The lack of testing at the 2021 NFL Combine was the immediately noticeable hole in the pre-draft process. Relying on pro day numbers felt like an uneasy leap of faith. For NFL teams, though, the combine is more important for the interviews and the medical evaluations.
While there has been a lack of on-campus visits and in-person interviews, teams are still able to interview prospects virtually and talk to various coaches. They also had All-Star events, like 15-minute interviews at the Senior Bowl separated by plexiglass, plus pro days where they could meet and observe prospects. Medical evaluation is a bigger challenge. Last week, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that teams were unhappy with the solution to conducting medicals in the COVID-19 world.
323 prospects were invited to the NFL Combine. However, as Sports Illustrated’s Ross Delenger wrote, “about 175 of them are only being allowed to hold medical evaluations virtually.” Delenger outlined the process for these guys:
“Combine invitees were sent for in-person testing at independent healthcare facilities near their home or where they are training. After those test results, teams conducted telehealth exams with the prospects. Each team is assigned eight to 12 players. The results of both the tests and exams are shared among the entire league.”
In a typical combine year, all 323 players would have undergone in-person medical examinations with team doctors. This year, teams are mostly in the dark, which Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy believes could cause several talented players with medical questions such as Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley to fall further than expected.
“Limited combine medicals is a big deal, and it could cause many players with medical flags to slide more than in a normal year,” Nagy told Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer. “Teams are being more conservative with medical grades, since their own trainers and doctors have not had the opportunity to personally evaluate them.”
Nagy revealed one work around for NFL teams involved asking trainers and pro liaisons about how much practice time players missed over their college careers. The 150 players who were invited to an Indianapolis bubble were selected “based on both their draftability (higher-touted prospects) and those who may have been flagged for medical risks after their general in-person exams," per Delenger.
Returning to Schefter’s tweet and the “last-minute decisions based off medical info still trickling in” shows the added level of stress for teams caused by COVID-19’s impact on medical evaluations. Front offices live for eliminating as much uncertainty as possible. They haven’t been able to do that this draft cycle.
"The medicals are nowhere near where it usually is," Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane assessed to ESPN's Cameron Wolfe.
"If there's a spot we have less information, it's medical," Seahawks VP of player personnel Trent Kirchner disclosed to Seahawks.com and John Boyle.
"There's a lot more questions about players' health and longevity," agreed Seahawks director of college scouting Matt Berry.
Shortly after the Seahawks traded for Jamal Adams in the 2020 offseason, NBC Sports’ Peter King interviewed Seattle GM John Schneider.
King: "How on earth would you sync it up? [The possibility of spring college football with the NFL Draft]"
Schneider: "I guess you give away your first and third round pick."
We ended up with a more normal, though still bizarre, truncated, opt-out college football season. "John pretty much nailed that one," Kirchner said, evaluating the Adams trade to Seahawks.com and Boyle. "That was talked about when we did it. It was discussed in terms of, 'The amount of information we'll have next year, who knows what it's going to be?'
As the difficulties of the 2021 NFL Draft grow more and more apparent, Seattle’s situation looks better and better. Yes, the Seahawks hold just three draft picks, the lowest capital league-wide since 1999. However, the 2021 NFL Draft is going to be the greatest lottery we’ve seen. It's so messy that even Seahawks.com's Boyle used the term "crapshoot."
"It's going to be a crazy-ass draft. Just watch," a scout from a 2020 playoff team told Wolfe. "After the 12th pick, I feel like it's going to be the Wild, Wild West regarding who teams pick. I know scouts who have wildly different grades on players than I do, even more than normal. Less interaction means less groupthink and more surprises. If a team loves a player, they're going to jump the gun to get him."
Whether this rocky landscape results in the Seahawks drafting a tiny amount of players who they are very certain on, or look to maximize their trips to the table by trading down and around, we will soon found out - the latter is likelier. What’s certain: there are worse years to enter the chaos with a lack of picks.