It didn’t take the completion of my question for ex-Buccaneers GM Mark Dominik to spill his answer on exactly how 2021 is shaping up for the guys filling the positions he did over two decades spent in NFL personnel departments.
“It’s terrible, Albert!” he said, laughing. “I mean, I thought last year was difficult, but we had the combine, which saved everybody on medicals. And I know that they’re still going to do mini-combine medicals, but just the interview process is so, so much more difficult. You think about last year, with the NFLPA game, East-West game, you had all these chances to go meet all these players and spend more time with them.
“The Senior Bowl [this year], it was speed dating—a few nights, 15-minute blocks per club. Now you can basically just Zoom guys, and Zooming is not the way to really meet someone. That’s not ideal. So it’s a very challenging year for every club to try to put together how they’re going to attack the draft, because I think every club needs to look at it different.”
Friday, Dominik’s going to try to be a part of the effort to help fill in the scouting gaps.
EXOS is among the leaders in predraft training for college football’s best, and they have prospective first-rounders like LSU’s Ja'Marr Chase, Miami’s Greg Rousseau, Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman and Alabama's Patrick Surtain II among the 133 players working to get ready in their ranks this year, across facilities in Pensacola, Fla.; Carlsbad, Calif.; Frisco, Texas; and Phoenix. And this week, they’re consolidating those four groups down to two and running their own combine.
The kids at the San Diego–area facility will go to Phoenix, and those in Pensacola will travel to Texas. Dominik will help run the Dallas-area pro day, and former Panthers director of player personnel Don Gregory will help conduct the one in Phoenix. As it stands as of Thursday afternoon, fewer than half of the 133 guys with EXOS are expected to participate in these combine sessions.
But this isn’t about who chooses to go and who doesn’t. It’s about creating an opportunity for kids who’ve had their dreams and plans thrown in a blender over the last 12 months.
“In a normal year, guys would have an opportunity to participate at the combine and then at their pro day,” said Adam Farrand, EXOS’s VP of pro/elite sports. “And so if you get a kid with an injury, not ready to perform at the combine, he’s always got his pro day. This year, that’s gone. So we just want it to be sort of that secondary opportunity for guys. And we have some smaller school kids where our pro day is going to be their pro day.”
So yes, this is a story about what’ll take place in Dallas and Phoenix the next two days. And it’s also the story of what a weird year this has been, in general, for all the players there.
It’s combine week! Or it would’ve been. Here’s what we’ve got for you in the GamePlan …
• An early power ranking of the top five quarterbacks in the draft.
• A look at franchise tags … as team-friendly bargains.
• Why we don’t actually know when Super Bowl LVI will be played.
But we’re starting with the combine. Just not the one you’re thinking of.
For Farrand & Co., planning what’s ahead of EXOS in Dallas and Phoenix started last March, before any of us had any idea that COVID-19 would still be dictating how we live our lives a year later. During the 2020 draft process, EXOS had about 20 prospects who got caught in the middle—not invited to the NFL combine (which brings the top 330 or so prospects to Indy), and with pro days scheduled for dates after the pandemic shut everything down.
Those guys were left without verified 40 times, three-cone drills and bench numbers, and, worse, a good chunk of them were smaller-school prospects who needed them more than their big-school counterparts would have. At that point, 2021 was a long way off, and there was no telling what it would look like. But the conversation, they figured, would be a good one to have.
“We tried to get in front of the conversation of, Hey, if the combine gets canceled next year, we need to be able to provide an opportunity for these guys to test,” Farrand said. “And here’s the other piece: We witnessed a lot of training facilities last year do their own pro days in the midst of a pandemic with numbers and results that were run by the individual training facilities. And we just said, No team is really going to trust the numbers of a training facility because they have a vested interest; they want their clients to do well and to show well.
“So we said let’s figure out some people in our network that we could lean on that are maybe not current scouts, but guys that teams would trust.”
That’s where Dominik and Gregory would come in, but a lot happened in the interim.
The college football year was in peril in the summer, and the Big Ten and Pac-12 canceled their seasons before eventually reversing course and playing. FCS conferences moved their seasons to the spring. Some smaller schools still called off the 2020 season altogether. And as part of the rampant uncertainty, some high-profile players opted out in the summer with an eye on starting their draft prep early. EXOS took some of those players in by early fall, including Chase, Rousseau, and Michigan’s Ambry Thomas and Nico Collins.
Those who did play in the fall joined them in December and January, and everyone, by then, had the knowledge that this would be a most different draft cycle.
The Senior Bowl, as Dominik referenced, remained on the schedule. But every other all-star game was gone, and so too, as Farrand had feared last March, was the combine. Also out: private workouts, in-house “30” visits and any in-person interaction past what the Senior Bowl had arranged in January. And so that means, from this point forward, players vying to for their football future are left with pro days and Zoom interviews.
Which makes every exposure a player gets to a team and a team gets to a player all the more important. Which brings us to the one that EXOS is creating over the next two days.
