The 2020 NFL Draft will be unlike any other in history because of the coronavirus. The three-day event will be held virtually, with everyone from Roger Goodell to Joe Burrow to every general manager participating from their own homes. The TV broadcast will be a three-day telethon to raise money for six coronavirus-related charities. All Pro Days and predraft travel have been shut down since the middle of March.
To see how the process is going, I spoke this past week with an AFC executive, an agent with seven rookie prospects (four of whom are expected to be drafted), and agent David Canter, who has 20 years of experience and expects to have three to five clients drafted this year.
“It’s as close to business as usual as possible,” Canter said. "In some respects, it’s actually easier to get responses from GMs and people. They can’t tell you, 'Oh sorry, I was in the draft room for 12 hours a day.’ I’ve been able to get tremendous feedback on our guys.”
Everyone in the NFL is adjusting as best they can, but new issues seem to pop up daily, involving medical records, training, virtual interviews, and communication.
When it comes to the 330 prospects who were invited to the combine, not much has changed. Most of them already got checked out by the 32 team doctors, performed their drills, and have had several face-to-face meetings with teams.
But players who weren’t invited to the combine and didn’t have a Pro Day are going to have a much tougher time getting drafted. Many will still end up on NFL rosters, but more likely as undrafted free agents.
“Teams aren’t getting medicals or any verified testing,” the agent said. “Usually 35 to 40 of those guys get drafted, and this year I just don’t see it. Talking to teams, it seems like a lot more undrafted guys will end up making rosters and a lot of late-round guys are going to end up being released, just because of the lack of information.”
Combine non-invitees won’t have a complete file, but teams aren’t totally in the dark on them. They have game tape, and most teams have regional scouts who saw the players in person.
“You’ve got to rely on the people who are going to know them the most — the scouts who went into the building, into the school, spoke to sources, saw the guy practice,” the AFC executive said. “When it comes to Pro Days, you might be missing out on verified information, but it goes back to trusting what your eyes saw and what your ears heard.”
To make up for the lost Pro Days, almost every prospect has created a workout video that he is posting on Twitter and sending out to teams.
“Video Pro Days are somewhat helpful that teams can look at a player and see if he’s moving well and healthy,” the agent said. “But no team is going to credibly take any 40 time or whatever someone said they did on video.”
But it doesn’t hurt to do one.
“Every little bit helps,” the executive said. “It’s not a deciding factor, but you might put your eyes on it just to see a player athletically, that they’re moving around well. At the end of the day, aren’t you going to take a guy because of how he played in the fall?”
Access to medical information may be the biggest deterrent for non-combine prospects. These players can’t be given predraft physicals or tests by NFL team doctors. And the agent said that because most schools are shut down, teams have been having a tough time getting access to players’ medical records.
Communication with schools and teams has been difficult, and if the medical file does get to the teams, what arrives is a massive list of every time the player visited the trainer’s room during four years of college.
“They’re all hundreds of players long,” the agent said.
And having medical records sent to all 32 teams has been “just complete disorganization.”
Another notable change is that instead of each team having 30 official visits to bring prospects to its facility for a day, the meetings are now conducted for an hour on video conferencing. For some players, the calls are only with position coaches and maybe a coordinator. For others, they get the GM, head coach, and other top decision-makers.
Canter said the video calls have been a good way to see whether a player is fully attuned or is easily distracted (by his cellphone, people at home, social media, etc.).
“Yeah, definitely,” the executive agreed. “How seriously they take it. Are they ready to go? You can’t face up with the guy and maybe see how they interact with everyone in the building, but you’re at least able to get a feel for the person.”
The agent questioned how much can really be done in an hour-long video call.
“You can ask questions and get a feel for football intelligence, but you can’t watch film or do the board work,” he said. “I can’t see how it accomplishes even half of what the teams want to do.”
This year’s draft certainly presents unique challenges to everyone involved. But teams aren’t operating in the dark. Plenty of information was gathered during the fall, and at the college all-star games and the combine.
“There’s still a lot of information out there,” the executive said. “We missed out on Pro Days, so we’re going to have to rely on the old-school instincts: trust your eyes, what your ears heard, what your gut said.”
Workout areas are hard to find
One challenge that is affecting veterans and draft prospects alike this offseason is staying in shape during social distancing.
It’s one thing to get on a Peloton or do a home workout, but NFL players also need to do football-specific drills, and usually can’t do that within the confines of their homes.
Some quarterbacks, such as Dallas’s Dak Prescott and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, have gotten in throwing sessions with receivers despite warnings against social gatherings. Other players apparently haven’t been so lucky.
“A couple of my veteran guys have been kicked off fields because people call the cops on them,” an agent said. “Even if it’s just three receivers and a quarterback, and they’re all wearing gloves and they spray the ball and they’re standing far away from each other. If a neighbor sees that, they call. It happened multiple times to some of my veterans.”
Agent David Canter also has had clients chased off fields.
“No cops, but we’ve had a few guys thrown off of fields,” he said.
Just work out at home instead? Not so easy.
“I had a gym equipment company reach out to see if any players wanted to buy home gym equipment because it’s been impossible to find online,” the agent said. “Like, all sold out of dumbbells right now.”
“Just go try to find a 40-pound kettle bell on Amazon right now,” Canter added. “You can’t get it.”
