Prospect X answers the FaceTime call. It’s late on a Thursday afternoon the week before the draft, though it’s hard to keep track of what day it is anymore. Every day is the same, holed up in his childhood bedroom spending hours on video calls and phone calls with NFL coaches and scouts. X has known the scout now calling for several months, so the conversation begins casually. How was X’s family’s Easter barbecue? How has he been staying in shape during quarantine? The area scout was one of around 20 evaluators who came through his small campus during the season and has kept in touch ever with X ever since. X wears a black baseball hat for this video chat—all the barbershops are closed and his hair has seen better days.
After briefly discussing ’90s R&B music and Topgolf, the scout takes a sip of coffee and cuts to the chase. His team wants X badly but may not be able to draft him, so he needs to figure out whether the interest is mutual should X go undrafted. Does he love me? Does he love me not?
“You been talking to a lot of teams?”
“Yep,” X says confidently. “I’ve been talking with quite a few. Tomorrow I have another video chat with a special teams coordinator with [an NFC team].”
Late-round/priority-free-agent prospects rarely give a straight answer when asked about their team preferences. X is no exception to that rule.
“The [NFC team]?” the scout jokingly scoffs. “Why do you want to go there?”
“They want to interview me,” X says.
“Just make them feel good,” the scout says, laughing. “You wouldn’t want to play with [NFC team’s QB] anyways, he’s old.”
“There’s nothing I can do,” X says. “The ball is not in my court. Whatever happens happens on Day 3.”
The scout instinctively senses his opportunity. “But what if the ball is in your court?” he asks. “What are you thinking?”
X doesn’t take the bait. “Hell, I have high hopes,” he says. “With how many people are talking to me, I feel like there is a high chance I am getting drafted. Sixth round or seventh round.”
He moves closer to the screen and flashes his signature wide grin. The scout laughs and tries his question one more time. “If you could go anywhere, where would it be?”
Prospect X slips the question like a skilled boxer. “I’m going to be honest with you,” he says, leaning back on the couch in his living room. “I’ll be grateful wherever. As long as I have a number and my name on the back of my jersey, that’s all I really care about. Hell, you can give me number 99, since that’s going to be my overall [rating] in Madden someday.”
The scout nods, takes notes, and smiles at X’s infectious spirit. Though X is a small-school prospect who wasn’t invited to the combine or a top all-star game, he projects the come-get-me attitude of a first-round pick. And that confidence—“juice” as the scout calls it—is endearing him to all the NFL contacts in his phone.
Resigned to the fact that he won’t get a straight answer out of X, the scout spends the rest of the call listing all the reasons X would love playing for his team. Brilliant coaching staff, expected playoff bonus, opportunity to win a job on special teams and develop at his position.
X’s dad walks through the room, and the scout calls him into the conversation. They’d met at X’s pro day, and the scout remembers dad is an avid golfer. “Hey, Pops, how are you?” the scout says. “You know there are great courses out in [team’s city].”
“I like the sound of that,” Dad says. A few days after the FaceTime call, a package addressed to X’s dad shows up at the family’s doorstep. Inside is a box of his favorite brand of golf balls, Titleist Pro V1 balls, decorated in the scout’s team’s logo.
One day last week X had three calls with three special teams coordinators, an AFC North team, NFC West team and NFC East team. He estimates he’s talked to around 12 NFL special teams coordinators and position coaches. His agent gets calls daily asking about him, but despite all the interest, X faces daunting odds to get drafted. Because of the impact of the coronavirus on the draft, it’s never been harder for a small-school prospect to get drafted.
Like last year, the MMQB spent the past few months searching for the most overlooked prospect in the 2020 NFL draft. After surveying evaluators, watching tape and reading the tea leaves, we landed on a player who we believe is the draft’s best-kept secret. We will reveal his name in a follow-up after draft weekend, but for now—for the sake of interested NFL teams—we will protect his identity as best we can. For now, he is simply “Prospect X.”
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Looking to find out the identity of Prospect X? Better watch closely.
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Our inaugural Prospect X, Drew Forbes, was drafted in the sixth round by the Browns. Last spring, Forbes was one of 33 draftees who weren’t invited to the combine, and typically there are 30–40 each year. But because of the ban on top-30 visits and pro days, that number will be much lower this year. Teams rely on top-30 visits to get medical evaluations for noncombine prospects, and many teams don’t feel comfortable using a draft pick on a player that their team doctor hasn’t personally examined. Every evaluator and agent I spoke to for this story predicted only 10–15 noncombine players will hear their names called this year, and they are more likely to be from big-time programs, who have more exposure and whose medical and strength staff have strong relationships with NFL scouts. Based on the interest in him, X’s agent estimates he would have had at least four top-30 visits, but it’s hard to say exactly. Several teams have requested X’s medical info from his school’s athletic trainer.
There are more traditional obstacles facing X. He is an undersized skill-position player who comes from an area that isn’t known for football talent. His high school had several successful athletic programs, but struggled to get adequate resources for those teams. They had no football stadium, so X drove all over the city to play home games at whatever field was available, often without lights. Friday-night games sometimes began at 4 in the afternoon, in front of empty bleachers, while parents were still busy at work. The football team practiced on the edge of a softball field where coaches painted lines on the grass to create a 50-yard field. The city’s parks workers had a habit of showing up late to set up goal posts, so coaches often stood in the “end zone” holding up an arm as a makeshift post.
When X played high school ball, not many college recruiters made it to his inner-city school. One of his high school coaches says that recruiters who have only a couple of days to scout the city are typically going to spend that time in the wealthy suburbs, where the rosters are stocked with 100 players, not 30. “A lot of talent goes hidden because of the quality of competition or school’s record,” the coach says.
