It’s impossible to predict exactly how things could change between now and the scheduled start of the 2021 NFL draft on April 29, but as college football’s splintered, still-fragile season gets underway, one thing is clear: The coronavirus pandemic will dramatically alter the pre-draft process for just about every interested party.
Two Power Five conferences (the Big Ten and Pac-12), the MAC and Mountain West conferences, and the entirety of the FCS have postponed their respective seasons until the spring; the SEC will play a 10-game conference-only schedule; the ACC and Big 12 will play schedules that include one nonconference opponent; and a few other conferences (the Sun Belt, Conference USA, and the American Athletic Conference) are moving forward with altered schedules. Even for the schools that are determined to play, the ability to complete a full season remains uncertain.
In any scenario, though, a truncated or postponed college season has far-reaching implications for every corner of the NFL draft structure. From the players and agents to the teams, from those involved with the all-star-game circuit to the media and everyone in between, the next few months represent uncharted waters. Here’s an early look at how the NFL draft apparatus could adapt to unprecedented circumstances this fall.
What changes for players and agents?
For draft-eligible players at schools that have already postponed their seasons―and even those at schools that still plan to play this fall―the uncertainty and tumult surrounding a modified season and an ongoing pandemic combine to create some very difficult decisions.
The NCAA recently voted to grant all fall athletes an extra year of eligibility, meaning that seniors (even fifth- or sixth-year seniors) will be allowed to return to school to compete next year, a potential advantage for those who are considered fringe draft prospects. We may see some of those players eschew the 2021 draft and play another college season with the hope of boosting their stock. Ascending redshirt sophomores and juniors, meanwhile, must decide whether it makes sense to declare early in this climate. Declaring early always carries some risk (24 underclassmen went undrafted in 2020, and that number is typically higher), but now players must determine whether the combination of their 2019 tape and perceived ability is enough to make them an early-round pick. One player who could be faced with that tough call is Penn State defensive end Jayson Oweh, who, as The Athletic’s Dane Brugler told me, “is one of the most special athletes we have in college football, but has not been a full-time starter yet. He has first-round talent. But doesn’t have first-round tape.”
One prominent agent is urging potential clients to hold off on making the decision to turn pro until there’s more clarity on the situation. “There’s no rush here,” Priority Sports’ Mike McCartney told me. “I don’t believe that training for the combine, away from your teammates and your college, for however many months―seven or eight―who knows how long, makes any sense.” In the meantime, McCartney said that he’s encouraging players to stay at school, train with their teammates, and, for those who can, take advantage of the infrastructures in place at top college programs. Ohio State, for example, recently announced that the team’s COVID-19 testing protocols will continue even though it won’t have a fall season.
The lack of clarity surrounding future scheduling further complicates matters. North Dakota State, for instance, announced in mid-August that it would postpone its entire season; it changed course a few weeks later and scheduled an October 3 matchup with Central Arkansas, ostensibly to give quarterback Trey Lance (a projected first-round pick) a chance to showcase his skills in front of scouts. The Big Ten is reportedly considering a return to football in the late fall or early winter―a decision that could spur the Pac-12 to follow suit―and there’s talk of an accelerated spring season that would wrap by mid-March. That latter possibility would obviously disrupt the typical NFL pre-draft calendar, which has the Senior Bowl slated for late January and the NFL combine in late February. The draft could be moved back to as late as June 2, too, according to the league’s CBA.
Even for those players content to delay their decisions on whether to go pro or return to school, the idea of playing football in January or later might not be realistic. A postponed college schedule could mean players would be asked to play two seasons in one calendar year, a risky proposition from a wear-and-tear standpoint. We might see some highly regarded, probable early-round prospects opt out even when football does eventually start back up. In fact, we’re seeing that already. Big-ticket players like LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley, and Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons have all declared for the 2021 draft.
