Pro days have taken center stage the last couple of weeks, and rightfully so.
They matter this year more than ever. Access to major college football programs was seriously curtailed for NFL teams in the fall, and, because of the NFL’s own rules to create 32 mini-bubbles, only one GM leaguewide got out on any school calls during the season. The combine was canceled. Private workouts are forbidden, as are 30 visits and dinners that teams would use to get to know a draft class’s prospects in the past.
That means, for most NFL people, the pro days you’ve seen splashed all over TV really are the only chance they’ve had to go and see the guys in person, watch how they move, size them up and interact with them face-to-face. And even that is limited—the league’s rules dictate that only three people per team are allowed at each one of these events.
So people like me have made a big deal of them because, this year, they are a big deal.
And as big a deal as they are to NFL teams, they’re an even bigger deal to guys like Mickey Marotti. Ohio State’s pro day has really been Marotti’s baby since he arrived in Columbus with Urban Meyer in 2012. It’s the last step he takes with kids he gets as 18-year-olds, with plans to transform them from promising young athletes into the types of specimens the NFL will consider. Fifteen of them in the last five years alone have gone in the first round.
“When I was younger, I was a little starstruck by some of the NFL coaches and GMs, but not now,” Marotti said, with a laugh. “I’m more fired up and excited to see our guys from where they used to be. As a recruited player in our program three, four, five years and then see where they’re at now. It's just a fun moment because I’ve been with them the whole time. That's kind of the satisfaction of your job. It’s not always wins, the championships and all those things—that's a big part of it, but it's just … I love seeing players develop.
“I love seeing the maturity from a physical and emotional and mental standpoint and then just watch how they handle themselves with what's around, the NFL here. It's basically a giant interview. Just all those things, it is important for those guys to do well. It is a reflection of all of us.”
In that way, Tuesday was satisfying for Marotti in the way pro day always is.
But in another, for Marotti, and strength coaches all over the country, getting to do it this year meant a little more than it ever has. Because it was more important for the players for all the aforementioned reasons, yes, and also because these pro days’ happening at all, even a couple of months ago, was absolutely not a given.
This week was no slow one in the NFL, in the aftermath of last Friday’s mega-trade. And so we’ve got plenty to give you in this week’s GamePlan. Inside the column, you’ll get …
• A look at the biggest unanswered draft questions we’ve got.
• The truth about the questions Justin Fields has left to answer.
• How I believe the NFL could make its calendar better, in the wake of the move to 17 games.
• Are bonus pro days coming for quarterbacks?
But we’re starting with the story of one pro day, which, really, was the story of a lot of pro days during this very unusual draft year.
Having a pro day wasn’t a given for Marotti this year because, well, he didn’t get to have one last year—and he remembers every detail about how that one was called off.
He remembers being on spring break, on Friday, March 13, when things in the U.S. were starting to go sideways, and texting and talking to other guys he works with, saying things like, “They’ll never cancel school.” He remembers the following Monday, the 16th, being in a staff meeting back in Columbus, when everything got real, and he and the rest of the football program were told to go home and that a full shutdown was coming.
He remembers, from there, the snowball turning into an avalanche. Ohio State’s pro day was set for March 25, and, even after the league prohibited teams from traveling, there was still the thought that maybe pro days would just be pushed back a little, and that his receivers—K.J. Hill, Austin Mack and Ben Victor—would get a shot to improve on disappointing 40 times from the combine, and that J.K. Dobbins, who he expected to run in the 4.4s, would finally get the shot to work out after missing drills in Indy due to injury.
“When that thing was over, just like, Oh my goodness, then skip a couple of months down the road, he's the fifth or sixth running back taken,” Marotti said. “It’s like, What is wrong with you guys? We told you. We told you.”
You know the rest of the story, and not just on Dobbins becoming a starter for a playoff team.
The Big Ten canceled its season, then brought it back from the dead. Ohio State’s campaign, even in comparison to its peers, was tumultuous. An outbreak in its program led to the cancellation of the Illinois game. Outbreaks inside opponents’ programs led to the Maryland and Michigan games’ being canceled. The Buckeyes wound up winning the Big Ten and beating Clemson in the Sugar Bowl before losing in the national title game.
And because of all that, Marotti didn’t give a ton of thought to how pro day might look until after the season and after he took a little time to “turn my brain off.”
So really the planning started for Marotti in February, with a call from NFL EVP of football operations Troy Vincent, who has a son on the OSU roster. Vincent, realizing how important pro days would be, said he was trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle of dates that would allow for teams to hit as many of the top schools as uninterruptedly as possible. Eventually, Marotti landed on March 30, which conflicted with only schools out west and Alabama’s second pro day.
