How scouting during the pandemic will turn 2021 NFL draft into ‘wild, Wild West’

  • Covered the Broncos for two seasons with the Denver Post
  • Graduate of the University of Houston
  • A native of Jackson, Miss.

Personnel from the NFL teams in attendance at the 2021 Senior Bowl in late January were spaced 30 feet apart inside the convention center in Mobile, Alabama. Tested for COVID-19 in advance, they were separated from draft prospects by walls of Plexiglas, with each meeting lasting only 15 minutes.

That’s just one example of NFL scouting during the coronavirus pandemic, described once as “visiting someone from jail [because of the dividers]” while going through a “speed dating” process.

“You kept your masks on. Some guys spoke very low, so you had to ask them to talk louder. It was unique, but the access was better than we’d had all year,” said one area scout for an NFL team with a top-10 pick of the Senior Bowl.

Added an AFC general manager: “The Senior Bowl was very important because that was pretty much the only opportunity to meet with a guy in person, face-to-face and have a conversation. It’s the only chance to feel his energy.”

Three days before the 2021 NFL draft (April 29-May 1, ESPN and the ESPN App), scouts have suggested buckling up for an event full of twists and turns. The reason: This scouting year was far from normal, so why would the draft be any different?

“It’s going to be a crazy-ass draft. Just watch,” said a scout from a 2020 playoff team. “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.”

ESPN spoke with more than two dozen scouts, executives and coaches over the past few months to gauge how scouting has been different because of the pandemic. The lack of access to players, college sources and uncertainties in evaluating players who opted out of the 2020 season were themes, as were concerns about medical evaluations and the difficulty of digging deeper into players’ character and work ethic.

“It feels like we know less about this class of players than any class in recent memory,” New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said. “Just because of the COVID restrictions, the restrictions on scouts getting into campuses — as well as the fact that there were fewer games played in college football this year.”

But it wasn’t all negative. A large number of NFL personnel relished focusing more on game tape than combine testing. A few enjoyed the “new normal” and hope many of the scouting strategies remain, post-pandemic.

“The technology forced us to realize that the way we approach the game is antiquated. Now you can see that we can have a productive draft or free agency without being face-to-face,” an NFC personnel executive said. “We were all taught that you’ve got to grind 24/7, but the pandemic taught us to be more efficient. The teams that adjusted quickly were successful.”

“It also helped you have a better work-life balance. You have to know how to do it both ways — old-school and new-school. You have to be able to scout if somebody pulls the plug on the internet.”

Every team was impacted, for better or worse, based on how their scouting departments adapted.

Finding the advantages

Initially, the pandemic appeared to be the great equalizer when it came to scouting. College practices were closed. Restrictions on in-person interactions forced teams to rely strictly on tape rather than attending practices or getting face-to-face meetings with their college sources.

Teams quickly searched for advantages. The Miami Dolphins and Carolina Panthers jumped at coaching the Senior Bowl after other teams passed. The Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Chargers challenged their scouts to use technology, analytics and previous networking to find an edge. The Los Angeles Rams were the only team that didn’t send a rep to the Senior Bowl and skipped most pro days as they leaned into analytics and evaluating tape over in-person evaluations.

Perhaps the most mentioned and important advantage? Unfiltered information.

AFC regional scout: “There was a point in the fall where it was, like, kind of an ‘oh s—‘ moment, where you were afraid you were not going to have great opportunities to get with sources and gather any information because you didn’t want to be overly aggressive and bother these guys. All of a sudden the season revamped and things got busy very quickly. You just had to do the work to dig and find it.”

Ravens GM Eric DeCosta: “We’re always trying to find a way to gain an advantage over the other teams. We’ve built out an analytics staff of four or five men and women who are very talented, and we use them a lot. They help us in a lot of different ways, get information or approximate information that we may not be able to get. In a lot of ways, we are more prepared this year than we were last year.”

NFC personnel executive: “It’s the power of relationships. The scouts that have the relationship to go beyond the stock information — that’s where the advantage comes in. Very rarely will a coach stand in front of a group of scouts or coaches and tell you not to draft a player. Can you get somebody in the training facility to tell you the player had to be consistently pushed to work out or that he had issues with being late?”