Those early entrants highlight another wrinkle that makes this draft cycle unrecognizable from those in the past: the dramatically extended training schedule. For players, it brings about the question of how to best use that time. For agents, it changes the process of selecting and supporting clients. In a normal year, agents bankroll their clients’ pre-draft training regimen for about three or four months. Now some agencies will do that for eight-plus months, paying for intensive training, meals, and everything in between. “We’re hearing rumblings throughout the country that a couple of agents are really stepping up with big per diems,” McCartney said, “to train guys throughout the fall as well as the spring.”
The scheduling shift also brings about an opportunity for the burgeoning industry that’s built up to train college players for the pros. As my Ringer colleague Kevin Clark wrote last month, private quarterbacks coach Quincy Avery is setting up a program for the college QBs who won’t be playing this season to get a head start on running an NFL offense. Avery’s plan is to also recruit some receivers and defensive backs so the quarterbacks can run NFL concepts in seven-on-seven games. This system isn’t perfect; there won’t be any hitting, and Aaron Donald won’t be bearing down on those QBs. But it could present a valuable opportunity for guys like Ohio State’s Justin Fields, Miami’s D’Eriq King, and Oregon’s Anthony Brown, among others, to get reps.
Beyond that, there’s talk that players will have other, league-run opportunities to showcase their talents to NFL decision-makers this fall. “There’s rumblings about a potential all-star game in the fall,” McCartney told me, “or a mini-combine in the fall. You just hope that the NFL doesn’t do business as normal and not give these kids a chance to at least show, beyond a normal season, what they have.”
Will the pre-draft circuit change?
In a typical season, the pre-draft all-star games kick off in January, with the East-West Shrine Bowl and Senior Bowl falling on back-to-back weekends late in the month. The league stages its annual combine in Indianapolis in February, and colleges hold pro days in March and early April. It’s far too early to speculate about what the combine and pro day circuit will look like in 2021, but there are already indications that the Senior Bowl will try to pick up some of the slack from a fractured college season.
“We’re definitely leaning more towards having an extended week right now,” Senior Bowl director and former longtime NFL scout Jim Nagy told me. “I think that benefits everybody. I try to put myself in a player’s shoes, and if I’m at a Pac-12 school or a Big Ten school, the Mountain West or MAC, I’m going to be a little leery of putting the pads back on if I haven’t had them on in 12 or 15 months. In our game, I always want to have them come here feeling like they put their best foot forward.”
What that extended week could look like is still up in the air. After a recent call with decision-makers around the league, Nagy noted the prevailing thought is to add a week to the event, giving the players the chance to knock some rust off after a long stretch without real football. That might include three or four days of conditioning and field drills like you’d see at the combine, a few days of practice in shorts and shells, and finally a few practices in full pads. From that point on, a normal week of practice―the offensive install and scrimmages leading to the game―would commence.
“That would give the teams that much more of an on-field evaluation,” Nagy said. “It gives the teams an extra week to be around these players and observe and interview, and it gives the players another week to put their best foot forward and connect with these scouts and the decision-makers.”
The NFL coaches who staff the Senior Bowl could have a big advantage. That chance is typically afforded to the two worst teams in the league (following the draft order rules while excluding the teams that overhauled their staffs). In a draft cycle with a shortage of data points, having an extended in-person scouting look could prove invaluable. “You can learn a ton about these players, the guys that are with them behind the scenes and in the meetings and on the field and eating meals with them every day,” Nagy said. “It’s a huge bonus.”
As for the Senior Bowl invite process, Nagy’s staff will face nearly the same problems that NFL teams will this year. Without 2020 game tape to evaluate, the Senior Bowl scouts will have to get more creative in picking which players will attend.
What will teams do to adapt?
For NFL teams, the potential for an abridged or outright canceled college season throws the typical scouting process for a loop. A scouting maxim is that “tape is king”―and the first step most teams take when assembling their draft boards is to watch every snap draft-eligible players have taken over the past two seasons. Without that critical final season of game tape, scouts and decision-makers will be forced to lean more on other methods for collecting information. Regardless of whether teams put the most stock into word of mouth, analytics, or combine testing, the synthesization of that data presents a unique challenge in this environment.
