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How College Football Coaches Are Advocating for Their NFL Draft Prospects in the Time of COVID

The coronavirus pandemic has turned the typical draft routine upside down. With no combine, fewer games, and little face-to-face interaction, other forms of evaluation—such as pro days, coaches’ testimonies, and good old-fashioned tape—are more important than ever.

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Every year, Gary Patterson eyes the calendar with a plan. The TCU head coach accounts for when other college football programs schedule their pro days, then arranges the Horned Frogs’ for a date there aren’t many other high-level sessions set. The idea is to attract as many NFL personnel as possible to see their talent, and the method works. This year, TCU held its pro day on Friday, March 19, competing only with Syracuse for eyeballs among major programs. More than 55 NFL representatives attended the Horned Frogs’ pro day, Patterson estimated, including Panthers coach Matt Rhule, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, and Saints coach Sean Payton.

“There was so many NFL personnel guys here it seemed like it was quite an event, which is exactly what you’re trying to get accomplished for your kids,” Patterson said following the Horned Frogs’ pro day.

Pro days have become even more important this year, and have offered a semblance of normalcy for players, scouts, and anyone else heavily involved in the draft process. College football programs and NFL scouting departments have made adjustments throughout the past 12-plus months that reshaped the draft cycle, transforming communication between the sides in an unprecedented manner. The adjustments have impacted the landscape of the upcoming draft and contributed to the uncertainty and variance across draft boards—outside of the no. 1 pick, at least—entering the final month ahead of draft day.

“The biggest difference was we are [typically] a completely open door for the NFL scouts so they can come by anytime,” Stanford coach David Shaw said after the Cardinal’s pro day. “And that’s where it was really different, because the scouts really love to come and watch the guys practice. You get to see work ethic, you get to see them get coached, get corrected as you put the game plan in. And that was hard for those guys.”

Put it this way: Imagine meeting your significant other via Zoom and only going on dates over Zoom calls, before eventually proposing marriage through Zoom. The cherry on top: your move-in-together date is unspecified. It’s like the NFL draft has been thrown into an episode of Love Is Blind.

“[Dating that way] wouldn’t probably—for some of us—it just wouldn’t work very well,” Patterson joked. “And for sure, not for me. Probably.” This is the courting dance Patterson likened to the past year’s draft cycle, in which NFL draft prospects and team scouts have been almost exclusively limited to video interaction in the middle of a pandemic-altered season and evaluation process.

For some programs, such as Stanford’s, 2021 pro days marked scouts’ first chance to meet prospects in-person since 2019, when the coronavirus forced cancellations of several sessions ahead of last year’s draft. A handful of top prospects opted out of playing last season, including LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase, Oregon tackle Penei Sewell, and Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons—and a lost year of tape puts the draft process even more in the dark. In January, the NFL nixed its annual scouting combine because of the coronavirus, and modified some segments so they could take place virtually. Teams were allotted a select number of Zoom interview sessions instead of in-person consultations. Psychological testing took place over Zoom, too. Medical exams mixed virtual and physical components.

Circumstances warrant greater emphasis on pro days, but evaluations of prospects aren’t solely reliant on them, even this year. Shaw, who spent nine years as an NFL assistant coach and is well-connected with NFL personnel, said that pro days account for only “that last 10 percent of information” in the total assessment of a prospect conducted by league evaluators.

“These scouts and coaches have watched [prospects’] every game, they’ve watched every play,” Shaw said. “Many of them go back and watch [a prospect’s] last two years of playing. So this is that last piece of how fast exactly is this guy? How does he look? How’s he built? How’s he going to jump? How’s he gonna go through these drills?”

The other 90 percent of the evaluation is an amalgamation of film review (the most significant portion) and assessing the character makeup of prospects. Most programs aid NFL teams in prospect analysis by allowing pro squads access to their practices and facilities whenever they want. This practice helps college coaches and front offices develop trust and exposes pro teams to a school’s prospects. For schools not commonly recognized as NFL powerhouses, strengthening these relationships—or at least laying the foundation for them—is essential.