X didn’t receive a single FBS offer, and the small school he ended up at has never had a player drafted in the NFL. But hey, they had an actual home stadium to play in. When the recruiter showed up two weeks before his last high school game, X asked him where the school was located, and was stunned to find out it was in the same state. “Hell no, I’d never heard of it,” X says.
X was one of only a handful of true freshmen in his program to play. He earned his spot on the travel squad after he lit up a punt returner in his first rep as gunner in fall camp. In four years, he amassed an impressive number of special teams tackles, return yards and touchdowns, and multiple awards for his special teams play. He played all four special teams units, as returner and gunner, and he was named a team captain his senior season. His coaches say they could always rely on him to create points and ignite a momentum shift when the team needed it. X’s college practice jersey hangs on the wall of his bedroom. The mesh fabric is so tattered that the sides’ seams are loosely held together with zip ties.
Because of his speed and immediate special teams potential, more scouts visited the school this season than ever before. The team’s offensive coordinator also wears the hat of NFL liaison, a role he took on in earnest this past season. “It wasn’t a thing here up until now,” the coach says. “No one comes to [this school]. Then all of a sudden it’s like, oh, [Prospect X], he has a shot as a junior. He ran well, so he was on some guys’ radars. The first team to come by were the Ravens. I was like, wow, maybe I will be busy this season?”
“There are not too many people who like to be on special teams,” X says. “I don’t see what the problem is. You get to go down and hit somebody as hard as you can. C’mon now, put me up. Let’s go! And then on top of that, on punt and kick returns you get a chance to get a quick six. … That s--- is fun.”
Adds his college head coach: “The biggest thing is he’s not just a punt returner or kick returner. How many of those guys will run that 4.3 speed and then try to light somebody up at the end of it? We have had fast guys in the past, but he has the best shot of all of them because he can combine [speed and strength].”
An area scout who has X in his region says he could be a day-one special teams starter. “He’s tough as nails,” the scouts says. “He will run through a brick wall. He’s a really good tackler.”
One special teams coordinator for an NFC West team told X he looked at his stats and thought, no way, this can’t be real. Then he put on the tape. A quick pass through his highlight video makes it clear why his practice jersey is ripped to shreds.
Some NFL scouts and coaches have compared him to two special teams stalwarts who built long NFL careers: New England’s two-time All-Pro Matt Slater and former Bears returner and three-time All-Pro Devin Hester.
X is among the lucky underdogs who did have a pro day before the coronavirus shut down the predraft process. X’s parents drove him to take part in a bigger program’s pro day. The day before, he was so in demand that he had meetings with an NFC West team and an AFC East special teams coordinator and then scheduled back-to-back dinners with two more teams at two different restaurants, an AFC North team at 5 p.m. and an AFC West team at 7 p.m. He ordered a garden salad at both dinners so he could keep eating and not seem suspicious to either team. The next day, he ran a fast 40 time and tested well.
Dad wanted to make sure his son got there on time, so he drove him to the restaurants himself and took a seat at the bar while X ate with the scouts. After meeting X’s dad, one scout said, “Man, your dad is tall, what happened to your height?”
For that, X has the perfect response. “I may not have the size,” he says, “but I have the heart. I got heart over height.”
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X and his girlfriend are expecting their first child in June, and now that he’s back home he’s been hit hard with “baby fever.” He drives his girlfriend to her doctor’s appointments and waits outside in the car because coronavirus precautions don’t allow him to go inside with her. He was nervous and scared when he first found out his girlfriend was pregnant, and he worried about the sacrifices that come with being a father. But now, as he nears draft weekend, and gets closer and closer to their baby’s due date, he feels ready. He recently bought an olive-green onesie as a coming-home outfit for his future baby, a son who they plan to name [Prospect X] Jr. “I got emotional,” he says. “Damn, I am out here purchasing clothes for my son.”
“It’s maturing him a lot,” his mom says. “He started to do some self-reflection, looking at his own dad and thinking about what kind of dad he wants to be.”
On the FaceTime call, the area scout asks, “So when you come to [team’s city], when we draft you, is your girlfriend and [Prospect X] Jr. coming?” the scout asks.
“Yeah,” X says.
The scout–Day 3 prospect relationship is a carefully choreographed waltz. The scout must convey serious interest, make the player feel valued and keep visions of a happy-we-drafted-you future together alive, while also not committing to anything too serious. If he steps too close, the player might feel hurt and sign with another team if he goes undrafted. If he keeps too much distance, the player might lose interest and follow another scout’s lead.
“What else, [X]?” the scout asks, wrapping up the 40-minute FaceTime call. “Any questions for me?”
X seizes his moment to call out that blatant tease. “You mentioned the draft, so, uh,” he clears his throat conspicuously. “So let's talk about that, sir. So, um, what are we talking? Like, sixth round?”
The scout laughs at X’s fearlessness. “Hey, you never know,” he says. “When the bullets are flying, especially on Day 3, they are flying fast. It's an interesting time. You're battling with which position you need. It's not always necessarily your favorite player that you’re taking. ... Ultimately, all that matters is you go where you'll be working with the best coaches and have the best chance to make the team. I tell guys all the time, sometimes it is better to go undrafted.”
On a Saturday night two weeks before the draft, X’s agent received a text from a decision-maker from another team. Hoping in two weeks from tonight we are making Prospect X [a/an Team Mascot]!
There’s a bit of choreography that X’s agent has also perfected. He’ll get several of these types of texts and calls in the days leading up to the draft. That makes two of us. With all of his FaceTime calls, you may have to select him late.