One of the most important steps teams take as part of the evaluation process is to reach out to college coaches. Those coaches have been around their players for multiple seasons, and know their work habits and character. The coaches can shed light on whether a player is a great teammate, or conversely whether he’s missed practices and skipped weightlifting sessions. This year, teams’ reconnaissance missions will look different: While much of the country continues to practice social distancing, teams have resorted to Zoom calls with college coaches over the past few months. But those calls aren’t always the best route for getting meaningful nuggets of information.
“Relationships are so important,” Nagy told me. “Scouts are going to be working phones a bunch over the next few months. These Zoom calls are great … and some of these coaches have been really forthcoming. But I think it’s human nature that we’re all a little more open in a one-on-one setting.
“You’re probably gonna get something different from a position coach, if you were in a building and you knocked on his door in the middle of the day, shut the door behind you, and sat down to ask him about a player. Say it’s a position coach you’ve known for 15 years, and you have longstanding trust built; I think he’d be more open in that setting than he would be on the call.”
McCartney, who worked as a college scout and director of pro personnel with the Bears and Eagles before shifting to the agent side, echoed that sentiment. “You’re missing out bumping into a coach or somebody in the building either on the way to practice or in the hallway and getting that one little nugget that not everybody else gets,” he said. “The younger scouts are going to have to really hustle to try and get guys on the phone to paint the full picture of who the player is.”
Younger scouts could run into problems because coaches aren’t going to call every person back. Teams with strong connections to college teams could have a distinct advantage over the next few months. “College coaches and support staff are going to be getting calls from all 32 teams on all their guys,” Nagy said. “And those coaches only have so many minutes in the day; they’re not gonna have time to call back all 32. They’re gonna pick and choose who they call back. So having those relationships is going to be critical in a year like this.”
The Panthers could be one team that has an edge in this regard. Their staff has unique insights into the current crop of college prospects through the experience and connections of new head coach Matt Rhule, who has spent all but one year of his coaching career at the college level. “Matt’s just leaving college football,” Nagy said, “and he’s got [former LSU passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach] Joe Brady on his staff now.” Brady’s preexisting relationship with Ja’Marr Chase, for example, could come in handy during the evaluation process. Nagy noted the similarities between Carolilna and his former team in Seattle, which had a particularly impressive run of drafting success early in Pete Carroll’s tenure, in part because Carroll was “totally wired in to all of those guys that he recruited.”
This point illustrates another way teams could adapt to this unique college season. Typically, scouts do the lion’s share of background work on prospects, canvassing college coaches and staff. But this year teams may lean more heavily on their coaching staff’s college connections. Here, Nagy mentioned newly minted Texans linebackers coach Chris Rumph. “In the last 10 years, he’s been at Alabama, he’s been at Tennessee, he’s been at Clemson, he’s been at Florida,” Nagy said. “I mean, he’s been in about every major program in the Southeast, so he’s a really well connected guy.”
Moving past the HUMINT-like aspect of the scouting process, teams could look deeper into statistical analytics to spot development potential. Metrics like breakout age and dominator rating are popular tools in the fantasy football community for spotting future receiving stars. Breakout age, for instance, highlights the year in which a given receiver captures at least 20 percent of his team’s receiving yards and touchdowns―and has proved to be remarkably predictive. The idea is logical: Receivers who dominate early in their college careers (as, say, 18- or 19-year-olds) against older, more experienced competition are, more often than not, just really good players. That talent carries over to the next level.
There’s surely plenty of data to mine at other positions too, and teams could also place an even stronger emphasis on physical benchmarks in this coming draft. “Teams will really be put to the test because usually they’re matching their physical standards with the tape,” NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein told me, “but this year there’s going to be a little less tape.” Zierlein mentioned the Seahawks, Chiefs, and Colts as examples of teams that identify or eliminate certain prospects from their boards based on their physical standards at certain positions. Seattle has been famous for targeting outside cornerbacks with very long arms, at least 32 inches, and rarely looks to draft players who don’t meet that criteria. “That is an advantage,” Zierlein said, “if you can at least lean on your physical and athletic standards, it helps you with some of your projections.”
