The 2020 NFL draft will go on as scheduled, but it doesn’t mean this year’s draft cycle will be business as usual for scouts, talent evaluators and players.
With the cancellation of all remaining pro days and visits between teams and collegiate prospects, a major portion of the draft cycle has been eliminated. All teams and prospects are dealing with the same circumstances amid the coronavirus pandemic that has made large gatherings impossible.
Agents are scrambling, especially those who represent players who were not invited to the NFL scouting combine or an all-star game, or those whose pro days were canceled. They’re trying as best they can to verify information on their clients and pass them onto NFL teams.
National Football Scouting president Jeff Foster, who is in charge of overseeing the combine’s operations, remains hopeful that the process won’t be derailed too much. He and his five-person staff are trying to help facilitate workouts and medical information for as many prospects and teams as possible. It’s a thorny job, and it’s highly likely teams won’t have complete puzzles put together by the time April 23 rolls around for the start of the draft.
Despite all the COVID-19 roadblocks, Foster says there could be hyper-focused attention paid to what most scouts believe remains the core of their job: watching and trusting the tape.
“I liken it to a commercial pilot who when he lands in more inclement weather, he’s going to be more attuned and more focused on that landing,” Foster said by phone Friday morning. “Maybe he has a better landing than in clear weather.
“From an evaluation standpoint, you have to rely more on the film work you’ve done and the in-person work that you did during the season.”
For most NFL teams, this is not the kind of thing anyone was taught in flight school. Can they nail the landings?
Who stands to be hurt most in 2020 NFL draft?
In conversations the past several days with talent evaluators, decision makers, coaches, agents and others whose livelihoods are connected to the NFL draft, it’s clear we’re in uncharted waters in 2020. And the limitations of this draft cycle certainly will affect a few segments of the prospect population.
“The No. 1 group of people it's screwing is the non-combine invitees,” agent Ron Slavin told Yahoo Sports. “I was talking to a general manager today who said they get a group of about 20 off-the-chart testers from pro days who get on their board for the sixth, seventh round. It just isn’t going to happen this year.”
In 2019, there were 337 players invited to the scouting combine, 117 of whom went undrafted. On the flip side, 33 players who weren't invited to Indianapolis were drafted. Most years the number ranges from 30 to 40. Agents and scouting directors say that number is almost certain to drop this year, given the lack of a complete scouting picture for many of them.
“So those 40 guys or whatever,” Slavin said, “I’d be surprised this year if the number is more than 10.”
Another agent, Justin VanFulpen, agrees.
“That number could be 10 or 15 [non-combine players] who end up getting drafted,” he said. “That’s a major difference. Those players have less of a chance to make the impression they need to make on teams.”
Other people Yahoo Sports spoke to felt similarly. Among those who ventured a guess at the number, none were higher than 25.
Non-combine prospects are facing one or more hurdles. They might not have verified testing numbers or heights and weights. And if players also have existing medical or character concerns, it compounds the process.
Typically, teams will invite those players to the clubs’ facilities for “Top-30 visits” or with the teams traveling to visit the prospects an unlimited number of times. With all of those now eliminated for the 2020 draft cycle, the less-than-ideal substitute has been each team granted a limited number of closely monitored Skype or FaceTime calls with players.
One of Slavin’s clients, Boise State offensive tackle Ezra Cleveland — Yahoo’s No. 48 overall prospect and a big combine standout who is receiving first- or second-round buzz — had six calls with teams in one day this week, the agent said.
But there’s only so much a team can glean via the phone or video chat.
“When we have a player to ourselves, it’s not just about having them here,” an AFC assistant general manager told Yahoo Sports. “We can ask them tough questions on video and usually get the answers we need.
“But it’s not as easy as, let’s say, getting a player up on the [white]board and having them walk us through one of their plays. ‘What happened here? Why did you do this on this play?’