From there, there were NFL protocols that Marotti and his staff had to follow but, as it turned out, his own doctor’s recommendations wound up being stricter than the league’s.
That’s why while the league was at first going to allow three people per team to attend each pro day, Ohio State was going to let only one per team in. Word of that started circulating through the scouting ranks, which led to Marotti’s phone ringing, with calls coming particularly from quarterback-hungry teams that were afraid they’d have to go into draft day having gotten just one set of eyeballs on Justin Fields.
“We got the ‘We're not sure who we're going to bring, we got the GM, the head coach and we're kind of having a hard time making the decision of who's going to come,’ ” Marotti said. “I'm like, Look, these ain't my rules. I got to follow doctor's recommendations. I told them safety’s the end-all, be-all of our protocol. So that went on for a couple of weeks.”
Eventually, because of improving conditions in Ohio, and nationally, the doctors gave Marotti and the Buckeyes the green light to open the event up to the NFL’s standard of three per team. But even then, there were a lot of other pieces that had to come together.
The atrium at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center is lined with the standard banners and trophies used to showcase a college football blueblood’s history. But on Tuesday, it was something else, as well—a COVID-19 testing center.
Every scout and coach arriving that morning was met by a nurse, who took a sample to be run through a rapid test. Only after the result came back negative were the NFL folks allowed any farther into the building. And after they passed through the next set of doors, as is the case at every pro day this year, the reminders of what 2021 has been like were pretty much everywhere.
There were social distancing and masks, of course, and things that normally wouldn’t need to be spelled out were spelled out.
After the testing, Buckeyes coach Ryan Day and Marotti addressed the 31 teams in attendance in the field house, explaining how the day would go and then telling them all the assistant coaches would be available to them “organically” during the combine testing and again after position drills were done (we’ll get to that) during Fields’s throwing session.
“Whether you’re a coach or in the front office or the scouting department, you want to have conversations with those guys,” Marotti said. And since, by rule, it was impossible to have those conversations as they normally would happen in meeting rooms or offices, Marotti and Day figured the fairest thing was just to let them happen on the field.
As for workouts, they started, as they usually would, in the weight room. Only the five combine testers assigned by the NFL were allowed in with the players, and the players got their height and weight recorded and did their vertical jumps in there—with the whole thing streamed through to jumbotrons in the field house for the coaches and scouts there (if there was one hiccup during the day, according to the scouts I talked to who were there, it was that the audio coming into the fieldhouse on that stream was terrible).
Marotti was able to move everything else that would’ve been in the weight room out of there, so scouts could see the bulk of it, with the bench press held on the east end of the field house and NFL folks looking on.
The rest of the day was as normal as possible under the conditions, with the one other adjustment being that Ohio State’s coaches ran the position drills—to keep the players from being too close in contact with guys who’d been on the road. (In a normal year, NFL coaches will volunteer to run those drills.) And when it was over, a lot of the NFL people there climbed into their rental cars and made off toward South Bend, about four hours away, for Notre Dame’s Thursday pro day.
For all of them, Ohio State was a good box to check in this year of heightened interest in pro days. For Marotti & Co., it was a little more meaningful.
Fields, of course, was Ohio State’s headliner on Tuesday. But he was only one of 14 Buckeye players whom the NFL designated as 2021 combine invites—which was three more than any other school had. So there was a lot more than one story that Marotti could tell the NFL people asking him about the players.
And when Marotti reflects back on the last year, as much as he doesn’t want to single anyone out, there was one that made him swell up with a pride a little more than the others. Getting to see Justin Hilliard work out for scouts and pursue a dream that seemed a fait accompli when he arrived on campus in 2015, but has proved to be anything but, was just a little more meaningful for him.
“The hardest part for me in this job is when these athletes go through injuries,” Marotti said. “I mean, you want to talk about your heart sinking and just you feel like laying in a corner and crying with them. It is so hard. Way harder than losing a game, and I know people don’t understand that. I’m just telling you, man, when the athlete gets injured, especially the ones that put the work in, the extra effort and just do it all the right way, you just want to curl up in a ball and cry with them.”
That’s Hilliard. A ballyhooed in-state recruit, the NFL linebacker prospect, tore his right meniscus, then tore his left biceps during his redshirt season of 2015. In the second game of 2016, he tore his right biceps. And in 2019, he tore his left Achilles, which led to his petition for a sixth year of eligibility. It was granted, and Hilliard wound up coming off the bench to make a game-changing interception against Northwestern and was an integral part of Ohio State’s win over Clemson, which helped lead to a Senior Bowl invite.
“All those things that he accomplished,” Marotti said, “I would imagine if you asked every player [Tuesday], who’s the one guy they were rooting for, they’d all say Justin Hilliard.”