Friday, players will arrive and Dominik and Gregory, at their respective locations, will do height, weight, hand, reach and all the other measurements to start the day, and the guys will get a body composition test. Then they’ll do the broad jump, the vertical and the bench press. On Saturday, the 40-yard dash, three-cone drill, 20-yard shuttle and position-specific drills run by EXOS coaches.
And, as Farrand said, the integrity of the results is important—as is the form in which they come. NFL teams will want to know, for example, that a player didn’t get 15 cracks at running the 40. Which is why getting Dominik and Gregory aboard was vital. Because the two have relationships in the scouting community, and have worked dozens of combines and hundreds of pro days, their word that this is happening on the level goes a long way.
“I would hope my reputation holds up somewhat,” said Dominik, who got his start in the league working as a combine assistant for the Chiefs with Jeff Ireland. “And my relationships with a lot of people still in the National Football League would help.”
From there, EXOS will package the results with video files, and give them to the agents of the players to distribute to teams. Farrand says that EXOS did consider streaming the event for teams, but the multilocation nature of it made it a little too complicated to pull off.
In the end, Dominik—who helps prepare players for the interview process for both EXOS and a number of agents—hopes it’ll give the guys participating some peace of mind, in that they have something on the ledger with so much uncertainty still ahead.
“What happens if one of these young men that work out, it rains on the day of their pro day, and now it’s a wet track?” Dominik said. “At least you’ve got accurate times on them. If they worked out at this pro day that EXOS is working on, they’re still going to want to go work out at their pro day. But again, what if it’s a young man that goes to South Dakota State, or what if it rains in Indiana that day and it is a bad track or a bad spot to do the drills? What if we have an outbreak and for some reason California schools get shut down?
“It’s an opportunity just to let these kids have every opportunity, based off of what this year has been like. … And there’s a chance that there’s a guy that, at his school, is going to run in the 4.3s, and this gives [teams] time to say, Let’s go back and look at that guy, maybe we’re missing something, instead of waiting to their pro day. So it helps these guys maybe get on the map a little bit sooner.”
This year, as Dominik sees it, is about checking boxes. And in his interview coaching, he’s telling players that. Teams are further behind than they normally would be, so in some of these Zoom meetings, there could be a list of 10 things a team has to get out of the talk. Chances are, giving them those 10 things probably won’t make for the most exciting interview, which presents another challenge of 2021.
“The main thing I tell them is this: Most of these guys that are going to go in the first four or five rounds, you’re going to do these Zoom interviews 32 times,” he said. “And after the 20th, you’re going to get tired of talking about your hamstring [injury] that you had when you were a sophomore. But if you walk into that 21st one, and it’s the team that likes you the most, and you don’t have energy in a Zoom, there’s a chance that area scout’s gonna go, He’s not who I thought he was.
“And it’s all because you don’t understand that this is your first chance to make your first impression with 32 clubs. And you have to take every one of these interviews as if it’s the only time you’re ever going to speak to the organization.”
On the flip side, as Farrand sees it, the 2021 class is uniquely positioned to show its strength in everything it’s been through. The opt-outs spent the fall mostly in relative isolation. The kids playing went through as trying a college football season as there’s ever been. Now, they’re flying at least somewhat blind into a draft cycle unlike any other. And because of that, Farrand says, “The resiliency of these kids this year is unbelievable.”
Then there’s this: Farrand, who’s captained EXOS’s combine training for a decade, and worked there for 15 years, believes the kids will test better, too.
For some, the reason is obvious. Guys like Chase and Rousseau have had months to get healthy when they’d normally have been grinding through a football season and prepare for the Olympic-style testing that the combine brings. For others, it’s a little less apparent, but should show up all the same.
“The combine, in its essence, is designed for these guys to fail,” Farrand said. “It’s designed for these guys to go and not perform at their best. It’s to test resiliency, right? Because you want to see after interviews and medicals and drug tests at five in the morning and all these things, will they come out and compete that last day, and compete at a high level? Well, now you don’t have sort of that three-day lead up.
‘These guys are sleeping in beds they’re used to. They’re going to a facility they’ve gone to for between three and five years. So I think the familiarity, not having all those outside elements leading into when they actually go and perform at the pro day, I think across the board you will see pro day numbers be better than in a traditional combine year, I would anticipate from just that standpoint.”
And the hope for these guys is that’ll show up not just at the traditional pro days scheduled over the next month or so, but also starting the next two days in Arizona and Texas.
Regardless, the guys competing will get something on the books. Which, in this weird year, isn’t something promised to anyone.
Since it’s combine week, I figured I’d take my first stab at ranking how the quarterbacks will come off the board. Here you go …
1) Trevor Lawrence, Clemson (Range: Pick 1). If someone tells you Lawrence won’t be the top guy on every team’s board when all’s said and done, don’t listen. He will be.
2) Zach Wilson, BYU (Range: Picks 2 to 6). He’s a lot of fun to watch, but the league still has a lot of work to do on him. If I had to do a mock today, I’d pencil him in to the Jets.
3) Justin Fields, Ohio State (Range: Picks 2 to 8). I had a couple of scouts bring up Justin Herbert when talking about Fields, saying everyone’s overthinking it. I’d agree. To me, the biggest question on Fields revolves around how easy certain things have come to him physically, and how that might change in the NFL. He’s plenty competitive and tough.
