The unofficial theme for this year’s NFL Draft: Adapt or die.
The scouting process was completely upended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The college football season was truncated. Scouts weren’t allowed on campus, and several top players didn’t even play. The Combine and most all-star games were canceled. The NFL didn’t allow teams to talk to prospects in person.
So this year’s draft, which runs Thursday to Saturday in Cleveland, will be a test: Which front offices can adapt to the unique circumstances, and which ones are too stuck in their old ways?
“I think in some ways it’s better, because you get individual evaluations,” said Daniel Jeremiah, the draft expert for the NFL Network and a former scout. “But I can’t remember more variance just talking to buddies around the league about specific players where the orders are so wildly different.”
The traditional scouting process was completely scrapped this year. By not being on campus in the fall, scouts missed out on little things that they can observe while watching practice, and on the casual conversations they have when bumping into a coach or trainer.
“It just took longer to draw a conclusion on a player,” one AFC scout said. “You could speak to a trainer one week, a coach another, and an academic adviser another week. It was a lot of phone calls.”
And the college football season was a disjointed mess. Schools in the South played mostly a full schedule, 10-13 games. But the Big Ten had a shorter season (Ohio State played eight games, Maryland only five), and Pac-12 and Mountain West schools played as few as four games. North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, one of the top quarterback prospects in this year’s draft, played just one game.
Then there were the opt-outs. Dozens of players, including several top prospects, sat out the entire season, including offensive tackle Penei Sewell, receiver Ja’Marr Chase, linebacker Micah Parsons, cornerback Caleb Farley, and offensive tackle Rashawn Slater.
“I’ve spent more time going back to 2019, the year before, than I ever have in my process,” said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay. “Just trying to get a feel for players that I haven’t seen in over a year, which is really weird.”
Bill Belichick said “the evaluation is definitely different,” and that “2019 is probably better, more of an apples-to-apples comparison of where players were.”
Grading the tape wasn’t easy because you didn’t know whether the players were truly in football shape. And one AFC coach said he’s worried that the guys who didn’t play in 2020 took too much time away.
“I do think it could impact some of these guys to come in and contribute right away,” the coach said. “I think there’s going to be a reacclimation process to football.”
But former NFL general manager Scot McCloughan, who now does draft scouting and consulting for several teams, said the All-22 film of the 2020 season was still useful, in some cases more than in years past.
“You saw more simplified defenses and offenses because they didn’t have training camp, and they just jumped into conference play,” McCloughan said. “So you just saw football. What you saw Week 1 with their offense and defense is what you saw in Week 4, so it was just football vs. football, talent vs. talent.”
One of the most important pieces of the predraft evaluation is getting detailed medical information on hundreds of prospects. But with the cancellation of this year’s Combine, teams weren’t able to have their doctors personally examine most players.
“People aren’t freaked out about the football side of the evaluation,” Jeremiah said. “People are majorly freaked out about the medical stuff.”
The NFL instead had each team conduct physicals over Zoom with 10 prospects, and share the information with all the other teams. About 150 prospects — 75 top players, and 75 guys who had any sort of medical question — also were checked out by team doctors in Indianapolis this month.
But the medical files are far less complete this year, especially for mid- and late-round prospects.
“One of the more challenging parts is going to be the medicals,” Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht said. “Even last year, the pandemic started to really hit after the Combine. So, [we’re] having to rely on our medical staff and the process that the NFL put in place to get as much medical information as possible.”
Combine and pro days
Canceling the Combine prevented teams from getting to see 330 prospects perform workouts on the same field and under the same conditions.
The Senior Bowl still happened in January, allowing scouts to see about 100 top prospects compete against each other. A handful of lower-level showcases also took place.
Otherwise, the only time teams saw players perform drills and workouts were at their pro days. Comparing 40 times and shuttle drills this year wasn’t as useful.
“The numbers are just ridiculous,” McShay said. “This year, guys are running 4.26, 4.35, unbelievable numbers. You can’t just compare them to previous combines.”
But pro days were still must-attend events.
“I talked to a GM the other day, and he said he’s never been to more pro days in his entire career, and he’s been doing this for 20-plus years,” McShay said. “To at least be around the player, see the ball come off his hands, see the receivers run their routes, and try to get more information.”
The NFL did not allow teams to have any face-to-face contact with prospects throughout the entire predraft process. The Senior Bowl, which is not affiliated with the league, did allow its 100 participants to “speed-date” with all 32 teams behind plexiglass. Otherwise, teams were not allowed to speak to players on campus in the fall, or at pro days this spring, or, crucially, bring them to the team facility to test their football knowledge, get checked out by a doctor, and see how they interact with people in the organization.
Agent Drew Rosenhaus lamented that the NFL allowed free agents but not draft prospects to visit team facilities this spring.
“That really stinks, because that’s super important, especially to guys who opted out this year,” Rosenhaus said. “I just think it’s disappointing they didn’t apply that to the rookies. It would have been great to add that layer to the process.”
Instead, all interviews were done via Zoom or similar technology. Teams were allowed to do as many as five interviews with a single prospect, and they could last from 15 minutes to an hour.
“There are guys that get dressed up, they wear a button-down shirt, they give detailed answers, they say, ‘Yes sir, no sir.’ Those guys get it, they’re professional,” agent David Canter said. “Then there are guys that come from a workout, they’re shirtless, they clearly don’t understand that this is a job interview.”
The AFC coach said that using Zoom allowed his team to conduct far more interviews than in a normal year, and that the ability to share screens made film work relatively easy.
Canter said that client Asante Samuel Jr. did well over 100 Zoom meetings, and that client Khyiris Tonga of BYU recently did three Zooms on the same day with the same team (one with a position coach, one with the head coach and general manager, and one with the personality coach).
But it’s still not the same.
“There’s still the element of being in front of somebody face-to-face,” the AFC coach said. “I always consider the hiding-behind-the-screen thing. It’s much easier for people to text what they feel instead of standing in front of you and telling you what they feel.”
All of the changes appear to have had two significant effects. First, a ton of players were scared off from entering the draft. Normal years see anywhere from 1,800-2,000 players sign with agents, but this year it was around 700.
The top of the draft will still have elite talent, but the shallower pool means that the late-round picks and undrafted free agents will be worse than usual. Jeremiah expects teams to aggressively look to trade late-round picks to get higher into the draft or get picks for next year, when the talent pool should be overfilled.
“Everybody that I talk to around the league just says, ‘We don’t know what the heck we’re going to do with our sixth- and seventh-round picks,’ ” Jeremiah said.
Jeremiah also said that with limited information on players, most teams are going to take fewer risks (especially GMs and coaches that don’t have the best job security).
“A lot of teams that I’ve talked to have really tried to shrink their draft board more so than years past,” he said. “I think teams are going to be aiming for doubles, not home runs.”
Of course, there’s certainly a chance that this draft turns out no worse than in years past. It’s not like the old ways were an exact science.
“I think so much of this process was overkill,” longtime agent Ken Sarnoff said. “The good scouts can find the good players.”
But NFL teams are going into this year’s draft with less information and more guesses than ever before.
“Everyone’s kind of — I don’t want to say frustrated — but it’s so different from what you’re used to,” McShay said.