And Hilliard, for his part, took advantage of the opportunity as best he could. He caught up with Lions exec Chris Spielman—a former Buckeye linebacker himself who “showed me some technique stuff and how to watch film early on at Ohio State”—and his old coach, Urban Meyer. He doubled back with other NFL coaches and scouts that he met in Mobile during interviews at the Senior Bowl just to say hello again.
He also wanted to make himself available to answer questions teams had on the injuries he sustained the last six years, and make the point that he was in the best shape of his life in how he tested and worked out.
“The biggest thing was just trying to get in front of as many eyes as I could this week at pro day,” Hilliard said Thursday morning. “I approached, and treated it like a job interview, because that’s exactly what it is. And the last two months, I’ve been preparing for that interview, doing everything I can to sort of become a sprinter, to show the type of athlete I am. But where I’ve made my reputation is in football drills, so I especially waned to be able to show that.”
And thanks to the hard work of a lot of people, Hilliard got that chance.
In the end, even if this is a bigger piece of the puzzle in 2021 than it would be in a normal year, it remains just one piece. And Marotti gets that as much as anyone else, because his job is to prepare guys to be great where it counts—on the field. Still, seeing what he got to see Tuesday from players like Hilliard matters to him too and, again, it’s because the whole thing is indicative of more than just preparing for the draft.
To Marotti, it’s about years of work getting put on blast.
“What’s really cool is our guys, they're not anxious,” he said. “They go and they do a great job because they've been prepared for this moment. People think you prepare for the pro day, whether you go down south, you go out west, the eight, six weeks leading up to it. I’ve tried to tell our players, you prepare for the combine and the pro day the first day you train as a Buckeye when you're a freshman.
“You're talking about years of development, years of all those workouts, and all those runs, and all that rehab, and all those meals, and all that treatment, and all those practices, and all those inside drills, and all those one-on-ones, and all those games, and all those lifts and all those, just day after day after day. That's how you get ready to perform at a pro day.”
Really, that right there is why last March was so heartbreaking for Marotti.
And why Tuesday was just a little more fulfilling that it normally would be.
With draft season now in full swing, here are the five best questions we’ll all be trying to answer over the next month …
1) How long will it take the top five quarterbacks to come off the board? Before the Niners’ move up from No. 12 to 3, it sure looked like it was really a group of the top four plus Mac Jones. Now, it’s a real top five, and it looks like this class has a chance to be the first ever to have quarterbacks go 1-2-3-4 (QBs went 1-2-3 in 1971 and ’99) and first ever to have five go in the top 10 (there were four in ’59 and 2018, though in ’59 one was a two-way player named David Baker who ended up being a DB in the NFL).
2) How many receivers will go in the first round? This year, like last year, is seen as a historically strong and deep receiver class. Next year might be too, with George Pickens, Justyn Ross, Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, etc. There’s a trend here, obviously, and it really speaks to where the game’s going. It’s one that also might lead to teams waiting until Day 2 to find their receivers this year, as so many teams did last year. Ja’Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle will go in the first round. A couple others probably will too, but I’m not sure any of them are lock, stock and barrel to go be gone on that first night. In part, because there are too many good ones in the class.
3) Who’s rolling the dice on pass rushers? This year’s crew of edge rushers—Michigan’s Kwity Paye, Miami’s Greg Rousseau and Jaelen Phillips, and Penn State’s Jayson Oweh—is stocked with freak-show athletes who need development. Thing is, guys with the sort of athleticism the four aforementioned have who play that position are always at a premium. So who’s taking the plunge on a projection?
4) Will Kyle Pitts go in the top five? Only two tight ends ever have. One was Riley Odoms, the fifth pick in 1972. He spent 12 years as a Bronco and went to four Pro Bowls. The other was Mike Ditka, the fifth pick in 1961, who played for three teams over 12 years, and made the NFL’s all-century team. Bottom line, Pitts would be entering rarified air by going that high. And yes, he’s that talented an athlete.
5) What about the running backs? Fun fact out of last year’s draft: There were zero backs taken in the first 31 picks, then six taken between No. 32 and 62. And in 2018, with another bumper crop, Saquon Barkley was the only guy at the position to go in the top 26 picks, with six going between 27 and 59. What does it mean for Alabama’s Najee Harris, Clemson’s Travis Etienne and North Carolina’s Javonte Williams, et al? If the trend here follows, all three—good players each—will be waiting a while to find out where they’re headed.
THE BIG QUESTION
What’s the truth about Justin Fields?
