(UPDATE: Several hours after publication, the NFL sent out a memo to teams prohibiting them from traveling to visit draft prospects or inviting players to their facilities.)
The coronavirus is changing the NFL’s old-school, business-as-usual attitude by the minute. On Tuesday, scouts representing all 32 NFL teams shook hands with prospects and stood close together along the sideline at Northwestern’s pro day, a full house for a workout that included just one player who has a decent shot at getting drafted. On Thursday, those same scouts woke up to emails and calls from their directors, alerting them to change flights or planned drives and reroute themselves back home as a precaution against the coronavirus.
Most NFL teams have now grounded their scouts and eliminated further travel to pro days for the time being. Some have even shut down their team facilities. Of the seven pro days scheduled for Friday, March 13, at least five were canceled or postponed (Michigan, Portland State, Valdosta State, Rutgers and Pittsburg State). Several pro days scheduled for Monday have also been canceled, with more likely to follow. According to several scouts and agents, Alabama has rescheduled their March 24 pro day to April 9 (Alabama would not confirm). Many teams have started to cancel or postpone those at their own discretion, teams like the Bears, Washington, Jets and Giants.
This top tier of draft prospects will hardly be affected by the canceled pro days, limited scout and coach travel, and top 30 visit cancellations. These are the top 100 picks, the prospects that have had an opportunity to play in one of the three major all-star games (Senior Bowl, East-West Shrine, NFLPA) and were invited to the NFL scouting combine. From a scouting standpoint, they’ve had a complete evaluation: Game film, all-star game circuit, combine workout and medical check.
But the bottom tier of prospects will be hit hard from the effect of coronavirus on the pre-draft process. These are the day three guys, the fourth-through-seventh-round prospects. Players who were not invited to one of the major all-star games, so they played in a lower level all-star game with fewer scouts in attendance and didn’t get an invitation to the combine.
“Those guys are relying on their pro day to solidify themselves for scouts and teams to go back and recheck the film based on pro day performance,” said James Paul, an NFL agent for Bus Cook Sports. “So all the boxes for these guys now are not going to be checked off.”
According to Inside The League’s list of 191 pro days for this year, 138 are scheduled for after March 13. Expected coronavirus shutdowns will eliminate a huge number of opportunities for the small-school and/or late-round type prospects to get themselves noticed.
Two of Paul’s clients this year fall into this category of non-combine players. Florida State offensive tackle Ryan Roberts, a grad transfer from NIU who started at right tackle and then switched to left tackle as a Seminole, and Florida Atlantic receiver Deangelo Antoine, a grad transfer from USF. Both had productive college careers. Roberts played in the College Gridiron Classic; Antoine also attended that lower tier all-star game but was injured and sat out the week.
Both Florida State and Florida Atlantic have unofficially informed Paul that the pro days likely won’t be happening.
“My guys have been killing themselves for the last 8-10 weeks, preparing mentally and physically, emotionally to perform on a high level for their pro days,” Paul said. “To show scouts, ‘Listen I have this film, but let me show you athletic I am and it’s going to force you to go re-watch the film.’ That has been taken away from them and it is a huge component of this draft process.”
In conversations with scouts while all the precautionary travel restrictions were rolling out Thursday, the topic of late-round prospects kept coming up. Many teams use a significant amount of their top 30 visits on prospects who weren’t invited to the combine, because they haven’t had the same exposure to them, and don’t have a medical evaluation for them like they do for combine prospects.
“Absolutely the no-combine guys are hurt the most in this process,” said one veteran scout.
The agents I spoke to are all operating as if the draft will still take place on April 23, though several said they wouldn’t be surprised if it does get postponed. To save the draft potential of his clients, Paul is making moves on an idea he got from talking to scouts during the swirl of cancellations He plans to hire a film crew to videotape a mock pro day and then send that workout video to all 32 teams.
Peter Schaffer, a veteran NFL agent for his own agency Authentic Athletix, represents prospects who train at Michael Johnson Performance. He has asked the director at MJP to do the same for all the draft prospects currently training there, set up a mock pro day and filming it for the 32 teams.
“The reality is that the players that workout at the combine, or went to an all-star game and they have enough film, they are fine,” Schaffer said. “These other guys, the poor kid spends 8-10 weeks training, and the agents spend $10-20,000 to get a 40 time at a pro day and now they aren’t running them. It’s horrible, it’s brutal.”
