It’s all but official: college football in the fall of 2020 is left for dead. The Big Ten has reportedly voted to postpone its 2020 season, aiming to play in the spring instead; with that first domino fallen, expect the Pac-12 to follow suit soon with the rest of the major conferences yet to announce their decisions.
In any case, this means that a significant fraction of the top prospects for the 2021 NFL Draft are facing the prospect of a spring football season. That poses a number of logistical challenges for the NFL’s premier offseason event, not the least of which is simply the date. Here is a look at how the Draft could be affected, what steps the league may need and want to take for next year, and how two holiday weekends could suddenly be on the table.
Current critical dates
As of right now, the 2021 NFL season and offseason remain on schedule. That includes the new league year and free agency beginning in mid-March. The current schedule for the 2021 NFL Draft is for it to be held from April 29 to May 1st, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio.
On one of the two weekends immediately following the draft, teams hold a rookie minicamp, after which they have three weeks of non-padded OTA practices to bring the team together on the field for the first time. Then there is a one-week minicamp in early June, likely set for the week of June 14th in 2021, before the teams break for the summer. Training camp would then start in late July.
While it is important for teams to get their rookies in the building for OTAs and minicamp, the most critical piece of the timeline would be training camp. The chances of a rookie contributing in 2021 without the opportunity to go through a full training camp is minimal in the current environment.
A college football season in the spring would still likely consist of only conference games, so a 12-week slate with ten games — like the Big Ten’s plan from a week ago — seems like the worst-case scenario. The start date of those campaigns could be a significant issue for draft preparations, however.
So what options does the league have? Here’s how it could approach the draft in a world with a spring college football season.
Option A: Memorial Day weekend
Under the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement, the NFL Commissioner has the power to set a draft date at any time between February 14th and June 2nd. In 2021, June 2nd falls on a Wednesday, so the preceding weekend — which happens to be Memorial Day weekend in 2021 — could be an intriguing opportunity for the league. The league could keep its current Thursday through Saturday schedule or could make it more of a long-weekend event like it used to be, leaning into the possibility of allowing more fans to travel to the shores of Lake Erie if the coronavirus pandemic is indeed under better control at that time.
Drafting on this weekend would allow a 12-week college season to begin on the first Saturday in March and conclude one week prior to the draft. If college ball would start the week after a theoretical February 7 Super Bowl LV game, that would give three weeks of leeway, during which time the league could set up a Combine and college programs could hold Pro Days to allow teams to hold interviews and work out prospects.
Of course, all of this comes with the assumption that life is returning to normal by the spring. If there is no spring football, either, then that presents another different challenge.
Option B: Push back farther into the summer
Instead of sticking to the timeframes currently allowed, the NFL could ask the NFLPA to negotiate another addendum to the CBA to shift the draft back in 2021 only. That would allow for a draft after OTAs and minicamp, but with time to help acclimate incoming rookies before training camp.
In this case, a mid- or late-June draft seems plausible. But the best option for the NFL, which prizes eyeballs and TV dollars above nearly all else, might be to hold a delayed draft on the weekend before July 4th, which this year falls on a Sunday. Imagine a long weekend consisting of a Thursday-Friday-Saturday NFL Draft and leading into Independence Day on Sunday. The league and football fans would eat that up, perhaps even more than on Memorial Day weekend.
Going that route would then give prospects three full weeks before reporting for training camp — two and change for the teams playing in the Hall of Fame Game. Teams could even hold a quick rookie orientation or minicamp the weekend following the draft to give those rookies a two-week break before camp begins in earnest.
This plan would allow for a 12-week season running from March 6 to May 22nd, followed by five-plus weeks of down time in lead-up to the draft. That would allow for Pro Days, even a Combine, and in-person interviews — again, assuming that the pandemic is under control enough to allow for those activities.