Ultimately, the margin for error feels wider this year than ever. Without a reliable schedule of games, there’s just no way to get a full picture of the type of player, and person, you’re scouting. Scouts place a lot of emphasis on watching games in person, and all the traveling they do throughout the fall can pay dividends. “When you’re scouting the game live, there’s a lot of things you can take away,” Nagy said. “Just being on the field pregame and seeing how wired a guy is, how dialed-in he is pregame.”
Those traits are considered especially important for quarterbacks. “How they interact with teammates, between series, you’re always looking for things that don’t show up on the tape, right?” Nagy said. “So there’s a lot of live game takeaways these guys just aren’t going to have this year.”
Which types of players will be most affected?
A lost season could be particularly damaging to ascending quarterbacks, who can make giant leaps up draft boards behind a breakout final season in school. Take the past three no. 1 picks―Joe Burrow, Kyler Murray, and Baker Mayfield―none of whom went into their last years on campus as projected first-round picks. “I feel for all college athletes right now,” Burrow tweeted on August 10. “I hope their voices are heard by the decision makers. If this happened a year ago I may be looking for a job right now.”
Even for higher-rated quarterbacks, this year’s draft cycle could limit their draft ceiling. In this regard, Ohio State QB Justin Fields comes to mind. “He’s still going to be a first-round pick,” Brugler said, “but without having the season, he probably doesn’t have any shot of supplanting [Clemson quarterback] Trevor Lawrence, or competing with him, to be that no. 1 overall pick. If Fields was as good as he was last year, his first year in the program, he could have taken a big step this year and competed for that top spot. Now it’s just not gonna happen.”
For some players, the COVID-altered college season won’t change all that much. “Penei Sewell, [the left tackle] from Oregon, I think we have a good feeling for who he is, and that he’s still going to be one of the first players drafted,” Brugler said. But for others, losing that final prove-it season could drastically change their draft standing, both with media members and with scouts of NFL teams.
“I’ll give you probably one of the starkest examples of why this year is difficult,” Zierlein said, “and that’s Stanford tackle Walker Little. He missed all 2019 with an injury. So now I have to go back to 2018 and see what’s going on from the 2018 tape. That’s not optimal for me, but it’s really not optimal for the prospect, because now I’ve got to go back and look at tape from when he was 19 years old.”
For scouts and draftniks alike, a lack of 2020 film is going to make sifting through and evaluating hundreds of draft hopefuls a challenge. Instead of using new games to add to an established knowledge base, evaluators will have to look further backward. And when scouring old film, certain issues can cloud evaluation. “The [players are] not gonna be as big,” Zierlein said. “They’re not going to be as strong. So there’s a lot of projection. … There’s some level of play that we’re not seeing just yet, and so even though you project that they could reach that level, if you don’t see it on tape, that’s always a concern for scouts.”
With a stronger emphasis on potential and on intangible traits, the art of projection becomes even more important. Here, the media tasked with covering the draft will run into many of the same problems as teams. “My summer is the same as any other,” Brugler said. “I’m hunkered down. I’m studying the players based off of last year’s film. In most years it’s that foundation that is so important, because it helps me judge players based on the upcoming season. But instead of last year being the foundation, it now becomes the main evaluation. It becomes the core of the report for a player.”
Brugler noted that he’ll be “supplementing everything else with the pre-draft process: how they’re doing at the all-star games; how they’re doing at the combine; talking to guys in the league and trying to get a sense for how they feel about certain players. A lot of it’s gonna be based off of potential and not proven production.”
So what’s that all mean? If I had to guess, we’ll see a wider range of opinions among media analysts, greater disparities on scouting grades, and a larger pool of projected early-round picks. That lack of consensus will likely extend to team grading too, as every NFL scouting department and decision-maker heads into the draft with a different appetite for risk. An event inherently based on uncertainty is going to be that much more unpredictable. And it’s going to have a lasting impact on the league.
“The ripple effect of this,” Brugler said, “we’re gonna be feeling it and talking about it for a couple of years, no question.”