What coaches, general managers and other talent evaluators across the National Football League are dealing with now is much like what sports reporters have had to deal with for almost a year.
They can go to the games and events. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, they can’t interview players and coaches in the flesh. That’s where Zoom comes in.
As teams have scouted players in preparation of the upcoming NFL Draft, coaches, general managers and others have been able to attend players’ pro days. In some cases, they even get to work hands-on with players. Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel has already been pictured at the University of Tennessee’s pro day taking snaps from a Volunteers offensive lineman. General manager Jon Robinson ran linebacker drills at Tulsa’s pro day.
Everything else about the operation, including interviews, is conducted virtually. During a Zoom press conference on Monday, Vrabel gave insight into how the Titans have navigated the evaluation process over the past few months.
“I think that we’re enjoying the Zoom interviews. I think that it’s allowed us probably more time than what we’ve had,” Vrabel said. “You can’t meet with them at pro days so that’s probably the biggest change, is that you can still go to pro days, just those meetings that you have with players after pro day in the film room at their colleges is something that’s not happening.
“...We’ve had a lot of interaction with some of these players whether it be Jon (Robinson) and I, our coaching staff or both.”
Vrabel said that he, Robinson and the scouting have made sure the Titans have had a presence at every pro day possible.
Beyond that, the league allows each team to have five interviews with each player. The Titans’ interview process contains multiple phases, but changes on a player-by-player basis. The first interview, Vrabel admitted, can seem intimidating as there could be as many as nine people in that Zoom meeting. Any subsequent meetings are a bit more boiled down, he said, with a smaller group of people following up with a particular player.
Vrabel noted that Chick Ejiasi and James Mitchell, two members of the player engagement staff, have a strong presence in those meetings.
“Those people that are part of our player engagement that do a fantastic job. I think they’re valuable,” Vrabel said. “We enjoy – I at least, I don’t want to speak for Jon – but I enjoy their perspective on some of the things that they hear in those interviews.
“I would say that as it goes along, they start to get watered down a little bit – not watered down but I think that the attendance is probably less than what it is on the initial visit. Then they may branch out to say, ‘OK, position coach and scout will follow up for the third interview,’ or Jon and I may do the second one. That’s kind of how these have flowed so far.”
Tennessee has nine picks in this year’s draft, including the No. 22 overall pick in the first round.
While the evaluation process has been very much altered by the pandemic once again, the end goal for Vrabel, Robinson and the Titans does not change. They want to add players who will compete, contribute and help the team reach its goals.
“Just looking for good players. That’s Jon (Robinson) and I’s challenge with the assistance of the scouting department, the assistance of the coaching staff and everybody here,” Vrabel said. “We’re just trying to find players who will come in, have a competitive spirit, love football, be willing to learn and improve, put the team first, and all those types of things that we think are important, and then being talented.”