Temple center Matt Hennessy expected to meet with a number of NFL teams in preparation for next month’s entry draft.
What Hennessy didn’t foresee was that those visits would take place in his mother’s living room in Bardonia, N.Y., with Hennessy staring into his laptop’s camera.
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The league has shut down all team facilities because of the coronavirus pandemic and has forbidden teams from holding their usual 30 prospect visits, which usually are supplemented by visits from local prospects who don’t count toward the 30. Hennessy had planned to meet with Howie Roseman, Doug Pederson, and the Eagles as a local prospect. Now he’s a virtual prospect instead. As is the case with hundreds of other draft hopefuls nationwide.
The NFL has scrapped plans for its usual glitzy draft festival, which was to be Las Vegas’ welcome to the league, as the Raiders move into their new home. The April 23-25 draft will be held remotely, with details to come.
Football is the only major sport that hasn’t completely shut down so far, the league having determined that it could hold free agency and the draft without violating any quarantining procedures. Some people welcome the diversion; others think trying to carry on with business as usual is unseemly.
There were reports last week that a committee of general managers wanted to postpone the draft. This led to commissioner Roger Goodell’s declaration that the draft would go on as scheduled, Goodell then threatening to punish anyone who spoke out against the decision. Goodell’s letter to teams said in part: “Public discussion of issues relating to the draft serves no useful purpose and is grounds for disciplinary action.”
Teams, agents, and prospects are worried about more than just the optics of taking part in such an exercise in a time of crisis. Teams are working with less information on prospects than in recent memory. Evaluators always say they base their decisions mostly on a prospect’s game film. This year, that might be more true than at any time in the past few decades.
“It’s so far less than ideal, I can’t tell you,” said agent Brett Tessler, who is based in South Florida, and whose clients include a lot of self-made players who weren’t high picks.
Will less-known prospects suffer from this truncated process? “It’s your non-combine, diamond-in-the-rough type guy who’s really going to get screwed the most,” Tessler said.
Another agent, who didn’t want to be quoted by name in the wake of Goodell’s dictum, said he had spoken to a number of general managers and personnel people on this issue.
“They should not have the draft,” the agent said. “Nobody wants the draft to go on in four weeks. Nobody is prepared.”
Agents and team officials interviewed for this story all mentioned the inability of teams to have their doctors look at prospects who didn’t get examined at last month’s scouting combine, or whose exams raised questions.
“I talked to an NFL general manager [last week], and he said that in all his years, 20-plus years in the business, his organization and other organizations have never drafted a player that did not get a physical,” said Richboro-based agent Ed Wasielewski. “The medical component of this process is going to be missing for a lot of prospects.
“Maybe they’ll get information from their schools … but a lot of teams take the approach that they want [a prospect to] get in front of their doctors for an actual physical examination, and have their doctor clear a player. There’s different standards for each team.”
Wasielewski has done what he can to vet his players medically, but teams don’t usually get their medical information from the player’s agent.
“I’m not a medical professional,” Wasielewski noted. “They trust their own medical teams. They grade you on your medicals.”
An AFC personnel source agreed.
“The big impact on this draft involves the medical,” he said. “The NFL has shut down the medical rechecks” – a weekend in Indianapolis where team doctors gather and players whose exams raised questions at the combine are reexamined.
“There’s going to be a lot of pressure on the [team] medical staff this year to gather as much information as possible. … Small-school players and mid-to-late-round prospects will be at a huge disadvantage if those players didn’t go to the combine.”
Temple’s Hennessy did go to the combine, has no medical issues, and participated in the Senior Bowl. His draft status probably won’t change.
“I’m happy to stand on that. I got a lot of exposure to the teams,” he said.
What is it like, interviewing with a team over the Internet?
“The sessions are usually anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour. It’s one thing when you get on with somebody from the front office who wants to talk background and stuff, that’s pretty easy,” Hennessy said. “It’s more challenging when you get on with a coach who wants to talk scheme as well, because then they have to pull up the whiteboard for FaceTime. … Things will be flipped through the camera.
“Communication becomes a little more difficult. I guess overall, it’s not too much different from doing it in person, there’s just that barrier.
“I’m in my living room and the coach is at his house, too, so it seems like a casual setting, but at the same time, it’s still a job interview."
Hennessy’s Temple teammate, wide receiver Isaiah Wright, is in a tougher spot. Wright played in the East-West Shrine Bowl, so teams saw him there, but Wright was really gearing toward running the 40-yard dash at Temple’s canceled pro day. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, he is a bigger receiver, and he wanted to post a 40 number that would keep him from being stereotyped.
“I have decent film, but the question was lingering, ‘Am I a fast guy?’ ” Wright said. He said he doesn’t have a timed 40 for teams to evaluate.
“I was shooting for 4.46, 4.47 [seconds]. … I wanted to show that I was faster than 4.5,” he said.
