The NFL, like most of the country, is on lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. No business is allowed at a team’s facility, except for medical rehab. Players, coaches, front offices, and owners are tasked with conducting their various roles off campus. This includes preparation for the 2020 NFL Draft.
The draft remains on schedule for April 23-25. It will not be held in Las Vegas, but the picks will still be announced on television, even though no one will be there in person. It’s mostly business as usual for the teams, other than most of their personnel not being able to meet in the same room to review their draft board. It’s not business as usual for a wide range of players entering this draft, though. The cancellation of pro days, medical rechecks, and top 30 visits is going to alter where players get drafted.
I spoke with agents, scouts, and coaches, and all agreed this draft will be different than any other since the combine era.
Four parts of the pre-draft process that have changed this year
Here are the areas that will be impacted the most leading up to the draft.
1. Measurable questions
There are those prospects without confirmed measurables, either because they skipped all-star games and/or the combine, or they were injured and didn’t participate. Without pro days and medical rechecks, these measurements will never be complete and could be the missing piece for a player being drafted.
It might seem petty to lower someone’s draft grade because you don’t have a good weight on them, but there are teams that look for players who fit a physical mold before they can be drafted.
2. Medical rechecks
This could be a concern for players who were injured at the combine, or weren’t able to perform at the combine but could have at their pro day. Unlike on-field activities, which scouts often want to see with their own eyes to believe, NFL team doctors would trust a phone conversation with the doctor who’s caring for the player, as those doctors have nothing to gain from being dishonest.
So, if the Dolphins call Tua Tagovailoa’s doctor for an update, and he gives them the all clear, they are likely to believe that, rather than his trainer telling a scout Tagovailoa is healthy. But, Tagovailoa is a top quarterback prospect with multiple years of film at Alabama and with highly projectable talent. This shouldn’t hurt him.
However, it will hurt a player like South Carolina receiver Bryan Edwards, who couldn’t work out at the combine due to a foot injury and can’t get a medical recheck. Teams won’t have any new data on his foot. He’s a player with Day 2 potential who’s likely going to drop to the bottom of Day 3.
3. Pro days
The fabulous HBO documentary Belichick & Saban: The Art of Coaching focuses on the relationship between Alabama head coach Nick Saban and New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. In the documentary, which everyone should watch, the coaches are caught discussing the importance of pro days. Belichick explains that a draft profile on a player is 100 puzzle pieces, with his pro day being one or two of those pieces. Those can be more like 10-20 pieces if a player is a relatively unknown.
A pro day is a training event set at college campuses, where players from the Division I host school AND players from nearby FCS (1-AA) and Divisions II and III schools can work out in front of scouts and front office personnel. The combine tests, including a 40-yard dash, are conducted, as well as position-specific drills.
For many players who didn’t attend the combine, and especially those players at the lower-level schools, this is the first time they’ve worked out in front of NFL teams. Also, NFL personnel can speak with and interview said players who didn’t get combine or all-star game invites.
To get around the lack of pro days, we’ve seen players post videos of their own workouts, but according to the scouts, that’s not ideal. A scout told me that even though he can watch the workout on video and get a feeling for how it went, he’d prefer see how the body moves with his own eyes, as scouts have always done. They are able to use their recollection of previous body types and movements to categorize each player, and if they can’t see them in person, it’s hard to make those comparisons.
4. Top 30 visits
Besides the pro day, the other activity that was canceled was the top 30 visits. Most years, teams can bring up to 30 players to their facilities for pre-draft visits. Teams can still conduct these interviews over phone or video chat this year, but they’re limited to only one hour apiece and it’s just not the same as meeting in person to get a feel for someone.
Normally, there’s almost unlimited time to meet with coaches during these visits. Draft prospects can impress the coaching staff with their ability to understand plays and can answer any lingering questions the front office has about character and fit in their franchise. There are players who rely on these meetings to help improve their standing with teams. These visits are a small piece of the puzzle, but without them, you’ve lost five pieces in the puzzle. The picture becomes less clear.
Five ripple effects for lower-round prospects in this draft class
Now that we have a better idea of how the pre-draft process has changed this year, I can list out the actual effects these will have on players in Rounds 5-7 and beyond. Highly rated prospects aren’t affected much at all. Their draft stock is mostly set in stone, unless there’s a possible medical concern that would drop them a round.
1. There will be fewer “steals” in the draft
Everyone I spoke with agreed with this point the most. Without the proper background on some players at smaller schools, teams will likely opt to draft players from an FBS school, or even a Power 5 school, because they have more information on them. They have more film against top players, have all the measurables, and have been able to see them in person to interview and take images of their body types. If you’re an FCS player who can’t impress via a pro day, you’re being hampered by that lost opportunity.
It’s important to note, this isn’t always a bad thing. Agents for these players would argue being an “eighth-round pick” (undrafted free agent) is better for your contract situation, which is true. There’s less money on the front end, but UDFAs are only locked into a three-year deal instead of the standard four years for drafted players. That means they’re quicker to free agency.
2. No eyes = no draft
I’m a fabulous example of this. I was a late seventh-round pick — No. 241 out of 252 players. I was drafted by the one team, the Panthers, that worked me out at our pro day. Dave Magazu was the only OL coach at my pro day, and he worked me out for 45 minutes.
Near the end of the draft, when scouts are asking coaches for input into a possible draft pick, that personal connection won’t be there this year. I feel strongly I would not have been drafted if this relationship with Magazu hadn’t existed, however small it was.
3. Film, film, film will rule
You know the average player with an excellent combine or pro day who gets drafted in the fifth round? “He’s now going undrafted,” an agent told me.
These are the players who didn’t shine on film like they should have but convinced scouts, and more likely coaches, that they’re studs because of their physical attributes and interviews. This year they won’t get drafted as high because scouts will have to rely more on film. Instead of being stuck in the draft war room for weeks, scouts are now at home like the rest of us studying the film.
4. No medical rechecks hurts the lesser-known players
For the top picks, and I keep using Tagovailoa as an example, this is not an issue. His talent outweighs his injury concerns. But those with lower name recognition, who aren’t able to get a medical recheck in Indianapolis, will be negatively impacted. When you’re a later-round pick, medical concerns become huge red flags.
Players who are now healthy, but might have missed an all-star game or combine, can’t get their chance at the pro day. Usually, that’s where they prove to scouts, in person, that they’re healthy. But no physical testing and no complete medical history means they might not get drafted at all.
5. Pre-draft visits are supposed to help UDFAs too
I found this interesting during my discussions and it’s something I didn’t know. Those top 30 visits aren’t always just reserved for the players a team might want to draft. Two or three of those players are actually undrafted free agent targets, and the visits are used to recruit them in case they aren’t drafted.
Going back to my draft, I got calls during the sixth and seventh rounds from offensive line coaches. They tried to use the “relationship” we formed at the combine or the all-star game to get me to sign with them if I didn’t get drafted.
This year, that can’t happen. It could be more of a wild west for UDFAs.
As you can see, this year’s draft will be different. Teams that have done the background in the fall, have made connections with college coaches, and are more prepared will do fine in this draft. But what seems like a minor inconvenience for some could be a huge inconvenience for others — specifically, the fringe draft picks who are hurt the most by the cancellation of events.