AFC GM: “We got creative and used some of our scouts in regional areas to watch teams that we normally would travel to. Take BYU coming to play Coastal Carolina for example. Our area scout in South Carolina scouted BYU that game since we didn’t have anyone placed in Utah.”

Chargers GM Tom Telesco: “We did our scouting meetings a different way this year. I kind of enjoyed it. Anytime you change something, it kind of changes your focus a little bit. I think that’s a good thing so that you don’t get stale. Maybe even innovate a little bit and try to change.”

Raiders GM Mike Mayock: “What we’ve tried to tell our scouts every day is you can bitch and moan about the process all you want and it’s not normal, but our job is to take the process and try to be the best team in the league at whatever it is. You can’t moan and say, ‘We’re not allowed to talk to the players, woe is me.’ Well, let’s find a different way to get that information, and we will. We’ll be on 1,000 Zoom calls and we’ll do everything else.”

Dealing with opt-outs and medicals

Despite the glitz and glamour of the 40-yard dash, teams consider medical evaluations the most important part of the NFL combine. Without it, there was worry about getting in-depth physicals on players who, in some cases, are about to be guaranteed millions of dollars.

However, roughly 150 players had a medical checkup this month in Indianapolis. It was a group that included early-round prospects and those with known medical questions, such as recent surgeries. Teams were allowed to send two people (typically a physician and orthopedic specialist).

Multiple personnel executives commended Jeff Foster, the president of National Football Scouting, for knowing the top prospects who needed to be evaluated. There’s a feeling, though, that team orthopedists are going to be asked questions before the draft about middle-to-late round prospects and simply might not have the answers.

The most commonly mentioned early-round prospects with question marks include Miami defensive end Jaelan Phillips (medically retired in December 2018 after multiple concussions), Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley (back surgery, microdiscectomy in late March), Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle (suffered a broken ankle last October), center Landon Dickerson (suffered a torn ACL in December) and linebacker Dylan Moses (foot and knee injuries over last two seasons).

Opt-outs are also an uncertainty, as each team will have its own perspective on how those players will impact their draft board. Top prospects who opted out of the 2020 season include LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, Oregon tackle Penei Sewell and Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, but two scouts we spoke with believe the non-first-round prospects who opted out could be impacted most. Those scouts noted that if a draft decision is close, they expect their teams to select the player who played in 2020.

NFC personnel executive: “The interesting part for me is how many opt-out guys get picked and how high they get picked. Who gets picked first, Ja’Marr Chase or DeVonta Smith? I wouldn’t argue if you went either way, but if it’s Smith, are you picking him because you like him more or because he played last year? Opt-out guys might get hurt because you haven’t seen them play in nearly two years. Pro days can’t duplicate real football, so it’s a risk.”

Mayock: “You can’t discount a kid because he opted out, but you’d like to know why. You look at kids for instance in the Pac-12 or Big Ten, and those conferences were told they weren’t going to play football and a lot of kids went and signed with agents and went to work out. And then several weeks later [the conferences] came back and said, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. We’re going to play some football.’ And a lot of the kids said, ‘Well, I’d have to pay an agent back money. I’m already getting trained for the draft, it doesn’t make sense.’ … They’re trying to get themselves ready for the next 40 years of their lives, so why did the kid opt out? Did he have sick parents at home? Did he have to get a job? There are some differentiations in that whole opt-out thing that I think you have to get to the root of why did the kid opt out.”

Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane: “The medicals are nowhere near where it usually is.” (in reference to this year’s draft prospects)

Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin: “In terms of players who haven’t played in a year, that is somewhat concerning. You don’t know how their developments have been. There are players in this draft who have really only played one year of college football, and then they didn’t play this year. You’re projecting; it’s probably a bigger projection than when you studied a guy that’s played three years of college football. That’s our job, to project them into our league into our system, scheme, our division and what we do. It’s a year like no other, and you could call it less information. It’s just different information at this point, and by the time we get to drafting in late April that we’ll have everything we need to feel comfortable with.”

