Some of the normalcy of the NFL draft is coming back this year. Roger Goodell will be out of his basement and back on a stage in front of screaming fans. War rooms across the NFL will again serve as the central nerve centers for teams.
Yet that just accounts for the on-the-clock presentation.
Behind the scenes, the process for this three-day draft, which kicks off April 29 in Cleveland, has been anything but normal. With no NFL scouting combine, no in-person Top 30 visits for teams to dig deeper into prospects and limitations on team personnel attending pro day workouts on college campuses, the crapshoot has an extra dose of unpredictability. This, after a disjointed college football season saddled by COVID-19 outbreaks, canceled games, altered conference schedules and opt-outs of more than 150 players.
“I’m not going to say it was difficult, but it was different,” Reggie McKenzie, a senior personnel executive for the Dolphins, told USA TODAY Sports.
When the pandemic struck in 2020, the draft process was already in full swing as teams had just returned from the combine, weeks after the college all-star games were played. The big adjustments last year came after travel was shuttered in March, affecting the pro day workouts and Top 30 visits. This time, the broad repercussions — including all but one of the college all-star games (the Senior Bowl) being scrapped — were felt throughout the entire process.
“It really puts a toll on not only your scouting department, but the entire organization,” said McKenzie, who previously served as Raiders GM. “It’s going to show you just how much you trust your scouting department.”
The draft has always been an inexact science — which explains how seven-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady came into the NFL as a sixth-round pick, while magnanimous bust JaMarcus Russell was selected No. 1 overall. But the impact of COVID-19 could really reveal the gap between the best and worst talent evaluators in the league.
In other words, this promises to be a big year for sleepers.
Tough year for scouts
Sure, every team has the same issues and the same video to study. The rub will come in breaking it all down.
During a media video conference last week, someone asked Patriots coach Bill Belichick if the film is as useful as in previous years.
“I think it depends on the team that you’re talking about and the circumstances they played in,” Belichick said. “It could also be the individual player that you’re evaluating, so I think that question has some twists and turns to it.”
And how. I doubt the typically buttoned-up Belichick was being evasive in this case. It reflects the reality of the moment, given the lack of uniformity among teams and conferences in staging their 2020 seasons.
“In some respects, the 2019 film is probably better, more of an apples-to-apples comparison of where players were,” Belichick said, “but at the same time, we know that players get better with another year of experience. So, there were a lot of players that improved from ’19 to ’20 as they normally do, and then there were a lot of circumstances surrounding the ’20 season.
“It made the evaluation a little bit different, and (you) just have to figure out what a player will be able to do for your team, what his role will be and what the rate of development or the process will be when you get him on your team. It’s maybe a little less information than we normally have, but all the teams are working with the same general information.”
McKenzie, though, can vouch for what was missed for the scouts who did not spend extensive time on the road. Usually, scouts are able to make observations by attending practices during training camp and into the season. In addition to the games, they glean information from various contacts, such as a position coach or athletic trainer. As the process continues, there are also impressions during interviews at college all-star games and at the combine.
“There’s a humanistic element to scouting,” McKenzie said. “There could be something in your gut that tells you about a player’s passion or whether he’s smart.”
That doesn’t always come across on the video conferences that teams use to interview prospects.
“Sometimes, people put on faces on a Zoom call,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie expects that after the top 40 or 50 players, the gray area for how players stack up on the boards will be more pronounced than usual, given the COVID-19 factors. It might also set up a significant edge when evaluating off-the-radar prospects.
It’s fair to wonder about prospects from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which may be even more overlooked than usual. That was the impetus for the HBCU Combine held earlier this month in Birmingham, Alabama, which was put together after the NFL canceled a planned combine for HBCU prospects for a second consecutive year, due to the pandemic.
“The whole idea is about getting a good look,” Phillip Blackwell, executive director of the HBCU Combine, told USA TODAY Sports.
Although no NFL teams sent a representative to the HBCU Combine, two CFL teams were in attendance, and the results and video from the timing and testing sessions were made available to all 32 NFL teams. The event drew 41 prospects, including several free agents who were eligible for previous drafts. Blackwell said he modeled the event after the NFL regional combines he has conducted for the league in recent years.
“Not saying we’ll find the next Walter Payton,” Blackwell said of the Hall of Famer from Jackson State, “but we want to provide opportunities to guys who might otherwise be overlooked.”
And this seems to be quite the year for finding sleepers in the draft who were overlooked.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL draft 2021 promises to be big for sleeper picks due to COVID-19