Neal Brown is entering his third season coaching West Virginia after spending four years at Troy. While he may not have the same NFL ties as Shaw, he’s fostered an environment where scouts and league personnel are invited to visit, as the Mountaineers are open access and have developed a portion of their facility dedicated to visiting NFL and CFL scouts.

“It’s really a full-year [process],” Brown said after West Virginia’s pro day. “And if you’re a top prospect, it’s probably a little bit longer. It’s longer than maybe a two-year process, and there’s so many things that go into it.”

Evaluators felt the brunt of the lack of access. While reviewing film enabled scouts to still identify talent, determining where their favorite prospects rank hasn’t been as simple a process as usual. In a typical offseason, an underlying factor in the scouting community’s evaluations is a phenomenon NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah recently described as “groupthink.” Scouts who hit the road and cross paths are apt to assess the same players, talk about their assessments, and generate a sort of consensus. Groupthink grows following All-Star games—such as the Senior Bowl, East-West Shrine Bowl, and NFLPA Collegiate Bowl—and the combine, when scouts have plenty of interaction with each other.

Evaluators haven’t had that kind of communication this year, and as a result, Jeremiah said that this year’s draft boards feature greater variance. He believes that, in some ways, it’s better because evaluations are more individualized.

“I can’t remember more variance just talking to buddies around the league about specific players where the orders are so wildly different,” Jeremiah said on a recent teleconference with NFL media. “And to me that’s what makes it fun. I think a lot of teams that I’ve talked to have really tried to shrink their draft board more so than years past. New England was famous for that, where most teams would have 150 players on their draft board, New England would only have 75, 80 guys. … More teams, I think, this year are doing that.”

While a disjointed Division I season took place in the fall, most lower-level schools (FCS, Division II, and Division III) delayed their seasons until the spring or canceled them altogether. That further restricted the opportunities for these players to get serious NFL looks. One such example is Division II Central Missouri tight end/punter Zach Davidson. Davidson had to decide whether to enter the transfer portal and join a D-I program still playing in the fall—and risk hurting his stock by failing to fend off a D-I player for playing time—or stay at Central Missouri and hope that his 2019 film was enough to convince a team to draft him. He chose to stay, and despite not playing last season, declared for April’s draft.

Mules coach Jim Svoboda said that scouts didn’t come to campus to see Davidson during the past year. He explained that it’s uncommon for NFL evaluators to be regular practice observers, but occasionally, when a prospect draws attention, there’s interest.

“Most of the [NFL] teams, they do the preliminary work,” Svoboda said. “They say, ‘Who are your draftable guys?’ Which basically means your seniors, guys who would be eligible. So they get a list and they’ll ask your initial opinions on what guys do you feel like have the capability to play at the next level and who your better players are. But it’s not like I could pick up the phone and say, ‘Look man, you really need to draft this kid, he’s gonna be a hell of a player for you.’”

Of all the information NFL teams collect about prospects, the area where they rely on college programs the most is in determining what kind of individuals these prospects are. That’s something college coaches can especially help with now. “I’ve talked to enough general managers that what kind of person and makeup a guy has—if he has great athletic ability—is starting to be more of a premium,” Patterson said.

“It’s a billion-dollar business in the NFL,” Brown said. “So when they’re making huge investments in people—which is their greatest resource—they’re going to do every bit of research necessary. And that’s something we try to educate our players on is: Everything you do matters, we say to them a lot. It all matters, and people are paying attention.”

This aspect of evaluation has been the most significantly impacted part of the process. Without scouts around to view practices and linger around facilities, they don’t get to see how players take to coaching or how sharp they might be at explaining schemes on the whiteboard. Similarly, players miss out on getting to hear additional feedback from the scouts through their coaches.