NFC pro scouting director: “The medical won’t be as extensive as it was in the past. Some agents will take their prospects to an NFL team doctor and get a letter sent out to all the teams that they are cleared, [hoping] to make teams more comfortable drafting them. But it’ll be one of the years where health is wealth — and the healthier guy will get the nod over the some banged-up guys.”

Realizing the value of area scouts

Most NFL fans would struggle to name their favorite team’s area scouts. They’re purposefully under the radar, but they could also be the most important factor in a successful draft this year.

A common phrase mentioned by general managers and coaches this offseason is “We have to trust and rely on our area scouts.” That hasn’t always been the case, as scouts often complain about decision-makers ignoring their reports in favor of their own preferences. But this year, because of the restrictions, teams will truly need to lean on their scouts’ expertise because of limited game tape, restricted offseason evaluations and lack of reliable information.

Most teams have a handful of area college scouts (usually five to eight) assigned to the cover regions of the United States. There are typically a smaller number of higher-level national scouts for each team who work primarily as cross-checkers. Scouting directors, directors of personnel, assistant GMs and GMs are each their own step up the ladder.

Among a handful of area scouts ESPN polled, travel varied during the pandemic, with some doing none and others being selective about trips. Those who did travel couldn’t attend practice, and access was very different. Previously, scouts could regularly attend practices and get the face-to-face lowdown on prospects straight from their favorite school source, whether it be a position coach, trainer, teacher or equipment manager. This year, most significant interactions were via Zoom or phone.

Once the NFL offseason began March 17, teams were allowed to send a maximum of three people to attend pro days, but there was no combine, private team workouts, visits or other in-person interaction allowed.

AFC high-ranking scout: “You can kind of break down scouting two different ways. Part of the process is to evaluate the player and find out the talent of the player and the overall value of his skill set. The other part of the process is figuring them out as a person, who they are off the field and away from football, their day-to-day life, and also what they’re like, their football character around the building, in the locker room, teammate, toughness, work ethic. The lack of exposure in both of those categories made the process a little more difficult.”

Telesco: “The biggest thing is that they couldn’t go on campus this year. Our college scouts did a great job this year in evaluating these players. They did most of their work from home, which allowed them to watch a lot more tape than probably usual, since they weren’t in their cars driving, on planes or in airports.”

DeCosta: “Our scouts, we had some great ideas this year that we were able to implement early on to find a way to fill in all the blanks — get information that maybe we can’t get, for instance, on a school call. We couldn’t go into schools this year, so how do you get the information about these guys? Our area scouts are a huge part of this.”

Area scout who covers the South region: “I traveled to schools where I can drive to within four hours. Schools had me watching games from the stands like a fan instead of on the sideline. It was actually a laid-back experience. There was no practice access. I stayed at big schools primarily.”

NFC personnel executive: “We were one of the teams that stayed on the road. It was case-by-case on the schools that would let you in. We did both flying and driving as safely as we could. Everywhere we went you had to be in compliance with the state, city and school COVID rules. Some states you had to quarantine depending on where you went or came from. It made the decision for you on not being able to travel there. You can’t stay somewhere for seven days in quarantine, you miss too much, so we didn’t hit those places.”

AFC area scout: “I didn’t travel to games this year, just grinding on tape. This was probably the best year for my relationship. It was a blessing to spend more time hanging around with family. My girlfriend loved that I was around more.”

Uncovering the ‘real info’ on prospects

The phrase “character concerns” comes up frequently in the pre-draft process. Some of it is obvious, such as arrests or suspensions. But the under-the-radar stuff typically comes after scouts dig in on what these players are like when the camera isn’t on.

That information typically comes from leaning on longtime sources during campus visits or digging back to high school, if needed. In most years, if teams need confirmation on a player who has mixed reviews, they bring him to the team facility. But neither avenue was allowed this season, so scouts were tested more than ever.

