NFL teams thought they were caught in a drafting bind a year ago, when college pro days were abruptly canceled as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. Visits with prospects suddenly had to be conducted remotely, and commissioner Roger Goodell hosted the 2020 event from his basement, with selectees appearing via video link from their homes.
Those impingements seem trifling today, as the league prepares for the April 29 start of the three-day 2021 draft; it’s as if teams and agents complained about being caught in a rainstorm, and then were hit by a hurricane.
This is of particular concern to the Eagles, who are scheduled to make 10 selections in the seven-round draft, four in the first three rounds.
The 2020 college football season was a mess, with 151 players opting out, among them top prospects, such as LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell, and Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons. Many games were postponed or canceled, and NFL scouts were prohibited from visiting campuses to watch practice and gather background information. The NFL scouting combine, which normally would have been held a few weeks back in Indianapolis, was canceled.
“No combine, so we have no verified numbers. The pro day numbers are basically going to be our verified height, weight, speed – all that stuff. Not having the medical [exams] from the combine is a huge deal,” an AFC personnel executive said. “We’re going to get the medical piecemeal, over time [from cities where prospects are training, and from a scaled-down April exam event in Indianapolis]. You’re not going to trust the medical as much.
“We’re not even allowed to sit down with players and have dinner with ‘em or put ‘em up on a blackboard or watch film with ‘em. Back to the Zoom thing again. It’s frustrating, but we all have to figure it out.”
That executive said he told his scouts they can complain all they want, “but it’s our job to find a way to get the information we need and do it better than everybody else.”
The exec reflected on that, and added: “The reality is, it is harder. It is more difficult.”
Another personnel executive, from an NFC team, told of a scout who wanted to go to a Houston Cougars game last fall. He was repeatedly foiled; Houston had four games postponed or canceled in September.
“You just had to adjust and stay flexible,” the NFC exec said. “I think that was the thing during the fall, be flexible. Not too many [scouts] went too far from their homes. We did the best we could, given the situation.”
That executive said he did not attend any college games himself last season. Teams did not require scouts to venture out, though for the most part, they were eager to do so.
“These are guys who typically are on the road 150 to 180 nights a year. They were champing at the bit,” the NFC exec said. He said he ultimately told them, “If you want to get out, go.”
The AFC exec said he told his scouts that their safety was his top priority. One scout with a pre-existing condition was told not to travel. Others went to games where and when they could.
NFL people often say the game film is the most important element of evaluating a prospect. This draft will test that theory. The AFC exec said he isn’t comfortable drafting solely off film.
“There is something to seeing a guy play live, especially at certain positions. I know it sounds corny, but I think you can feel certain players at certain positions when you’re there live,” he said.
“I think it’s important to watch a quarterback come to the sideline after he throws an interception, and see how he handles things, what he’s like with his teammates. Good and bad. What is that quarterback doing?
“I think it’s important to watch wideouts live, to see what kind of explosion in and out of breaks they have. You can feel that when you’re live. You don’t quite feel it as well on tape. Same with a corner, changing direction, coming out of a pedal. You’ve just gotta feel those things.”
Investigating from a distance
Another element of the process that is often stressed is the work scouts and other team officials do on campuses, talking to people who have been in contact with prospects, who aren’t as sure to paint a rosy picture as coaches. Doing that work remotely was almost impossible.
An agent said that the better the scouting department, the more he felt it was affected by restrictions.
“One of the clubs told me their biggest issue is, they felt like they hired people in the scouting department based on the fact that those people have relationships with all the schools, and they normally would be at an advantage, because they’re getting information from people they trust. They don’t get any of that now,” the agent said. “It sort of puts people on an equal playing field. They’re no advantage to having relationships this year, because you’re not able to go in and talk.”
“Some of the character and background stuff was harder to get,” said the AFC exec, who told of a Zoom meeting he held in late December, “just to cross-check character and background. … Anytime there were conflicts [in the information], which there were more of this year, we had to make note of it and go digging on it.
“The whole thing lacks the thoroughness that we’d all like to have.”
In addition, you can’t watch 2020 film of a player who opted out, and it’s easier to evaluate a guy who played a dozen games vs. a guy whose team ended up playing three. Both execs said they wouldn’t penalize a player for not playing over coronavirus concerns, or for having games canceled, but the NFC exec relayed a question he’d heard asked: “How do you get better, not playing football?”
It’s possible that prospects from schools that played full seasons will be over-drafted this year, because they represent less mystery and risk.
Senior Bowl week was held as usual, in late January, with strict daily testing protocols and expanded rosters. Most years, top prospects feel they don’t need that week in Mobile, Ala., to show what they can do against other draft-eligible players, but that was not the case this year. The NFC exec said his team interviewed 128 players there, everyone masked, with a plastic shield dividing the team representatives from the prospect.
The NFC exec said that in face-to-face meetings, “It’s a different dynamic. It was so valuable having that.”
“Thank God we had the Senior Bowl,” the AFC exec said.
The East-West Shrine Bowl is another all-star game normally held before the Senior Bowl, for less prominent prospects. Typically, players who stand out during East-West week get invited to the Senior Bowl, where NFL scouts get to see them against better competition. The East-West game was canceled this year.
An agent representing a player who played a few games, then opted out during the season, and was not invited to the Senior Bowl, said his client “has been shut out from the process. His only opportunity is going to be his pro day.”
Try again next year?
Another agent said that with the NCAA granting a fifth year of eligibility to four-year college players because of the interruptions, there was “a lot of back-and-forth” with potential clients over whether to enter this year’s draft. The agent said he signed two of the 10 prospects he spoke to about representation. The other eight all opted to stay in college.
“Guys who had two or three years of tape already – I think teams know who you are. For better or worse, they know what you can do at that point,” he said.
“I definitely see a concern for players who are on the border of being drafted or not being drafted. Especially the guys who are not invited to the combine; they don’t even get medicals done on them [in lieu of the combine], which makes it almost impossible to get drafted.
“[In a normal year] if you are a non-combine player and you do well at a pro day, that’s when teams all of a sudden start to call those players and say, ‘We want to bring you in on a top-30 visit to give you the medical and meet the team.’ … I guess teams can still request medicals from those guys after their pro days, but I’m not sure how that’s going to work.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a player drafted who was not a combine invite and did not go on a top-30 visit.”
The Zoom boom
Each team normally can bring 30 prospects to its practice facility to visit with coaches and executives and be examined by medical personnel. This year, those visits are via Zoom, with a team able to request that a player meet with as many as five staffers.
“I don’t foresee too many teams using all five of their opportunities on all the kids,” the AFC exec said. He said he feels a prospect needs to talk to his prospective position coach, the head coach, and the general manager, though “some teams will involve their psychologist in some of the calls.”
The exec added that agents for top-level prospects are frustrated, since there are 32 teams that can each theoretically request five Zooms. “Just trying to schedule a kid’s time is really hard.”
Forecasting the fallout
An agent said far fewer players have signed with agents than a year ago, because so many are planning to stay in school. He said his impression is that only players who have a really good chance of being drafted are coming out this year, and that next year’s group will be much larger. That could be a good thing for teams such as the Eagles, who got a 2022 second-round pick that could become a first in the Carson Wentz trade.
“You just gotta go with what you know,” the NFC exec said of this year’s draft. “This is what we have to do this year. It’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge we’re up to.”