Some programs streamline their approach for promoting draft-worthy players by tapping into established scouting networks. At North Carolina, Mack Brown hired senior advisor Darrell Moody to facilitate conversations with NFL representatives. Moody, a former NFL pro scout, served as a middleman by discussing the NFL chances of Tar Heel prospects with scouts and keeping players in the loop on critiques from league personnel. Associate athletic director Paul Pogge also helps Moody in getting exposure for UNC’s NFL-caliber players. And when their players are ready to move on to the next level, the Tar Heels help their draft-eligible players sort through a group of trustworthy agents.

“We’ve worked really, really hard to make sure that our guys have every advantage that any college team could possibly have,” Brown said, “by making sure the NFL knows who our guys are.”

The in-person evaluation might be a small piece of the puzzle when it comes to analyzing prospective NFL players, but for scouts, it was an annoying piece to miss. On The Athletic Football Show earlier this week, Jeremiah explained how different the draft process has been for him and for the teams he’s chatted with in the past year. He drew up a scenario where 60 scouts are all sitting on Zoom calls with teams’ assistant coaches, trainers, and academic advisors, in which the information about prospects being shared isn’t valuable. He contrasted this with normal times, when he and four other scouts might be on campus on the same date. While all four meet with the same coaches, “floating around” and bumping into people around the team can reveal more meaningful information about prospects than a Zoom call ever could. The opportunity to ask questions about players’ film habits, work ethic, and character from firsthand sources was essentially lost.

There’s been a lack of consensus measurables and drill times for players, too, which Jeremiah said will influence teams solidifying their draft boards at a much later stage in the draft cycle. He noted Michigan edge rusher Kwity Paye, whom Michigan listed as 6-foot-4 then measured 6-foot-2 1/2 at his pro day.

“You go to these pro days, this is the first time that scouts have been on campus,” Jeremiah said. “So now they’re getting a chance to tap into these resources that they haven’t had a chance to get. I’m getting tons of feedback from guys, good and bad, that we’re finding out about now.”

“Guys usually come, they watch two practices, or some come early in training camp and some come at the end of the year,” Shaw said. “So missing those evaluation opportunities was difficult for them and for us.”

The lack of those scouting opportunities meant programs that could attract NFL reps to their pro days could have a leg up for their players. Neal Brown’s vision for West Virginia is to routinely have “packed houses” for pro days, highlighting multiple combine invitees and likely draft picks. “It’s not the case all the time,” Brown said, “but the guys that have a high number of combine invites, or high number of draft picks, those teams are usually in the mix [for the College Football Playoff].”

Patterson, who observed his 24th TCU pro day this year, has his strategy down pat. TCU’s location in the heart of the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex usually makes it a popular stop for NFL brass to drop by for pro days, which means more exposure for Horned Frogs draft prospects. Plus, Patterson holds massive get-togethers at his home for former players the day before the workouts. This year, things were much more restricted. Patterson didn’t get to host players for dinner, though he chatted with Sean Payton for an hour over lunch.

Added exposure has been an advantage for his players, but he expressed empathy for players who aren’t obvious first-round picks and are attempting to set themselves apart in such a muddled year.

At this point in the process, Patterson determined that the players most severely limited by all of the circumstances are “tweeners,” or those prospects who are expected to go in the fifth round or later. For those players, pro day workouts can be very significant. For example, Stanford receiver Simi Fehoko might’ve raised his stock following his workout and elevated himself into late-round consideration. The uncertainty of his standing, as well as several others, is a reflection of how the past year’s process has been impacted and perhaps foreshadows the precariousness of the upcoming draft.

“There’s going to be some teams that are aggressive and gamble on guys they don’t have as much information on and swing for the fences,” Jeremiah said. “But those are the teams that are very secure in their jobs. I think if you’re in a situation where you’ve got to nail this thing, I think teams are going to be aiming for doubles, not home runs.”