parsons might not work for someone else.

"You got to do what's best for you," he said, "no matter what."

After seeing how normal it has become for players to skip bowl games and noticing how some high school players are bypassing their senior seasons to reach NIL opportunities faster, Arkansas coach Sam Pittman is nervous about where college football is heading. But he admitted that players opting out after their sophomore seasons wouldn't surprise him one bit.

"I see us getting closer than what we want to think about," he said.