Framing the impact of NFL Draft early-entry departures is a tad more complicated this winter than usual.
Technically, every player is an early-entry departure.
In response to the pandemic, the NCAA tossed a blanket waiver on the 2020 season and declared it wouldn’t count against anyone’s eligibility clock.
Even sixth-year seniors who played every snap in the fall would have the option to return for 2021.
Not surprisingly, many draft-eligible players are moving on. (The deadline to file paperwork with the NFL was Monday.)
The Pac-12 got hit, just like every Power Five conference.
But the majority of departures from the West Coast — those that occurred before and after the season — are rooted in three programs.
Our assessment below takes a broad view of the attrition and includes decisions made by relevant seniors.
While reading, keep in mind that depth charts for 2021 will remain in flux for months as players pass through the transfer portal in record numbers.
And please note: The official early-entry list will be released by the NFL later this week. It’s not unusual for players to file paperwork without making their plans public.
Loser: USC. Good news, Trojans! You’re back to producing NFL-ready talent at a level unsurpassed in the conference. (Fun fact: USC is losing more underclassmen to the draft than even Alabama.) All-American safety Talanoa Hufanga and star receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown are the biggest names to depart, but the exodus will carry the greatest wallop up front, where USC loses offensive tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker and defensive lineman Marlon Tuipulotu (along with preseason opt-out Jay Tufele). Bad news, Trojans: Next season will be a struggle.
Winner: Washington. Elijah Molden, the top nickel corner in the conference, is joining preseason opt-outs Joe Tryon and Levi Onwuzurike in the draft. But that’s the extent of the damage on Montlake as tight end Cade Otton, offensive tackle Jaxson Kirkland, center Luke Wattenberg and edge rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui are all returning. The Huskies are well stocked on both sides of the ball for ’21, although we’re forever skeptical about the overall quality of play at receiver.
Loser: Stanford. The Cardinal was hit hard before the season, when tackle Walker Little and cornerback Paulson Adebo opted out. The second wave of departures has unfolded in recent weeks, with quarterback Davis Mills and top receiver Simi Fehoko leading the march to the door, leaving behind an offense filled with unknowns. One encouraging development for Stanford within the larger fallout: defensive end Thomas Booker is returning.
Winner: Arizona State. The Sun Devils lost receiver Frank Darby, a senior, but landed on the right side of the draft ledger with a slew of defensive backs who pondered turning pro, including senior cornerback Chase Lucas and safety Evan Fields. And it appears linebacker Merlin Robertson, once considered a likely departure, will return in ’21. From our vantage point, the Sun Devils currently possess the best starting 22 in the South.
Loser: Oregon. As expected, senior cornerback Deommodore Lenoir announced after the season that he’s moving on. (He had opted out initially, then reversed course.) But at this point, there’s no indication Oregon’s top juniors and draft-eligible sophomores are departing — at least, not the ones we watched this season. The Ducks suffered heavy losses prior to the Pac-12’s restart with Penei Sewell and three starting defensive backs opting out.
Winner: Utah. We don’t have a precise read on the status of several seniors, although initial reports suggest most starters will be back. But of this, we’re sure: The Utes got the news they needed from their top juniors: Tight end Brant Kuithe and linebacker Devin Lloyd — two of the best at their positions in the conference — have announced they’re returning for 2021. The depth chart is good enough to contend, if Utah gets solid quarterback play.
Loser: Oregon State. The Beavers typically have a thin margin for error when it comes to talent retention — a few ill-placed departures can have an outsized impact on the depth chart. We expect that to be the case in this offseason cycle with tailback Jermar Jefferson, cornerback Nahshon Wright and linebacker Hamilcar Rashed moving on. Then again, producing NFL-caliber talent helps with recruiting, so it’s not all bad in Corvallis.
Winner: UCLA. We won’t attempt to diminish the impact of losing tailback Demetric Felton and defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa. But compared to what could have transpired in Westwood, the Bruins landed on the plus side. For starters, quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is return. So are defensive playmakers Qwuantrezz Knight and Quentin Lake. And tailback Brittain Brown, a senior, will return to fill Felton’s void.