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Column: Opting back in was probably a bad idea…

Maybe.

Nebraska v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

When Shaun Wade announced he was coming back for the 2020 college football season after initially opting out due to COVID-19 concerns, Ohio State fans cheered. Here was the shutdown corner whose Ohio State career would have seemed to have been cut short following a controversial ejection call against Clemson in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl.

It would offer a chance at redemption. Because obviously the shoe-in, first round selection didn’t need to come back to school — he wanted to in order to support his team. In fact, the whole reason the opt-out news was relevant in the first place was because Wade had announced, well before the 2020 NFL Draft, that he would be returning to Ohio State for his redshirt junior season. What did he have left to prove, after all?

But then 2020 happened (the football season. Not the rest of 2020).

Like every other area of our society, college football hung in a state of uncertainty for months as COVID-19 raged. Schools and conferences opted out. They opted back in. Players opted out. And opted back in. Some of these programs and players in flux were among the nation’s elite — championship contenders and first-round draft picks. Wade was among them.

Then the situation evolved again, crystallizing into the season that we ultimately saw play out. Wade and fellow opt-out Wyatt Davis announced their return to Columbus. Like Wade, Davis, a top guard for Ohio State, seemed to be one of the premier picks at his position group heading into the 2020 season. Also like Wade, he chose to come back and play for his redshirt junior season instead of testing the waters in the 2020 draft.

A truncated season and College Football Playoff runner-up finish later, Wade and Davis find themselves in surprising positions — at least compared to where they thought they’d be, say, last February, before any of this uncertainty made its impact on the college football world.

The NFL Draft has come and gone, and Wade had to wait until the weekend to hear his name called. The Baltimore Ravens eventually took Wade with the 160th overall pick in the fifth round of the draft. For many, the pick was seen as a tremendous value for someone who was thought to be a first rounder just a year before.

Davis, meanwhile, didn’t have to sit for as long, but still found himself waiting until the third round to be chosen by the Minnesota Vikings with the 86th overall pick.

So...what happened? Why did these two prospects fall so far?

As it turns out, opting out — and staying out — doesn’t impact players’ draft stock as much as one might have suspected. In fact, The first round of the draft saw seven players who had opted (and stayed) out chosen among the first 32 high picks. In retrospect, missing a full season didn’t seem to change scouts’ minds one bit.

There were other reasons Wade and Davis chose to stay, and those reasons were absolutely valid. The hope of Wade’s return had been to demonstrate his ability to play on the outside, having spent much of his redshirt sophomore season playing at the nickel position. Things obviously didn’t work out that way, with Wade struggling in games and capping his final outing with the Buckeyes by getting repeatedly burned by eventual top-10 pick DeVonta Smith.

So what would have happened if Wade had chosen to stay opted out? While it’s easy to say he would have still been a high pick, he didn’t have the benefit of the doubt that other players did. As a result, missing the season probably wouldn’t have benefited Wade the way it did, for example, Ja’Marr Chase. It makes sense: While Chase was a Biletnikoff winner as a sophomore, Wade would have been perceived as a flame in the wind. There was very little film on him heading into his final season, and questions remained around the very thing Wade was trying to come back to prove.

Unfortunately, that film didn’t improve in 2020. The additional data points did not work in Wade’s favor. Again: see getting repeatedly burned by DeVonta Smith.

On a more macro level, what does this mean for the future? We saw more than a couple players miss an entire year of football, but not miss a beat when it came to draft day, while we have two data points of great players from a great school who seem to have lost out by playing more.

It will surely give confidence to players who might choose to opt out of their final season of college ball before heading to the pros, similar to how some players choose to opt out of their bowl games to get ready for the NFL Draft.

But, will it become enough to be a trend that impacts the game overall? Probably not. Case in point: No one from Alabama opted out. In fact, no players opted out and stayed out from any of the four College Football Playoff teams from this past season.

There’s an argument to be made that, among elite teams, the default (and expectation) is continuing to play. We saw how that benefited Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Ohio State (alphabetically) in the 2021 draft, with Alabama and Ohio State earning the most overall draft picks. When your team actually has an opportunity to contend for championships, it’s a lot easier to stick around — which surely played a role in the decision making of both Wade and Davis.

Further, their return demonstrates the values of an Ohio State program that has seen a high level of commitment — few transfers out, players choosing to remain for an additional year of eligibility, etc.

There will always be a balance of risk and reward. There’s something to be said for another year of development at the college level — especially within a program like Ohio State with a penchant for developing great talent. At the end of the season, Davis and Wade both earned unanimous first team All-American honors. Davis brought home the Rimington-Pace Trophy as the top offensive lineman in the Big Ten, and Wade earned Tatum-Woodson Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year honors.

And where one goes in the NFL Draft is less important than the career that happens after. Sure, there is significant (significant) financial downside to falling further down and eventually out of the first round, but a high selection does not guarantee future success...something every Cleveland Browns fan knows all too well from the last 20 years.

Davis, at least, found a great landing spot in Minnesota and has a good shot at starting right away for the Vikings. Wade has demonstrated a strong ability to play in the nickel, and could find a role in Baltimore. Their long-term NFL upside still has the potential to be greater than the missed value from falling to a lower round.

So, was opting back in really a bad decision?