NFL institutes 'optional' third party medical evaluations in place of Combine re-checks

Rob Rang

While the 40-yard dash and bench press totals generate most of the buzz at the annual NFL Scouting Combine, the medical evaluations conducted there each year play a much more significant role in determining the final draft status of players.

The league takes the medical so seriously that each year dozens of players are asked to return to Indianapolis in the final weeks prior to the draft for a re-check.

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the NFL has altered their plans this year, sending word to player agents Tuesday night that prospects for the upcoming 2020 draft will have the option of going through a medical re-check by a third party doctor, who then could forward updated information to the league's 32 teams.

This is a change. Until last night, NFL teams and agents had been working under direction from the league that all medical re-checks would be cancelled this year.

According to Ian Rapoport of last week, a letter was sent to all 32 teams and the NFL Players Association by Dr. Anthony Casolaro, president of the NFL Physicians Society and co-head physician for the Washington Redskins announcing that free agents and draft prospects will not be examined until the health crisis has passed.

"The Board of Directors of the NFL Physicians Society (NFLPS) have met by phone and communicated with members of Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society (PFATS) that the NFLPS has agreed to discontinue Combine rechecks, free agent physicals and physicals for non-Combine players until the health crisis has passed," Casolaro wrote. "We believe It is not in the interest of the players nor team medical staff to continue to perform these physicals.

"At a time of the most serious pandemic in our lifetime, we believe medical resources should focus on those who are ill or in need of care.

"We look forward to examining players when it is appropriate to do so."

That time, apparently, is now.

"It is not an ideal situation, obviously," said one highly ranked team executive speaking on the condition of anonymity, "but it does provide some potentially very important information in a safe and fair manner."

Similar to how scouts have developed relationships with college coaches across the country in the hopes of gleaning extra information on prospects, team doctors have their own network of associates in the medical community.

"You would rather hear from your own team's doctor - or the doctor who performed the actual surgery on the player, of course - but you have to trust in the ethics of the medical professionals," the executive explained.

"It complicates things a bit, but competitive balance is why the league opted to shut down facilities across the country. This helps assure that every team is getting the same information."

While potentially quite helpful to teams, affected prospects (and their agents) are left with a big decision about whether or not to participate.

A player's stock can skyrocket or plummet based on the information learned in a medical re-check.

Players coming off surgery - like Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, TCU offensive tackle Lucas Niang and Virginia cornerback Bryce Hall, among many others - may feel required to undergo the test, bypassing any personal fears they may have in leaving home while much of the country is facing a mandated lockdown.

That pressure is disconcerting to some. Others feel worse for those left outside of the process.

"You feel for the players who weren't invited to the Combine in the first place," longtime agent Doug Hendrickson of Wasserman admitted, adding that veteran free agents have likely been impacted by a lack of updated medical information, as well.

"Before investing in a veteran player, teams want to have their own doctors get their hands on players. Rather than traveling with clients, attending Pro Days or whatever, our day is now spent navigating phones, slowing the process. The whole process has changed and continues to change," Hendrickson said.

While complicated, all approached did feel that the NFL is doing a good job of maintaining equity, with each looking forward to the upcoming draft, which kicks off April 23.

"I think every year you hear people say-scouts and coaches and personnel people-that 90 percent of the evaluation is off the tape," said Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio.

"The other 10 percent is the combine and Pro Days and all the other stuff that goes on with it. This is the year it will really be tested. It will be 90 percent what you see on tape, and we'll go from there. We do not have the workout times that you normally have to evaluate guys, but sometimes those workout times and that information just clouds the issue. It's nice to know what a guy runs a 40 in but how fast does he look on tape is more important. A lot of times you can guess how fast a guy runs generally speaking. It's more important what the tape is. That's what everybody says. This will be the year that it's is really put to test."