HE GOT HIS ANSWER
One call may have been fateful
Regarding the importance of players being attentive in team interviews, agent David Canter relayed an interesting story regarding former client Chad Jackson, a Florida receiver who was drafted 36th overall by the Patriots in 2006.
One phone call that Jackson decided to take may have altered his future.
“Chad Jackson answered his phone in a meeting with Bill Cowher, and Cowher took him off the Steelers’ draft board,” Canter said. “They traded up and drafted Santonio Holmes [25th].
“Chad ends up going to the Patriots in the second round. They make him play special teams. He tears his ACL and is never the same player and is out of football in three seasons.”
Jackson’s rookie season was beset by multiple injuries, culminating with the ACL tear he suffered on a kickoff during the AFC Championship game. He lasted just one more season in New England and overall played in six more NFL games.
Had Jackson not answered his phone in that meeting, perhaps he goes to the Steelers 25th overall, perhaps he doesn’t tear his ACL, and perhaps he becomes one of many great wide receivers to come through Pittsburgh over the years.
A few thoughts regarding Brady
▪ Most players will get stiffed if there is no football this fall, since base salary makes up the vast majority of player compensation, and players don’t get paid until there is a Week 1.
Not that you were worried about Tom Brady making ends meet, but he’ll still get a decent paycheck even if there is no football. Brady is supposed to make $25 million this year, but only $15 million is in base salary. He already earned $10 million from a guaranteed roster bonus that was due last month. That’s money he keeps even if the Buccaneers don’t play a snap this fall.
▪ The more I chewed on Brady’s appearance with Howard Stern last week, the more it felt disingenuous and revisionist by Brady to state that the only reason he skipped voluntary offseason workouts in 2018 and 2019 was marriage problems.
Brady had well-documented spats with the Patriots in the 2018 offseason about his contract, Alex Guerrero, and whether he felt appreciated by the team ("I plead the fifth,” Brady said) that he never acknowledged in the interview.
And, sorry, but offseason workouts last four hours per day. You can still be a good parent and husband while attending OTAs, as many players do. Skipping workouts may have been a way for Brady to spend more time with his family, but it also was about sending a message to the Patriots.
▪ Why keep playing football at 42 years old, when you have six Super Bowl rings, a beautiful family, and good health? Brady said the recent death of Kobe Bryant only strengthened his resolve to keep playing, and it’s hard to blame him.
“We all think we’re going to live forever, but our reality is we don’t know when our day is going to come,” Brady said on Stern. “Why don’t I live my life and live it in the ways are going to be most fulfilling? For me, because I feel like I can play, I shouldn’t stop playing just because that’s what everyone says I should do.”
Another team cashes in Cooks
Brandin Cooks has four 1,000-yard seasons since entering the league in 2014, but can’t find a permanent home. The Saints traded him after three productive seasons for a first-round pick; the Patriots traded him after one productive season for a first-round pick; and the Rams just traded him to the Texans for a second-round pick after one productive season and one injury-filled one.
How badly did the Rams not want Cooks? They are taking a $21.8 million dead-money salary-cap hit just to trade him — or $5 million more than he would have counted were he on the roster. They also paid him a $4 million roster bonus in March, which helped facilitate a trade.
The trade shows once again that teams don’t really care about cap space; they care about the actual cash being spent. The Rams paid Cooks $42 million for two years of work, but smartly recognized that they needed to get out from under the contract, and still saved $8 million in cash this year.
The Panthers have been a major wild card all offseason, with no one around the league knowing what to expect from a new owner in David Tepper and a new head coach in Matt Rhule, who came from Baylor. The Panthers have the No. 7 draft pick, and are expected to be in the market for a quarterback — but perhaps not. They signed Teddy Bridgewater to a three-year deal (though it’s really just a one-year deal), signed P.J. Walker from the XFL, and still have last year’s third-round pick, Will Grier. The realities of the coronavirus situation will make it very difficult for teams to incorporate their rookies in 2020, assuming there is a season. Bridgewater, meanwhile, already knows the offense, given that he worked with offensive coordinator Joe Brady last year in New Orleans. “In a year like this, especially where we are all in our homes, I think Teddy is a guy who has been in this offense, knows this offense, and had great familiarity with Joe,” Rhule said this past week. “It just made sense to us.” … The NFL may be making a significant change to its instant replay system. Two sources said the league is looking into using the “Hawk-Eye” system that was used in the XFL this year, and could institute it for the 2020 season. The replay judges would still rely on camera angles provided by the TV networks, but the Hawk-Eye system cuts out the middle man. Instead of requesting the video angles from the producers in the TV truck, the replay judges get all of the TV angles fed directly to them … Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman re-signed with the team for one year this past week, fresh off a Super Bowl win. Who would have expected that the North Attleborough native would make it to an 11th season in the NFL? … A couple weeks ago, Bills GM Brandon Beane said, “It’s funny, comical that people are writing them off. The team to beat in the East is the Patriots.” Sorry, but the toothpaste can’t be put back in the tube. Beane’s comment came after Bills receiver Isaiah McKenzie told a Buffalo TV station, ”The last two years, we’ve been giving [Tom Brady] a run for his money. But now that he’s gone, it’s going to be the Bills’ time to take over.” You can bet that quote will make its way into Gillette Stadium.