We’re going to give you the scouts’ perspective on Fields on Monday, as we did after the pro days of Trevor Lawrence, Trey Lance, Mac Jones and Zach Wilson. But I felt like there were enough questions that arose about Fields this week that I could answer some, because I’m in a decent position to do that, given my connections at my, and Fields’s, alma mater.
Yes, there are questions floating around in NFL circles on Fields’s work habits and his football knowhow. And, at the quarterback position, teams 100% have to investigate those, because how a quarterback works is vital, as is what he knows.
So here’s the truth as I know it: Fields is a tough, competitive, somewhat quiet but very well-liked guy in that program. Does he have things to learn? He does. But as I’ve put the pieces together on it over the last couple of months, it absolutely, positively is not about work ethic with Fields. More so, it’ll be about how distributes his hours and the work he does.
The Buckeyes’ staff saw a player who was always a beast in the weight room. On top of that, he never needed to be prompted to get his receivers together to throw—it wasn’t rare that he’d hold morning sessions off the books with his guys in the team’s field house. In those two areas, Fields was a legit gym rat. And my feeling is now, as he goes to the pros, he’ll have to redistribute some of those manhours into the classroom.
The reason why is simple. The NFL’s a league where games are won on the margins. So where Fields has been able to win, for most his life, on the big stuff—athleticism, arm strength, toughness and competitiveness—now he’ll have to get better on the little stuff, with the athletic gap closed between he, the guys he’s playing with and those they’re competing against.
Processing here really isn’t the issue. It’s seeing the field faster. It’s throwing with anticipation. It’s playing on time, when the escape hatch his ability has always given him isn’t there as much anymore. It’s overall vision. I think Fields can get there, because the willingness to work for it’s never been a problem.
And if you don’t believe me on that, I’ll give you what Hilliard told me about Fields, when I gave him the floor to tell me what he would tell NFL teams about his quarterback.
“The man is special, straight up,” Hilliard said. “The thing that stood out to me when he came into Ohio State, he was just the perfect fit. It was the instant respect he got because of how he worked, how he led. It was so cool to see, how he came in and just with the way he worked, he already had an ability to hold people accountable. He’s been making plays since he got here, the growth is there, and watching him as a leader, I saw him continue to grow.
“Obviously, people see how he threw the ball at pro day. What they don’t see is his leadership, his work ethic. That’s what makes him elite. Best quarterback in the nation.”
Hilliard, of course, is biased. But I do think it’s notable what he brought up first when I asked about Fields, because to me that’s what’ll be most important to unlock his potential in the NFL.
WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
How the NFL calendar is going to be affected by the 17-game schedule.
Next year’s Super Bowl will be played Feb. 13. Last year’s combine started Feb. 23.
Now, Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2, 2020, was at close to the earliest point it could be in the calendar under the old way doing business (the first Sunday in February), and next year’s will be about as late as it can be in the new way of doing business (the second Sunday in February). But even as it was, the combine felt like it started about 10 minutes after the Super Bowl ended for NFL teams.
And then you have the Bills’ rules proposal that teams with head coach and GM vacancies won’t be able to even start interviewing candidates until after the conference title games (which will now be held on the last Sunday of January), or make hires until after the Super Bowl. And if that passes, it sure looks like something’s going to have to give.
So here’s an idea that’s borrowing from my early years covering the league: Have the combine run closer to the start of free agency. The NFL’s tentpole pre-draft winter event has always felt like it was trying to be baseball’s Winter Meetings, but, because of the rules and timing, wasn’t quite there like MLB is, where so much of that sport’s deal-making goes down. Why not eliminate the sneaking around and B.S., and just have it be the run-up to the start of the league year?
Like I said, the NFL used to be pretty close to being there. I still remember all the noise over Washington’s tampering with Albert Haynesworth in 2009, because that year’s combine ended days away from the start of free agency. But soon thereafter, the league moved to spread apart its three big offseason events—the combine, free agency and the draft—to try and “own” more of that calendar.
Thing is, I don’t think there’s reason for the league to be caught up in that. People are talking about the NFL 365 days a year, anyway. By following my plan here, which, again, would be pushed by the move to 17 games, I believe the league would be making two of those three events better.
And, ultimately, they’d be drawing more attention to both.
THE FINAL WORD
One impact that the Niners’ big trade of last week is having?
I’m hearing that both Fields and Trey Lance are considering staging second pro days over the next few weeks so San Francisco’s brass can see those guys throw live. Per the rules of 2021, those workouts would have to be on campus, and they’d have to be open to all teams, not just one (since private workouts are not allowed this year), so everyone would be able to see those guys throw.
But it sure makes sense for Fields and Lance to give Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch a shot to see what they can do. And really, it wouldn’t be too different from Mac Jones throwing at both of Alabama’s pro days.