Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is 6’6, 215 pounds with mobility and a ridiculous arm, capable of every throw a coach could dream of asking a player to make. On Monday, he became a national champion to boot with a 44-16 destruction of Alabama.
Lawrence is being lauded as one of the best draft prospects ever, but the problem is that he won’t be eligible to be picked until the 2021 NFL Draft.
The 19-year-old passer is instead set to dominate in the ACC for two more years before he’s allowed to turn his skills into a multi-million dollar salary. That’s going to put the NFL’s eligibility rules under the microscope, and may frustrate the hell out of whatever quarterback-needy team is at or near the top of the draft order in 2020.
For now, the favorite to be the first quarterback picked this April is Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins — a 6’3, 220-pound passer who just finished his redshirt sophomore season with 50 touchdowns. Would Lawrence really supersede Haskins and every other prospect if he was allowed to enter the NFL Draft after only a true freshman season?
What are the NFL Draft eligibility requirements?
The NFL’s rules say only players who “have been out of high school for at least three years” can be eligible for the NFL Draft.
In almost all cases, that means any player who has at least completed their true junior or redshirt sophomore season. Haskins finished high school in 2016, redshirted his first season at Ohio State, and then played in 2017 and 2018. That makes him eligible to forgo his final two seasons and enter the 2019 class.
Lawrence finished high school in 2018 and became the starter at Clemson before the end of September of his first season. So he still has a couple more years ahead of him before he’s eligible for the NFL.
Is Lawrence already good enough to get picked No. 1?
Football is a violent sport and the NFL is the sport at its highest level with gigantic, 300-pound men smashing into each other. The league’s rules that a player must be three years removed from high school are pretty sensible, because they don’t want a 19-year-old to get broken in half.
Players typically grow a lot after their first couple seasons in a college strength and conditioning program. Haskins, for example, was listed as a 199-pound recruit when he arrived at Ohio State and now he’s listed at 220 pounds.
Lawrence isn’t exactly slight of frame, but he could stand to add some weight before he has the Khalil Macks, Aaron Donalds, and J.J. Watts of the world bearing down on him.
But is an NFL team really going to pass on a generational talent, because they can’t be patient enough to wait a year or two for him to grow into his body? According to one ESPN reporter, a couple already said they wouldn’t.
I asked two NFL executives if Trevor Lawrence would be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, should he have had the option to declare? One said yes and the other said maybe. Lawrence is a very special talent.— Jordan Schultz (@Schultz_Report) January 8, 2019
“With what he now knows, his physical ability at 19 years old, how he wants to be coached and wants to be great, his ceiling is limitless,” an NFL scout told Bleacher Report after saying he may be the best prospect ever. “He makes throws now that guys in our league can’t make.”
Former Cowboys executive Gil Brandt was another singing Lawrence’s praises Monday night:
Trevor Lawrence is the best true freshman QB I've ever seen. If I was running an NFL team, I'd be making trades for as many 2021 picks I could get my hands on.— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) January 8, 2019
So yes, Lawrence is 19, but it would seem he wouldn’t have to wait long to hear his name called.
The top four teams in the draft order this year have all made significant investments at quarterback — beginning with the Cardinals at No. 1, who drafted Josh Rosen in the first round in 2018. But it’d make sense for quarterback-hungry teams like the Giants or Jaguars to move up from the back half of the top 10.
Instead, they’ll be jockeying for position to take Haskins or other passers in the class like Missouri’s Drew Lock or Duke’s Daniel Jones.
Does Lawrence have other options?
Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett challenged the NFL’s eligibility requirements in an attempt to enter the 2004 NFL Draft, despite only playing as a true freshman in 2002 and sitting out the 2003 season due to a suspension.
While he initially won his lawsuit against the league and became eligible, the ruling was overturned by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. So don’t expect any legal challenge of the NFL’s rules any time soon.
If there’s any chance the rule gets changed, it’d be because team owners decide to change it at a league meeting. And maybe that’ll happen when the owner of a team without a quarterback is set to pick early in the 2020 NFL Draft, and is pissed he can’t have Clemson’s prodigy. That’s a long shot, though.
There’s the reborn XFL, which will begin play in 2020 and could scoop up Lawrence with the biggest salary it can manage.
“Theoretically we could take a player right out of high school. I doubt we’ll do that,” XFL commissioner Oliver Luck told the Sports Business Radio Road Show in December, via Pro Football Talk. “But that’s an option that we have and we’re going to look at it long and hard. There are a lot of very good college players after a year or two who may not want to play that third year of college football, may need to earn a little money, support the family.
Would that be worth it to Lawrence? Probably not.
The likeliest scenario is that Lawrence torches ACC defenses for two more years and becomes the crown jewel of the 2021 NFL Draft class.