“Or even teaching them our plays and having them teach it back to us, as a way of seeing how well they retain information, how well they absorb this stuff. That element takes a hit, I think. We’re still working through the most effective way of doing that over a phone or video now.”
Another group harmed by the disruption: small-school prospects.
“Obviously they probably get affected the most,” Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy said. “You know, for small-school players, because of the level of competition, if you don't go to an all-star game, that can be difficult.
“It’s the guys who [high] jump 38 or 39 or 40 inches or, you know, 10-foot-8 or 11 feet [in the broad jump at pro days], the eye-catching numbers — that’s where you can go from priority free agents to teams saying, ‘Let’s take a shot in the late sixth or seventh.’ That’s why I think there will be less smaller-school players drafted this year.”
Which players will benefit from this?
The NFL draft is a zero-sum game. There is a finite number of picks — 255 in total this year. If certain players fall, others will rise.
So who will strangely benefit from this unique and unfortunate draft year?
“Without trying to sound self-serving, any players that attended an all-star game are going to benefit,” Nagy said, “because the teams feel like they know them the best.”
There’s also a select group of prospects who hit the trifecta that most others missed: those who attended one of the all-star games, plus the scouting combine and the handful of pro days in early March that went on before the remainder were canceled.
“I would think those guys benefit most because this all goes back to human nature,” Nagy said. “These general managers have to make picks. They put their names on those picks. You want to be comfortable with it.
“It’s easy for people sitting on Twitter to talk about where they would take players and everything, but if you're a general manager who walks up to the [draft] board to take a name off and call in their selection, and you’ve got all these missing pieces [of information], it’s really, really tough.”
Those who also have the fewest medical, character and intelligence questions are going to benefit. The safe selections, if you will.
“I think the biggest thing this year is all the missing data,” Nagy said. “Everyone's trying to make as informed a decision as they can. You’ve got basically half the draft class without test numbers, and that’s a problem.”
Foster believes that it will come down to teams’ individual scouting principles and practices.
“Every team is a little different,” he said. “But when you get into the sixth or seventh round, which is typically where those 35 or 40 [non-combine players] get drafted, some teams absolutely require a full physical on those players, and some teams do not.”
Slavin believes the lack of contact with coaches in the scouting process also will have an impact.
“I really believe that when the coaches meet with the players one-on-one at the combine, and they signed off on them there, that has a big effect,” he said. “When the coaches get involved in the process, the coaches can affect the draft board as much as anyone. They fall in love with guys all the time.”
For the combine attendees who had medical red flags and were scheduled to return to Indianapolis in mid-April for a recheck, Foster is knee-deep in calls with schools, agents, athletic trainers and doctors to set up remote examinations.
That means locating team physicians or physicians who meet the criteria of the National Football League Physician Society, and then scheduling visits with the players and doctors to gather medical information that should be shared with all 32 teams.
“I think we’ll be able to get the majority of those approved and done over the next three or four weeks,” Foster said.
What agents and prospects are doing to help
Las Vegas-based agent Ross Jones and his partners at their firm, MGA, set up a simulated pro day for six of their 2020 prospects who didn’t test, measure and work out in front of NFL eyeballs.
If the scouts aren’t able to come to them, they were going to do whatever they could to get that information to teams. Dozens of other agents are taking similar approaches with their clients. It has created a logistical nightmare for everyone involved as they try to complete the puzzle for NFL teams.
“Every player is in a unique situation because they all have different plans,” Jones said. “But once those visits and private workouts were cancelled, we staged our own pro day. Fortunately for us, we’re an agency that owns our own facility, so it was pretty easy to navigate, schedule and plan.”
They hired a film crew, gathered the players — while maintaining as much social distancing as possible, of course — and put together a workout this week for six prospects who hope to land on NFL rosters. Those tapes will be sent to all 32 NFL teams for review.
“The players with combine invites, they can sit on their testing numbers,” Jones said. “But for the ones who weren’t there or who need more exposure, they need to check boxes. Every prospect, no matter who it is, has questions. We tried to tailor the workouts to those questions, if they exist, and do the best we can.
