Sunday, April 4th, 2021

NO SEASON DRAFT SEASON

Simon Clancy

Lead Feature Writer

NO SEASON DRAFT SEASON

Simon Clancy

This article originally appeared in Issue LV of Gridiron magazine, back in 2020 – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE



Imagine a scenario in which the global Coronavirus pandemic happened not in the spring of 2020 but a year earlier, and wiped out the 2019 season in its entirety. No LSU national championship, no injury to Tua Tagovailoa, no Hugh Freeze coaching from his hospital bed.

No Joe Burrow.

The single greatest individual season in college football history would never have happened and the knock-on effect would have been dramatic: instead of going first overall to the Bengals, Burrow would have been a late-rounder struggling to make a practice squad, having been forced to sit out his senior season and enter the draft with 13 starts and just 16 touchdowns to his name. It’s a situation that the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner is all too aware of. “I feel for all college athletes right now,” he tweeted in mid-August as the sky began to fall in on the 2020 season. “If this happened a year ago, I may be looking for a job right now.”

That’s not hyperbole on Burrow’s part. Nor would it be hyperbolic to suggest that, had either Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray been affected by the pandemic during their final seasons at Oklahoma, then they would have been a mid-to-late-round pick and professional baseball player respectively. Those three cases alone speak to what a huge problem both players and NFL teams face with a likely cancellation, or at best, truncation of the 2020 college campaign.

Those carrying a first-round grade may have already peaked physically; others may not be close to that and could have jumped three or four rounds with a strong season. And, for the teams themselves, they face the prospect of making decisions on players they may not have seen play competitively for almost two years. “Impossible to be accurate,” one AFC scout tells Gridiron. “I’m going to be working primarily from home save for a handful of select games if there’s a season, which is already causing huge issues. We’re making huge adjustments on the fly. It’s absolutely unprecedented.”
 


“People talk about how 2020 was an extraordinary draft but, in terms of evaluations, next year’s is going to re-write the book.”


 
That scout’s experience is being mirrored across the league. Usually, at this time of year, personnel people are on the road seeing draft-eligible players up close, speaking to coaches, administrators and teachers. Now they’re simply reviewing film and trying to do the meetings over Zoom as schools limit access to external visitors.

“There’s no way they’re going to let us in like it’s always been before,” said the AFC scout on the condition of anonymity. “People talk about how 2020 was an extraordinary draft but, in terms of evaluations, next year’s is going to re-write the book.”

Of more immediate concern from a scouting perspective is the springtime absence of access to college underclassmen. Since 2017, under an agreement between the NFL and the American Football Coaches Association, league scouts have been permitted to begin gathering information on returning prospects with measurements, timing tests and interviews. Typically, these are the scouts’ first impressions, conducted when teams visit campuses for spring pro day workouts and considered an invaluable foundation for their autumn evaluations.

“That’s vital information as far as putting everything together if you’re an NFL front office,” Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, who spent 18 years as a scout with Seattle, Green Bay and New England, tells Gridiron from his office in Mobile. “Now teams are playing catch-up on everything, but they’re so far behind on information that it’s going to be hard to get to the level they’d ordinarily be at. There’s going to have to be some serious outside-the-box thinking.

“Smart teams will have a plan, but you’re going to be relying on your scouts like never before, and on those relationships they’ve built within colleges over many years, because that’ll be the difference in who handles this well and who doesn’t. If you’re a veteran GM, with veteran scouts, then you have a leg-up because they have been there and done it. Think about it: if you’re a college coach or an athletic director or a history teacher at a school and you have 32 messages from 32 teams all trying to hit you up, is it realistic that you’re going to be able to call them all back? No. So they’re going to cherry pick the guys they know and have the best relationships with.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by Blake Beddingfield, who worked for 19 years with the Tennessee Titans including five as director of college scouting and led staffs that drafted players like Jevon Kearse, Chris Johnson, Kevin Byard and Derrick Henry. “Those contacts will be the single most important thing about this draft,” he told Gridiron. “Right now, teams aren’t doing the up-close eyeball tests on these kids in live environments, so they’re relying on the years of relationships they’ve built up, years of trust. Every coffee they’ve bought the equipment manager or the strength and conditioning coach are coming home to roost. It’s the only way they can put together the building blocks for a successful 2021 draft because they’re now digging for gems and nuggets, all important background information that’s going to be so critical if these guys don’t make it onto the field.”
 


“There’s going to be college guys showing up at the Senior Bowl and the combine who won’t look anything like how they looked the last time we saw them on a football field.”


 
Across the league, teams are scrambling into action, bereft of the information they’d usually have at the start of the draft cycle. “It’s going to be extremely difficult,” says NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah from a hotel in Texas on his way to California to take his daughter to college. “I don’t envy what these teams are having to go through. First up, you’re going to have to rely on what these kids have put on tape already, but that’s outdated or limited if you’ve not been a starter or you’re a grad transfer. Secondly, and more pertinently, you’re really going to have to speed up the calendar. I was speaking to a GM yesterday who’d normally have his first full draft meetings in December. His team is actually having those meetings this week – late August – over Zoom. It’s so alien and yet so absolutely vital to this process.”

