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Welcome to the NFL’s First Virtual Draft

These are unprecedented times, but the constraints imposed by the coronavirus during the pre-draft process haven’t prevented teams—the good ones at least—from doing proper player evaluations

Getty Images/Scott Laven

The last month or so until the draft is typically reserved for players visiting team facilities. Teams can host 30 prospects and a good chunk of the value from these visits is gleaned from simply seeing how players interact with everyone: whether they are on time, whether they are a jerk, whether they came prepared or stare at their phone during meetings. It is not complicated. Darrelle Revis was so nice to his driver that it helped sell the Jets on him. Sometimes these first impressions don’t even matter—the Patriots took Rob Gronkowski even after he fell asleep on the floor during his pre-draft visit, and he became one of the best players of his generation. The point, though, is that teams want to see how a player handles everything in person.

This is one of the handful of activities lost in the pre-draft process this month, as NFL facilities have been shut down since the second week in March. It would seem obvious, then, that there are no ways for a prospect to reveal himself as ill-prepared. This is wrong.

“We’ve had two or three players who were late for all three Zoom or Skype calls,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane told me. “Some who’ve canceled multiple times, and you’re trying to get ahold of them. Guys who you text ‘What time works for you,’ and they don’t answer. It’s not been a lot, but those are the telltale signs that we probably would have seen [in-person]. There are guys who normally would miss their flight, or don’t communicate well with our football ops staff.”

This is the draft process during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the strangest draft in the history of football, one that’s forced a league to reinvent itself before one of the biggest days on its calendar. Drafting in the age of social distancing is changing the league. “I get a little better every day,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said at his team’s pre-draft press conference. “Learn a new button or learn a new thing to click on and see what trick that does.” Belichick, famously, has referred to SnapFace, MyFace, and InstantFace, among many other technology companies that don’t exist. Now the fate of his draft class relies on not only knowing the names of websites but on mastering the technology itself.

On March 13, the draft world changed: the NFL prohibited scheduling in-person visits. Pro days were canceled. NFL GMs had to get proficient at Zoom. Though it’s low on the list of worldwide issues, the draft process became slightly unbalanced. The Dolphins were arranging a visit for Tua Tagovailoa but couldn’t get him in under the wire. They did get Jordan Love’s workout in ahead of the shutdown. Clemson had its pro day on March 12, yet almost no other team did.

Success in the NFL sometimes comes down to finding tiny competitive edges, and at present, those might be found in the IT department. Dan Evans, the Bills’ IT head, “saw it coming,” Beane said, and started installing home technology about 10 days before it was needed. “When he did it, people were still staying, ‘We’re not going to work from home, we’ll be in the office,’” Beane said. “And I was saying ‘Well, I’m going to be in the office.’ I’ve got a great setup. Why would I not be, even if no one else was going to be? I didn’t think there’d be a state shutdown to where we couldn’t even go there if you wanted to.” By the time the Bills’ facility closed in mid-March, coaches and scouts were given one-on-one tutorials on how to use all their work-from-home technology and how to access all the film they needed. Beane started his scouting meetings three days early in case of hiccups and said things went smoothly. He thinks the parts of the draft process that were canceled contribute only 10 or 15 percent to the overall process. Beane said he’s tried to replicate the final in-person meeting process by having prospects video call with multiple people in the organization to get as much interaction as possible, and said you can still get a grasp on how a player learns and how smart he is during these calls.

“Really, you could almost draft right after the season, and I think you’d be just as accurate for the most part,” says Marc Ross, a former Giants vice president of player evaluation and now an analyst with the NFL Network. “You have plenty from the fall. You’d like all the numbers to verify certain things, but really, if you have good scouting staffs, you already know 95 percent of a player’s issues.” This, he said, is where the final few weeks come in. He said that along with reserving spots for elite prospects, this time was “extra work on players who need a little extra massaging and fine-tuning. You’ll bring in character flags, medical flags” and get as much information as possible.

One thing Ross thinks is not helping is players trying to show workouts to NFL teams on video. “It was cracking me up, these guys are timing themselves and telling teams ‘Hey, I ran a 4.2,’ and the teams say ‘Actually, it’s a 4.6,’” Ross said. “Everyone runs with it. ‘Tua says he’s healthy.’ Well, what is he supposed to say?”

Ross thinks the one place the difference will show up is not in evaluation, but in the actual drafting. “Draft nights are so fast-paced, but even with the Zoom calls, it’s going to be chaotic. You can’t have a bunch of people talking all at once,” Ross said. “There’s so much back-and-forth between everyone who is in the room—scouts, directors—that will be much more difficult than the [pre-draft] part where you still have modern technology.”

If you were rooting for draft-night chaos on Thursday, your case got a boost on Monday, when technical difficulties occurred in a mock draft on the very first pick, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. ESPN’s Dianna Russini, who has become the Bob Woodward of NFL technology fails, reported one general manager was kicked off the work-from-home mock draft because his kids were on their iPads. The idea that the draft will go off seamlessly seems far-fetched at the moment.