Paul knows first-hand the difference that a pro day can make for a fringe prospect. He represented Kalan Reed, 2016’s Mr. Irrelevant. Reed was an All-Conference USA defensive back at Southern Mississippi. He was invited to the NFLPA all-star game but was injured and didn’t get a chance to compete in front of scouts. He was not invited to the combine, so needed an impressive pro day workout to gain traction. At Southern Miss’s pro day, Reed ran a 4.49 in the 40, in the rain, and also posted a 41 1/2" vertical and 10' 2" broad jump.
“Because of that pro day, scouts went back and had to reevaluate his film,” Paul said. “Honestly, without those pro day numbers, he doesn’t get drafted. He played well on film against Alabama and some of the FBS Power 5 schools, but it wasn’t enough for them because there are so many cornerbacks playing at Power 5 schools.”
One scout provided a counterpoint to this theory. He attended a pro day this year for a small-school prospect whose film intrigued him.
But the player did not have access to great training and did not perform well at his pro day. “I would have fought to bring him in based on his tape, you know, his football ability,” the scout said. “Now, those pro day numbers will stick out and that will be hard to fight for and impossible to win if I tried. Nobody is ‘discovered’ at a pro day. If we rely on the tape, we will be right more often than if we rely on the testing numbers. For any prospect.”
Last spring, I wrote about Prospect X, a combine snub and all-star game snub who I kept anonymous before the draft. That player, offensive lineman Drew Forbes, thought his time with then-Browns offensive line coach James Campen on his top 30 visit was instrumental in Cleveland’s decision to draft him in the sixth round. Then-general manager John Dorsey admitted Campen’s endorsement of Forbes pushed him up the draft board.
Most NFL evaluators agree that top 30 visits are the most important part of the draft process, and can be crucial in determining whether to draft a player or not. These visits are unique because teams can spend a whole day with a prospect—dinner the night before, followed by a full day of medical evaluations and meetings with coaches and personnel staff. Some of the visits are used as recruiting trips for prospects who teams plan to sign as an undrafted free agents, some are used for top prospects that teams are considering with an early-round pick, some are used on non-combine guys and some are used on players that have character concerns.
For the non-combine prospects, an important benefit to a top 30 visit is the medical evaluation aspect. Most teams want to have their team doctor examine a player in person before they decide to use a draft pick on him. That could prove particularly challenging this draft season. Teams may have to rely on college medical staff to send medical records, reports and scans, but it’s not the same as a team’s own doctor writing up his own report.
How will teams handle medical evaluations, given the current attitude on travel? “That’s a great question,” one scout said.
Schaffer said in that situation he’d take his client to a local and respected orthopedic surgeon and send his report on to the teams that inquire. Teams may think the information is biased, but it’s the best option.
“A player who has an extensive injury history, who is a borderline guy, now that guy could go undrafted, based on the team not checking off on him saying it’s a go,” Paul said. “That’s going to push a lot of guys who are right on the fringe out of draft consideration.
CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora reported that the combine medical recheck has been canceled. The recheck is for prospects who were flagged for a medical issue at the combine, and it typically takes place in early April.
The absence of top 30 visits could be particularly tricky for prospects rehabbing serious injuries, even for a high-profile prospect like Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Alabama’s medical staff that is working with Tagovailoa is highly-respected, but even so, a team will want to be put completely at ease with any medical concerns when picking a quarterback high in the first round.
“People are going to have to make calls based on the combine physical in late February,” Schaffer said. “It is going to affect those guys, because can you take the risk?”
Schaffer pointed to the date of April 6, as a day he’s heard mentioned several times in conversations. NFL clubs hope to reassess the coronavirus situation around that time, which is still three weeks ahead of the NFL draft’s currently scheduled date. Agents said that video conferencing has been suggested as a workaround for in-person meetings. Some teams have even started discussing holding draft meetings with their scouting staff over video call, so their remote scouts do not have to travel to the team facility.
“I think the biggest effect on the draft will be on players that are not clean, meaning either injury, character issues, talent issues that the top 30 visits and pro days could give answers to,” Schaffer said. “The teams will sit there and say well, we are going to have to move him down or take him off the board because the risk is too high.”
A veteran scout agreed. Sure, teams will still be able to draft well without the usual amount of pro days and visits, but, “Players are now going to go undrafted who could have helped themselves.”
• Question or comment? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.