4) Trey Lance, North Dakota State (Range: Picks 2 to 12). Lance was very highly thought of coming out of 2019. And I don’t know how much stock you really can put in the one game he played in 2020, the weird one-off in which he wasn’t great. Despite concerns on his level of competition and number of starts, Lance does check a lot of boxes.
5) Mac Jones, Alabama (Range: Picks 8 to 47). A lot of scouts have said to me they can’t see Jones going in the first round. But he has strong advocates in Tuscaloosa and would come in as ready to play as anyone in the class, outside of Lawrence.
THE BIG QUESTION
Are the franchise tags bargains for teams this year?
I had one team’s cap chief run all the numbers for me this week, and I can tell you that the difference in where the numbers will be vs. where they likely would’ve been without the pandemic is significant.
To illustrate that, let’s assume the cap will land at $183 million, and that it would’ve climbed to $210 million without COVID-19 (which would’ve followed the year-over-year trends of the seven years before this one). As it is, the running back number will land around $8.68 million. As it would’ve been? Around $9.96 million. The corner number will be around $15.1 million. It would’ve been in the neighborhood of $17.33 million. And at receiver, it’s $16.03 million versus about $18.392 million.
Those gaps may not seem like a huge deal. But they are, and for three reasons. First, they’re used as leverage points/framing in negotiations on long-term deals, and often work to set the total in guaranteed money and average per year. Second, a second tag is 120% of the number, which means a team’s ability to franchise a guy again in 2022 is directly tied to the tag now. And third, in a tight-cap year, every dollar in a lump-sum contract counts.
That leads to these situations with some key names …
• The Packers will likely be able to take Aaron Jones off the market for less than $8.7 million. That’d put him well below even the second-tier level at his position, which sits at around $12 million per year with guys like Joe Mixon and Derrick Henry, and should work to keep Aaron Rodgers happy.
• Tampa Bay’s Chris Godwin, Detroit’s Kenny Golladay and Chicago’s Allen Robinson would be looking at about $16 million, which is right around what the Rams are paying two receivers (Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp) in that range. And for the Bucs, Godwin’s number will probably come in around $3 million less than a second tag for Shaq Barrett would cost.
• The Panthers will likely be able to keep Taylor Moton at around $13.8 million (that’d be on a $183 million cap), which is some $2 million less than it would’ve been on a $210 million cap, and more than $4 million less than it’d cost the Patriots (Joe Thuney) or Washington (Brandon Scherff) to give their star offensive linemen second tags.
These are just a few examples of where the numbers are pretty workable from the management side of things. Some teams (Pittsburgh, New Orleans) might not be able to take advantage of this dynamic because of their own cap issues. Others will be able to.
WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
How the NFL calendar is about to change.
Let’s start here: Fewer than 12 months out from Super Bowl LVI, Los Angeles organizers are unsure of when the game is going to be played. And that has nothing do with the pandemic, or the Los Angeles County’s stringent restrictions connected to it. It’s more about whether the league expands the schedule to 17 games in 2021 and, if it does, whether it decides to reconfigure its calendar in a fairly significant way.
For now, everyone’s waiting on the TV contracts, which will likely trigger the NFL to exercise its CBA-negotiated right to go to 17 games.
Once that happens, a week will be added to the year, with the plan being to play a 17-game schedule over an 18-week span. Which, obviously, means change will come to how the NFL has long set up its schedule, with the season starting the weekend after Labor Day and a five-week playoff culminating in the first week in February.
One thing I know is that the L.A. organizing committee, as league bylaws dictate, has blocked off three February Sundays for the Super Bowl—Feb. 6 (which is the originally scheduled date for the game), Feb. 13 and Feb. 20. And another thing I feel like I can say with some level of certainty is that the NFL isn’t going to move the start of the season to Labor Day weekend. The last time the season began that weekend was in 2000. After that, because it’s a bad TV weekend, the NFL moved Week 1 to the week following the holiday.
So with that in mind, all three of those dates remain in play, as I understand it. The least likely outcome, it seems, would be keeping the game on Feb. 6, since you’d have to kill the Super Bowl bye week to do that. As such, moving the game to Feb. 13 would be least disruptive, since you’d just be backing up the normal playoff slate a week to accommodate the 18th week (and 17th games) of the regular season.
But there’s an appeal to Feb. 20, too, in that it falls on Presidents’ Day Weekend, and moving the game to that particular holiday weekend has always been an interesting talking point. Lots of people have that Monday off, and in some states (like the one I live in) it’s a school vacation week.
And it’s possible that I’m personally too in the weeds on this, but it feels to me like what the NFL decides to do here will be a pretty big deal, since it really is charting the course for what’s annually one of, if not the, biggest weekends on the U.S. sports calendar.
THE FINAL WORD
Since it’s combine week, and there’s no combine, I wanna ask everyone to help out the capital of combine: St. Elmo Steak House. Go to their website and buy yourself a bottle of their cocktail sauce. You won’t be disappointed.
While you’re doing that, support your local restaurants, too. We all know how badly they need it right now.