Wright hopes to run a 40 on March 31 at his high school, Kingswood Oxford in West Hartford, Conn. Wasielewski, his agent, plans to have Wright running drills on video that he will send to teams.
That’s a tool lots of agents and prospects are using in lieu of the pro days. Some of the big draft training facilities took care of this for their clients, but not everyone can afford those places.
“We told each one of the players to get someone from the school to do it,” said St. Louis-based agent Harold Lewis. “Some hired people who actually do it for the universities, some of them just got their friend to do it on the phone. ... If [teams] can’t come to us, we’ll bring it to them.”
Lewis has a client, Akron linebacker John Lako, who like Wright, doesn’t have a timed 40. Lewis said Lako has been assigned an estimated time of 4.9, but in workouts, he has been as fast as 4.5.
“Estimated 4.9 means priority free agent. If he comes in and runs a 4.5, all of a sudden, he’s on everybody’s draft board in the fifth, sixth round,” Lewis said.
A big question there is, how will teams look at a Lako 4.5 that was taped and sent to them by his agent?
“It puts a little bit more of a challenge on you as an agent to do a good job, and I think also, your credibility becomes much more of a factor with teams now because they’ve gotta trust the information you’re sharing with them, that it’s credible and legitimate,” said agent JR Rickert, a South Jersey native now based in upstate New York. “I’m telling my guys, I don’t see this as anything that’s going to change our focus, or what our goals are. We just have to be a little more proactive about getting the information to the teams.”
There might be more involved from the team’s end than whether it trusts the agent, though.
Wasielewski noted that in a video workout, “there’s no NFL scouts present … scouts still want to be on the field, they want to see if there’s windy conditions, they want to see what the turf’s like, they want to measure the 40 [to make sure the distance is correct]. They want to run the [position] drill.”
Lewis mentioned another difference: “There’s no question it’s always better when they can do it in person … they can look around to their right and left, look at the other scouts and go, ‘Oh boy, this team over here is going to be fighting to get him.’ … You can take the temperature of everybody in the room when you’re all there, 32 teams, watching the same player at the same time.”
For the prospects, staying in shape is an unexpected hurdle with a lot of training facilities closed. Michigan offensive tackle Jon Runyan Jr. is glad he lives in South Jersey, and that he signed with Chicago-based agent Ken Sarnoff, who represents Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson.
Johnson dresses in the same NovaCare locker room stall once occupied by Runyan’s dad, who preceded Johnson as a standout right tackle. The younger Runyan is training at Johnson’s elaborate South Jersey barn/gym, while Johnson is home in Oklahoma.
“I’ve been really enjoying it. I’m lucky,” he said. “If I wasn’t with [Sarnoff], I really don’t know what I’d be doing. I’d just be sitting around, trying to do these home workouts in a carpeted basement. It’s an unbelievable resource.”
Runyan took part in the combine and played in the East-West Shrine Bowl. He has done the Internet interviews with teams he would otherwise have visited.
“I feel pretty confident in how I’ve represented myself,” he said. “I have a feeling about how teams perceive me, and it’s overall really good. I’m just happy to be in this position. I feel bad for the guys on my team who didn’t get the opportunity to go to [the combine or an all-star game], and especially pro day.”
Roseman said teams are working harder than usual to get around this year’s limitations.
“The one benefit we have right now is that [scouts and personnel people] are willing to work and dig deeper and spend more time than ever on these guys and try to figure them out,” the Eagles’ general manager said. “But there are situations where guys didn’t run at the combine because they were anticipating running at their pro day, or you have a guy that wasn’t invited to the combine that we were interested in, and maybe you don’t ever have testing numbers on that guy.
"So I think you’re going to have to balance the risk/reward in the draft process. For us, we view it like a seesaw. We like the subjective and the objective to kind of match up, and we feel really good about that decision. And when there’s less on one side, then you want to take out some of the risk, to the extent that you can.”
In addition to all the upheaval surrounding the draft, the prospects face the matter of what comes next. NFL team sources don’t think organized team activities and minicamp will go on as planned. This is where rookies traditionally learn the offense or the defense. Who knows if training camp will start on time, or ultimately if there will be a 16-game NFL season?
“That spring developmental period is extremely important, especially for the rookies,” Hennessy said. “The draft is still on; I guess a month from now, I’ll know which team I’m with, and if we’re still working remotely at that point, just trying to get everything installed as quickly as possible.”
All of this stuff is a big deal to the people involved, but they seem to understand the larger context. When the Eagles and Steelers had to merge into the Steagles during World War II, that probably upended the lives of a lot of players, coaches, and fans. But World War II was kind of a bigger problem.
Tessler, the South Florida agent, said he tries to keep perspective and is “careful not to say, ‘Oh, man this is the worst thing ever,’ because a lot of people out there are in positions where their businesses are DONE. … Everything you’ve worked for, everything you’ve invested, all done. … People have died, people are going to die.