“I feel really good about what we did, which was to try to simulate a pro-day environment. Our players did really well, put up some big numbers. My hope is that they get some credit for that.”
Nagy and his Senior Bowl staff are helping out as much as they can, too. They filmed an instructional video on how best to set up and record an NFL pro day that meets league standards, especially for the smaller-school prospects — in 2020 and 2021.
Some NFL teams remain skeptical, even if they appreciate the hustle. The assistant GM brought up a decent point to this end.
“We had some questions at first: Mostly, how will these [numbers] be verified? Who is conducting them? Things like that,” the assistant GM said. “Most [workouts] we’ve heard about, the players’ agents are attempting to send them in two ways — some sort of live stream and/or then the actual raw recording of the event.
“Just so everyone knows nothing has been compromised, that sort of thing. You don’t want to find out later that it was a guy’s eighth attempt at the 40 [yard dash] and they’re wearing the same clothes as the day before ...”
The assistant GM then laughed before turning serious again.
“Those tapes can help, I suppose, but it won’t be the same as an actual pro day with people watching in person,” he said. “The Patriots have done this for years, drafting guys with big pro days. You think Julian Edelman — a college quarterback moving to receiver — actually gets drafted if he doesn’t run a great 3-cone [6.62 seconds] or shuttle [3.92 seconds] at [Kent State’s] pro day? I don’t.
“Those numbers he put up that year, they might have been the best in Indy [had Edelman been invited to the combine], but no one knows about them if he doesn’t run.”
Otherwise, those players go undrafted. And there’s another factor with that, too. Scouts build relationships with players throughout the process, and for the prospects they think could go undrafted, scouts morph from talent evaluators to recruiters.
At the end of the draft, all 32 clubs scramble on the phone to call players they have highest-rated on their boards and try to convince them to sign with them. Money, in the form of a signing bonus, is a strong lure. But matching players with the right team is important, too. The relationship scouts build with the prospects matters, as well as the fit on the depth chart.
“For 95 percent of the year, you’re an evaluator,” Nagy said. “For this small 5 percent, you’re an actual recruiter, where you’re scheduling a dinner the night before the pro day or you’re really trying to get some one-on-one time with the players you think might slide out of the draft. ...
“There’s none of this face-to-face recruiting going on right now, which is going to make some of these decisions more difficult for the player and the agent. You don't really know which teams have the most sincere interest right now. This is all being done over the phone.”
Why might the 2021 NFL draft be affected also?
During the same cycle for the 2020 draft, the 2021 draft process also is typically underway. There are “Junior Days” or “Rising Senior Days” where 2021-eligible prospects will measure and test at their respective schools, and the data is collected by the major scouting services, NFS and Blesto, into a database that gets sent to all 32 NFL teams.
That’s the foundation for the teams’ scouting directors to start their work on next year’s class. Just as there are no pro days for the seniors, junior days also have been wiped out for now.
“I reached out to a few people asking, ‘Do you think there even will be spring grades?’ Everyone is telling me maybe, maybe not,” VanFulpen said, and he wrote about the problem on his blog. “Maybe it gets put on hold. Maybe it gets done in the summer. But the timing of it gets thrown off.”
Foster said his team of scouts — 11 of them in all — are doing their best without those verified numbers to get the early legwork accomplished through other means.
“So what we told our guys to do is, first, fortunately they have access to the film, so we're all working off of the junior film,” Foster said. “They're either at their offices or their home, evaluating the players and making phone calls to the [college] coaching staffs. They're basically just trying to collect the information that they normally would collect on-site.
“It’s certainly a key component. It will create concrete challenges for all of us downstream to get that information. But at the end of the day, the film work is the most important part of the evaluation. Our guys are still able to do that and then they’re working through all the other pieces via phone.”
And the hope is that by summer, they’ll be back to business as usual. Or as close to it as the conditions will allow, anyway.
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