As COVID-19 continues to alter life and business as we know it, the NFL again finds itself venturing into unfamiliar territory at a crucial point of the offseason calendar.
For the first time in nearly 40 years, pro football did not hold its annual scouting combine — the event that since 1982 has essentially served as a job fair for the nation’s top college prospects. Since 1987, the combine has taken place in Indianapolis, and during that week, the NFL would take over the city. Front office members, coaches, scouts, trainers and doctors from each pro team would evaluate some 300-plus draft prospects on the field, in the weight room and in face-to-face interviews.
But the challenges of minimizing the spread of coronavirus among several thousand individuals from across the country proved too great, so NFL officials scratched the 2021 combine.
The NFL draft remains slated for April 29-May 1. So teams still must conduct player evaluations and assemble their draft boards. There are still workout results to record, medical evaluations and individual interviews. But none of that will take place at a central location. Instead, 101 colleges will host pro scouting days from now until early April, giving their athletes one final audition. The medical evaluations will happen regionally, and instead of those high-pressure, face-to-face interviews, athletes will meet with prospective employers virtually.
“Now, it’s a little bit more of the wild, wild West. It’s the train station. In all facets,” Cleveland Browns vice president of player personnel Glenn Cook told USA TODAY Sports with a chuckle. “You have to be intentional about who we need to speak to, how we need to talk to them.”
Plan, plan, plan
In keeping with the theme of the past year, NFL teams must maintain flexibility and creativity. The same applies to athletes and their representatives as they search for the most effective methods for prime exposure to improve draft stock.
The alterations in approaches will test all parties, but as is often the case, those who operate with precision, discipline and strong organizational skills will emerge from this pre-draft season and the draft itself with the most success.
“It’s a year of adaptation and experimentation,” longtime player agent Leigh Steinberg told USA TODAY Sports. “The teams who have the great plans — like in the Oklahoma land rush, the teams that had figured out methodology — will execute it better than teams that are floundering with an approach.”
Veteran talent evaluators and coaches acknowledge the challenges that come with finalizing draft evaluations without the combine. But they also point out that although the event is hyped by the NFL, media and fans, the combine represents only a small piece of player draft profiles.
‘I’m not a psychologist’
In most cases, teams have multiple seasons of game footage on every draft-eligible player. Good teams usually come to the combine needing to simply cross T’s and dot I’s. They use the medical evals to answer remaining questions and in-person interviews and physical performances to cross-check notes.
COVID-19 affected last fall’s information-gathering process, preventing area scouts from visiting campuses for face-to-face talks with prospects. This is where strong prior relationships come into play. More than ever, scouts have to rely on knowledge gleaned from talks with college coaches to learn as much as possible about a player’s strengths, weaknesses and personality traits.
Those findings, along with game film, generally carry more weight in the evaluation process than do the combine interviews, multiple talent evaluators said. Cook echoed these sentiments.
“When you think about it, most of these guys played for four years, and you’ve spent that time in the fall looking at this rolodex of information that you have from your sources, and they have a much better feel of who this young man is than my feel from a 15-minute sitdown,” he said.
“I’m just not that smart. I’m not a psychologist. I’m going to trust all of the information being gathered over the last several years over a 15-minute interaction at the combine.”
Creativity, flexibility key
However, there are other COVID-related challenges. Some athletes opted out and have no recent game film. Others played for schools that had four-game seasons, or have just begun playing abbreviated slates that were moved from the fall.
Those cases require altered, but not uncommon, thinking on the parts of NFL talent evaluators.
“It’s no different than how baseball scouts have to put in evaluations on 18-year-old high school players, who they’ve never seen face some of the best hitters in the country depending on where they’re playing, and you’re trying to project what he’s going to look like in five years,” Cook explained.
“It’s no different than if a player got hurt and missed this season. You go off of what you have. … It’s the world we’re living in. The cool part is, we’re all living in the same situation.”
Steinberg likened this year’s approach to last winter, when Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had yet to receive complete rehab from a season-ending hip injury and surgery in time to work out at the combine or his school’s pro day. In April, Steinberg and partner Chris Cabbott staged their own pro day. The agents sent the video footage and updated medical reports to every NFL team.
“This is going to put the burden on the agent to make sure the right game film, right physical and the right pro scouting day is being done,” Steinberg said. “… You have players like (Oregon’s) Penei Sewell who opted out after two years; there have been players in the past who didn’t play freshman year, who had to redshirt, all sorts of different things, so this is not all unique, but it’s going to put a premium on creativity and flexibility to achieve the same results.”
Some agents have entrusted trainers to prepare their athletes. Former NFL wide receiver Brandon Marshall’s Florida-based House of Athlete is staging its own combine-style event March 5-7 to showcase 40 draft hopefuls whom he and director of performance Mo Wells train. The event will stream live on FoxSports.com and will later be shared with NFL front offices.
“Last year, there was a lot of people scrambling to figure something out for the guys,” Marshall said, referring to regional combines and the NFL’s combine for HBCU players being canceled by the initial COVID-19 outbreaks. “A lot of guys didn’t have combines and had to go back home and didn’t get to continue to train. Last year was a tough time for not only the athletes but facilities and agents trying to figure out how to help these kids walk in their purpose and fulfill their dreams. This year we were prepared.”
Because they know there’s no point in complaining, most NFL teams are handling this latest COVID-19 curveball by embracing the challenge.
“We’re not going to get any mulligans,” Cook said. “Nobody is going to look at our picks and say, ‘Ooh, that was the year they were dealing with COVID.’
“Nah, people are going to say, ‘That was an awful draft. That was horrible.’ We’re going into it like, ‘No excuses, and let’s find the right players that fit our organization.’”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.