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A blunt NFL Draft barometer suggests the first round of the 2020 pandemic class was historically bad

Three years ago, it was showcased as a draft class that could prove that all the hullabaloo of NFL talent evaluation was a waste of time, money and energy. The 2020 pandemic draft class was championed as a collection of picks defined by what the game tape says about a player.

Thanks to a COVID-19 pandemic that eliminated the vast majority of pro days, personal workouts and in-person visits with NFL Draft prospects, 2020 became a laboratory test of sorts. It all pointed to a fascinating line of questions: How well could teams select players without all of the extra due diligence scheduled between the scouting combine and draft? What if they were largely forced to lean on one set of combine workouts, game tape and Zoom interviews rather than additional on-site visits and drills? How well would teams handle an at-home draft process, which stood as a dramatic change to the bunkered down “war room” discussions that mark modern drafts?

The answers this week? Not encouraging.

That same 2020 pandemic class that leaned so heavily on game tape has set a benchmark for first-round futility with a record-setting 20 players failing to have their fifth-year options picked up by their NFL teams. That means that after three seasons of on-field performance, 62.5% of the 2020 first round failed to have their rookie contracts automatically extended with one additional (and lucrative) fully guaranteed year of pay.

That’s a staggering drop from the previous two draft classes in 2018 and 2019, which — thanks to a change in the collective bargaining agreement — were the first two fifth-year options fully guaranteed (and not simply guaranteed for injury).

The 2018 class saw only 10 players experience a refusal of their fifth-year option. The 2019 class had 13 players go without their option picked up. Even reaching back to the introduction of fifth-year options (when the salaries were initially guaranteed only for injury), the only class that came close to the futility of 2020 was the 2016 draft, which had 15 players fail to lock down their fifth-year option.

LANDOVER, MD - JANUARY 1: Washington Commanders defensive end Chase Young (99) runs out of the tunnel during player introductions prior to action against the Cleveland Browns at FedEx Field on January 1, 2023. (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Commanders defensive end Chase Young hasn't matched his strong first year in the league, when he won defensive Rookie of the Year honors with 7.5 sacks. (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Dubious list includes Chase Young and Henry Ruggs III

What does that mean about the 2020 class?

Well, the fifth-year option decision serves as the most accurate read on how teams are self-assessing their first-round picks. If a franchise is happy with the choice it made, it’s either picking up the option or signing a player to an extension before the option kicks in. The 2020 class clearly illustrates that NFL teams made a litany of errors with their picks — or at the very least, put themselves onto a fence when it came to the belief that a player was worth an elevated fifth-year salary.

Some notable members of that 2020 class who failed to secure their fifth-year options:

No. 2 overall pick Chase Young: A remarkably talented pass rusher from Ohio State who has seen his career with the Washington Commanders derailed by a knee injury.

No. 3 overall pick Jeff Okudah: A highly touted cornerback from Ohio State who was traded this offseason by the Detroit Lions to the Atlanta Falcons for a fifth-round draft pick. The Falcons promptly restructured his contract and negated his fifth-year option.

No. 8 overall pick Isaiah Simmons: A freakishly athletic linebacker from Clemson who has never lived up to the high impact exceptions of the Arizona Cardinals.

No. 11 overall pick Mekhi Becton: A left tackle who looked like he could be a perennial All-Pro as a rookie but ultimately had his career unravel with injuries and weight problems.

No. 12 overall pick Henry Ruggs III: A wildly talented wideout who showed significant promise before his career was cut short by a car crash that killed a woman and her dog. He reportedly will plead guilty to a felony charge of DUI resulting in death and a misdemeanor count of vehicular manslaughter.

No. 19 overall pick Damon Arnette: A Raiders cornerback who was released after video showed him flashing a firearm and making death threats on social media. He was released by the Kansas City Chiefs prior to the 2022 season after being arrested and facing gun and drug charges.

No. 29 pick Isaiah Wilson: A talented offensive tackle who was placed on the reserve-COVID list twice as a rookie and eventually suspended for a violation of team rules. He was traded to the Miami Dolphins for a seventh-round pick by the Titans after only one season, then cut just days later by Miami. He hasn’t been in the NFL since being released from the New York Giants' practice squad prior to the 2022 season.

No. 31 pick Jeff Gladney: A cornerback who was released by the Minnesota Vikings after one year due to the filing of domestic violence charges. Gladney eventually was found not guilty of the charges at trial. He was signed by the Arizona Cardinals after that legal victory, but died in a car crash less than three months later.