In the days after Rashod Bateman's breakout 2019 season, as the Gophers celebrated an Outback Bowl win over Auburn while a mysterious virus was unknown to most of the world, the receiver's path to the first round of the 2021 NFL draft seemed wide open.
The fact he contracted COVID-19 over the summer put multiple switchbacks into Bateman's final year with the Gophers, which initially seemed destined for cancellation and eventually ended with his second opt-out in November. A calendar year that began with talk of Bateman leading the Gophers to a Big Ten title ended with him playing just five games for a 3-4 team and catching 36 passes for 472 yards and two scores before leaving to train for the draft in Arizona.
Still, Bateman's unexpected path could have the end result that seemed fated for him all along: becoming the first Gophers player to be selected in the first round of the NFL draft since Laurence Maroney in 2006.
Bateman, 21, is projected by many to be the fourth receiver drafted this week, behind LSU's Ja'Marr Chase and Alabama's DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. That could mean Bateman is drafted late in the first round. The Titans (who pick 22nd overall) and the Packers (who have the 30th pick) had their general managers at the Gophers' pro day, and teams as far up as Washington (at No. 19) and the Bears (at No. 20) have been projected as landing spots for him.
He will take it all in with family in his hometown of Tifton, Ga., on Thursday night, confident he'll end up where he's supposed to be.
"Time will always tell, and time's going to prove everything. I'm just going to put my head down and continue to work," he said. "I don't get too much caught up in that stuff. I believe in a higher power; God has a destination for me, and I'm going to go wherever I'm needed and wherever I'm wanted. That's the mind-set that I have, and the mind-set I'm going to continue to have."
Bateman faced predraft questions about his speed, to the point where he released video of him running a laser-timed 40-yard dash of 4.39 seconds in February before matching the time in front of scouts at his April 1 pro day. His measurements that day (6-0⅜ and 190 pounds) came in below where he was listed at the U (6-2, 210), though Bateman said after his pro day workout he's never played over 200 pounds before and "never have been close."
"It's been that way all my life. I played at Tift County High School and now I played at 'Minnesota,'" Bateman said, using air quotes as he said the name of the college that lacks the football pedigree of a powerhouse program. "There are always going to be question marks about me, but I'm used to that."
His predraft training in Arizona meant spending time with such NFL receivers as D.K. Metcalf and Odell Beckham Jr., who told Bateman the same things he'd heard from former teammates Antoine Winfield Jr. and Tyler Johnson in the NFL: Be yourself and enjoy the process.
"A lot of guys get stressed out around this time, a lot of guys in the NFL get stressed out, and a lot of guys get away from who they really are as a person," Bateman said. "Odell's been through a lot, but he's also been very successful, as well. Having him there in my corner, somebody I really look up to, it's been important for me."
By Thursday night, Bateman could be able to count Beckham and Metcalf, as well as his former teammates, as professional peers. Even without the numbers Bateman was expected to produce in his final year at Minnesota, his route-running skills and performance in 2019 are widely expected to make him a first-round pick.
His final season with the Gophers might not have gone how it was projected to go, but Bateman is within days of the goal he's always wanted.
"Every day I wake up, going through this process, I'm just like, 'Wow,'" he said. "It's getting closer. It feels real, but it doesn't feel real. It's full of excitement, really."