Some prospects have already been told that their college careers are over: there will be no FCS and below games this year, and, of the Power 5 conferences, both the Pac-12 and the Big 10 have postponed their seasons in full. It means that many players with minimal experience or coming off injuries won’t get the chance to potentially jump a handful of rounds.

“Take a kid like James Wiggins, the senior safety at Cincinnati,” says Nagy. “Looked really good as a redshirt sophomore in 2018, then tore his ACL in the summer of 2019 and missed all of last year. His conference has announced a reduced schedule for 2020 already and, if they cancel the season completely — and four of the 12 teams in the AAC are in the COVID hotspots of Florida and Texas — then he’ll have last played a game on December 31 2018 so, when he steps onto an NFL field in Week 1 of 2021, it’ll have been almost three full years since he played! That’s a huge conundrum for teams and a huge disadvantage for every college football player — but especially guys like James.”

There’s also a concern about the physical development of players that declare for the draft early — as many have been doing — and who then go and work out in specific training facilities tailored for success in the pre-draft process. “Getting access to see them working or getting videos is going to be huge,” says Jeremiah, who was a scout for the Ravens, Browns and Eagles. “I mean, what do they actually look like?

“You talk to GMs right now about not seeing their own veterans for a while when they show up a few pounds lighter or heavier and what an issue that is. There’s going to be college guys showing up at the Senior Bowl and the combine who won’t look anything like how they looked the last time we saw them on a football field.”

Nagy has been the custodian of the Senior Bowl since 2018 and admits he’s been in lengthy conversation with both NFL and college teams about this exact topic. He told Gridiron he’s already hearing stories that underline Jeremiah’s point. “There’s an SEC lineman in this upcoming class that we really like. I won’t tell you his name but he’s a great athlete, moves well, a natural bender and has all the traits of a pro tackle but, in 2019, he suffered a recurring stomach bug and couldn’t get a pound over 280 because of it. I spoke to his position coach this week and he’s 100% healthy, but he’s up to 320lbs!

“That puts teams in a fascinating situation: how is that extra 40lbs manifesting itself? Is it good weight? Does he still move as fluidly? Can he still bend the same way carrying that extra mass? If you only have his 2019 tape then you won’t really know until you’ve drafted him. Or, at best, seen him here in Mobile or in Indianapolis.”
 


“If you go back to 2015, there’s been 18 players drafted outside of the first three rounds since who’ve gone on to make the Pro Bowl. There might be more than that in 2021 alone because of the pandemic.”


 
So what of the All-Star games or the combine for 2021? If they do go ahead, what form might they take given their increased importance? “The Senior Bowl will certainly look a lot different,” says Nagy. “I had a Zoom with all 32 teams this week, five or six GMs, lot of upper-management guys, and simply told them we’d be willing to make any adjustment necessary to serve their best interests. The furthest the draft can be moved back is June 2 under the terms of the CBA and we’d absolutely be willing to move our game back to accommodate a spring season, and expanding Senior Bowl week to a fortnight.”

As well as being as flexible as possible for the teams, Nagy is even more cognisant of the fact that he needs to be mindful of the best interests of the players. “I’m leery of kids showing up to Mobile for the most important evaluation of their lives having not played a game for two years. That’s fundamentally unfair. If we expand this Senior Bowl to two weeks, we’d run conditioning for three or four days, shorts-and-helmet workouts for three or four days and then only go full speed on the final three days before the game, just so there’s a period of acclimatisation and everyone gets a fair shot.

“The problem for teams, as we’ve discussed, is that there’s going to be guys showing up who you had a third- or fourth-round grade on based off tape. who’ll spend two weeks looking like a top-10 pick because of the way they’ve mentally or physically matured since you last saw them play. I mean, you talk about Joe Burrow, but take his running back, [Clyde] Edwards-Helaire. He was a backup coming into 2019 behind a kid in Nick Brossette who then went undrafted. How many Edwards-Hilaires are there out there for this class?”

And Beddingfield agrees. “If you go back to 2015, there’s been 18 players drafted outside of the first three rounds since who’ve gone on to make the Pro Bowl. There might be more than that in 2021 alone because of the pandemic and the fact that some players aren’t close to reaching their peaks or that they’ve been in the wrong system. If you’re a GM, this has got to keep you up at night.”

So, might 2021 be the year of playing it safe if you’re a general manager? Hit on some solid B-grade guys rather than swing for the fences because your evaluations are incomplete as they pertain to other years? “You bet,” says Nagy. “I think most front offices will do that and, certainly, they won’t be able to take any chances on character guys. The players I missed on as a scout didn’t really have on-field issues. I missed because they had bad personalities. Teams will default to good kids even if their ceilings are lower, especially those GMs whose job security isn’t great. They just can’t take the chance.”



This article originally appeared in Issue LV of Gridiron magazine, back in 2020 – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE


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