This is the most unpredictable offseason and draft in history because this just might be the most unpredictable time on earth in many years. A lot of NFL types have speculated, to me and others, that the undrafted free agent class will have a higher ceiling while teams opt for safer picks, because they can’t do deep dives on potential “red flags,” be it medical or character issues. The problem is there won’t be that many undrafted free agents. The Lions have said that without an offseason program, they will take only a handful of them.

There is a story about Malcolm Butler, told by Belichick on, incredibly, Mike Krzyzewski’s radio show shortly after Butler’s Super Bowl–winning interception in 2015. Belichick told Coach K that because Butler came from a small school, West Alabama, teams didn’t have accurate information about his workout performance, and the Patriots thought he was just an average athlete. After attending a weekend post-draft workout with 20 players, Butler provided accurate information. The Patriots created a roster spot for him, and he later made one of the most famous plays in football history. This is a huge piece of what will be missing for the 2020 draft class—the chance to show up at a late-spring, post-draft workout and prove you belong if you fell through the cracks.

However, the story of football is the smart teams find a way to beat the dumb teams, and this will show itself this year: The smart teams, despite logistical and technological issues, will find ways to get good players. The dumb teams will not. That’s how football works. NFL Network draft guru Daniel Jeremiah thinks that there will be less “groupthink” than normal.

There will also be less subterfuge, according to Broncos GM John Elway, who said at a press conference on Monday that the absence of the NFL’s annual March meetings, which bring together every coach, executive, and owner, means there was less of an opportunity to create smoke screens. Former Jets and Dolphins general manager Mike Tannenbaum told me on The Ringer NFL Show that he thinks the hectic nature of the draft will lead to more of what he calls “packaged trades,” which are prearranged trades that take place if a certain prospect is still on the board (Tannenbaum executed one to grab Revis in 2007). That, he said, might help ease some of the chaos of trying to execute a trade while teams are trying to figure out how to communicate within an organization, let alone with another team.

When I talk to people around the league, they often talk about how this particular crisis is revealing how many things about the draft process are overrated. “Pro days are a formality for me,” Ross said. “If you like a guy, you will see what you want to see out of a pro day. Unless it’s a receiver who runs a 4.8, and you can’t really hide that, you can’t put that much stock into it. You almost have to invent players at pro days. You see someone run fast, and you say ‘Oh, he’s a good player,’ until you go back, look at the tape, and realize he actually wasn’t.” Ross thinks it’s possible teams might struggle during the draft without the benefit of being able to rely on pre-draft testing numbers. There’s a growing list of teams that rely on athletic testing numbers and analytics, including some of the best teams in the sport. And even though the combine took place uninterrupted, some top prospects, like Chase Young, didn’t work out. This won’t matter in Young’s case—he’ll still be off the board early—but teams won’t have full context on every pick.

Most aspects of the draft will not fundamentally change. Perhaps, because there will be no offseason program, teams will select seniors who might require less development. “But [seniors] aren’t even in the draft,” Ross said with a laugh. “When I first started, juniors were the anomaly, but the juniors are the draft. I think it’s more in the coaching staffs—the more smart, veteran staffs will succeed over the younger staffs.” The number of juniors entering the NFL draft hovers around 100 per year now, including 99 this year, about double what it was a decade ago.

Another person who agrees that most of the work was done in the evaluation process is Mike McCartney, a longtime agent who said all but one of his clients had some combination of an all-star game, combine, or pro day for teams to evaluate him. “This time of year is overkill, to me, anyway,” he said. “I just wanted to assure our players ‘You have been evaluated, you have 12, 13 games in the vault from 2019 and an all-star game, or combine. From a pure evaluation standpoint, you’ve checked every box. Nothing you can do is going to help you that much now.’”

One player who did not check every box was Jashon Cornell, an Ohio State defensive tackle, whose March pro day was canceled. That’s when McCartney got creative. He knew that teams were mostly ignoring at-home videos of 40 times, but he wanted to give teams something to prove Cornell was pro-ready. So he made small, 15-second videos showing his change of direction, agility, and pass-rush moves. He also distributed video to teams of Cornell running uphill. (He said it’s important that Cornell socially distanced during his workouts since that has not been true of other prospect workouts he’s seen on film.)

McCartney thinks NFL teams’ concerns over the virtual draft is overblown. “Normally, I look forward to the draft because it’s the end of mock drafts,” he said. “Now I’m looking forward to it because it’s the end of the whining. I’m rolling my eyes at some of the complaining.” He says teams ask players to be adaptable to all situations but all teams haven’t been as adaptable. He adds he’s appreciative of the teams that aren’t whining and are getting ready for the draft like normal.

“There’s a positive,” Beane tells me. “I have two high school boys and I told them, I’ve had more lunches and dinners [with them]—they sleep through breakfast—in the past four weeks than any stretch I can ever remember. There’s a blessing to this. I need to enjoy it.”