How NFL teams can still have an effective draft in 2020
The show must go on. And it will. Confirmed in a memo from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Thursday, the 2020 NFL Draft will still run April 23-25, despite major changes to the event due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The draft has developed into a massive celebration that is televised live from a different city each year, marking the end of months of strenuous workouts, interviews, travel, medical exams and more for pro prospects and NFL teams alike. Obviously, this year’s event will be dramatically different, not only in terms of how it’s conducted, but also in the ways teams build their draft boards, as some of the tools that have become ingrained in the process are not available to them this time around. Although NFL decision-makers are undoubtedly facing unique challenges as they attempt to grade prospects and decide who would best help their teams, there’s no question in my mind that they can still put together quality draft hauls with "incomplete" information.
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When I came into the league in 1977, there wasn’t an NFL Scouting Combine. Senior pro days weren’t a thing. There wasn’t a film library to pore over. And it wasn’t uncommon to select a player who had never undergone a pre-draft physical exam by your team. In fact, there was a time when the draft was held in late January/early February, making it impossible to gather all the information teams can get now. I’m certainly not saying the NFL should return to the old ways. However, I do think many of the fundamental practices I learned during that period shed some light into how teams will approach this year’s draft.
The success of teams in that era relied heavily upon great scouts. Having great scouts, especially area scouts who are responsible for prospects at schools in a certain geographical region, is key if teams intend on having success this April. By following a group of colleges on a regular basis, area scouts get to know the players and staff from those programs very well. That familiarity will be extremely useful over the next few weeks, as they may be able to offer up valuable insights or clarity on many things about the player, including a prospect’s medical history, particularly the individuals who were not among the 337 players invited to this year’s combine. As a former high-level executive who started scouting players in the 1970s told me, "A good area scout will know everything about a player."
I can recall two players that I scouted when I was with the Washington Redskins in the early 1980s — Joe Jacoby and Nate Newton — that had not undergone physicals for us heading into the draft. Although we didn’t end up selecting either player, it wasn’t because of a lack of information; there were others who simply were higher on our draft board. We did, however, sign both players as free agents and both went on to become perennial Pro Bowlers.
That said, teams that rely heavily on their coaches to have a major impact on their draft boards based on combine and spring workouts could be at a disadvantage because they simply don’t have the same knowledge of players that the area scouts possess.
So, how should teams handle the current working conditions? I spoke with several top personnel folks who were involved in drafting players from as far back as the early 1960s, as well as some current general managers, to come up with a plan of attack. Here are my thoughts on how teams can best prepare for this year’s draft:
Physicals: With NFL-related physicals being discontinued as of last week, it appears a number of prospects will be drafted without the typical medical sign-off that teams covet. A majority of prospects already have "passed" physicals from the combine, but players that would return for a combine re-check in a normal year probably won’t be able to get them prior to this year’s draft.
Even when you have access to give players physicals, it’s not uncommon to see teams differ in their evaluations. For example, I know Curtis Martin was left off some draft boards because of his injury history, but New England took him in the third round (74th overall). He ended up having a Hall-of-Fame career.
Team trainers and doctors, who will likely be calling college medical personnel for information, will guide you in this area. A good barometer is missed games. Once again, a scout’s info from school visits — and their interaction with coaches and the training staff — will be critical to answering questions like: Does the player regularly miss practice? Does he have any lingering injuries? How diligent was he about seeking treatment and taking care of his body?
That said, it’s very hard to get medical information from some colleges. This could hurt a prospect’s draft ranking if a team feels like it just can’t get a sufficient enough read on the player’s overall health.
Interviews: Interviews between prospects and teams are an important part of this entire process. Much different than when I began scouting in the late 1970s, these conversations are far more thorough and integral to the scouting process given how the game has evolved and the monetary commitments teams make in the modern NFL.
At this point in the pre-draft process, teams have had opportunities to interview prospects at the Senior Bowl, East-West Shrine Bowl, other bowl games and the NFL Scouting Combine. If those interactions weren’t enough, teams can always use video conferencing services to connect with a player — something we didn’t have the luxury of 40 years ago. Now, there’s certainly a difference between interviewing someone in person versus via a device. Once again, this is where good area scouts will really come in handy. They’ll have the best feel for the prospect since they’ve been observing the player for his entire college career.
Intelligence testing: The Wonderlic test, which is used to measure problem-solving ability, and a psychological test were administered at the combine. The amount of emphasis a team puts on the information gathered by these tests varies. In some cases, teams will use forms of online testing to supplement what was done at the combine. When I started scouting, the Wonderlic was only one small part of our overall evaluation. But there were certainly players who were drafted who hadn’t taken the test.
Workouts: For prospects who didn’t participate in drills or other events at the combine, live evaluations (or film) of practice or games will be even more crucial than usual. The player’s game speed, instincts and talent level can be evaluated this way, and again (I can’t stress this enough), the area scout’s opinion speaks volumes.
Another way to get a feel for a player’s on-field performance is to obtain practice, highlight and workout tapes from agents. Given the circumstances this spring — very few pro days were held — agents may also be sending videos of players running 40-yard dashes. If the team can verify the length of the run is legitimate, along with having a credible timer, it may boost or hinder a player’s evaluation.
Setting the draft board: Expect players who were at the combine and all-star games to be pushed up draft boards simply because teams will have more easily accessible information on them. This is where teams with better scouts will have an advantage — finding the under-the-radar guys who were not invited to those events. With many scouts, along with the rest of the country, hunkering down at home to keep each other safe, why not use the extra time indoors to really dive deep into the tape of the less-familiar prospects? I’d suggest having multiple personnel people watch each position and provide grades — on all prospects.
Draft strategy: It’s always tough to have a "perfect" draft and it’ll be even more difficult this year. To me, the best strategy a team can take is to acquire extra draft picks. The teams that do this will have a bigger advantage this year. Yes, they’ll have more opportunities for misses — a reality we should all expect with the significant changes to the pre-draft scouting process — but they’ll also have more chances for hits. Adding draft assets also afford teams the opportunity to take more risks, especially when it comes to players who may have some medical questions.
Draft boards won’t be as deep this year because teams will eliminate players due to a lack of critical information needed to assess prospects. That said, extra picks in the late rounds can really benefit prepared teams. Remember those great scouts? This is their time to shine by finding hidden gems from smaller schools and other value picks.
Post-draft: There will be a lot of talented players available after the draft, so what is the best way to secure them? A lot of time is spent recruiting and building relationships with players on all levels throughout the pre-draft process. The more time scouts and position coaches spend on developing those relationships, the more it helps a team’s case when convincing a player to sign after the draft. I’d suggest signing as many undrafted free agents as possible (their contracts are based upon passing physicals, which cannot be conducted under the current regulations) because these players provide value on a lot of levels.
Follow Charley Casserly on Twitter @CharleyCasserly.
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