The Seattle Seahawks were less comfortable with their ability to fully evaluate players headed into the 2021 draft, and it was one of the reasons they traded two first-round picks to the New York Jets last July for safety Jamal Adams. As one Seahawks source told ESPN’s Brady Henderson, the uncertainty around the pandemic made Seattle GM John Schneider believe “if there’s ever a year to go for it” with a blockbuster trade, this was it.

The reports scouts gather are sometimes used when teams need to evaluate whether to take a chance on a prospect whose character comes into question prior to the draft.

Situations over the past five years involving top prospects include: Left tackle Laremy Tunsil (gas mask video leaked via social media on draft day in 2016), linebacker Reuben Foster (reported heated argument with combine worker during medical exam and failed drug test during the 2017 pre-draft process) and offensive lineman La’el Collins (questioned by police in regards to a shooting death, but not deemed a suspect in the 2015 pre-draft process).

Tunsil dropped out of the top 10 and was picked at No. 13 by the Dolphins. In August 2019, Tunsil was traded to the Houston Texans for a haul that turned into three first-round picks, an early 2021 second-round pick and a 2022 compensatory third-round pick. Foster dropped to No. 31, where he was picked by the San Francisco 49ers. He played 16 games for them before being released in November 2018 after he was arrested on domestic violence charges. Collins, a potential first-round pick, went undrafted before signing with the Dallas Cowboys. In September 2019, Collins signed a five-year, $50 million extension with them.

Area and national scouts do the on-the-ground homework on players. For example, then-Dolphins South area scout Matt Winston made multiple trips to Ole Miss, leaning on his contacts from there and Tunsil’s high school to conclude in his report that Tunsil was a good kid who had a strong work ethic and loved football but had made some mistakes. Key Dolphins decision-makers did their pre-draft evaluation and all agreed, with help from Winston’s groundwork report, that Tunsil was worth taking a chance on.

This season, many teams will set their draft boards later than ever as they ensure every last bit of information is gathered so that those scouting reports are as robust as possible.

NFC personnel executive: “Every school has a pro liaison that can give you information. I call that media guide info. They’ll tell you the kid came from a two-parent household or he struggled with grades. Everybody can get that. Can you call a WR coach that coached you in college to get the real info that tells you who they really are as a person?”

High-ranking AFC scout: “Some of the information we got this year about a player was a little more mainstream, a little more censored. For instance, there was a school that one of the coaches was talking to us and the question was asked, ‘Why did such-and-such player not start vs. blank team last year?’ He said, ‘Well, it was Senior Night, so we decided to start the seniors instead.’ Immediate thought is something’s not right here. It’s not adding up. So the next day I shot a text, put in a phone call, well, [the player] missed a team meeting that week and he was suspended, and it wasn’t the first time he was suspended. It wasn’t the first time he was late for a meeting, so he ended up being suspended. You kind of have to dig a little bit more. It’s a little more legwork for you to get comfortable and really go, ‘OK, I know this player. I’m a little more comfortable in exactly what this guy’s all about.'”

Mayock: “Trying to get to know what’s important to the kid — it’s like if any of you guys have college-aged kids and you’re worried about their fit, what college fits for them coming out of high school? That’s kind of the way I try to look at it. What’s the best fit? Do we fit for this kid? Does he fit in our building? And if you don’t get face-to-face with him, it’s hard.”

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.: “This will be the least amount of information that you’ve ever had on players. I believe several teams will be willing to give you picks this year to get a pick next year when they have more info to make an informed decision.”

Accounting for more game film, uncertain testing numbers

No matter what happens between January and April, the consensus among NFL personnel is that game tape is the most important factor in evaluating players, and the 2021 prospects will have less tape than any class in recent memory.

Take North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance. One NFL director of scouting from a team drafting in the top 20 said, “Prospects from the lower-division schools are going to be hurt the most. Trey Lance, his tape is one year and one game. That’s tougher to evaluate. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him drop. If you want him to sit for a year, then he hasn’t played in two years. Maybe he’s safe because he’s a QB. We’ll see.”

Teams also love to see top prospects in person, particularly quarterbacks, and Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy told ESPN he only spoke to one GM this fall who attended games.

The Senior Bowl should significantly help some small-school prospects such as Wisconsin-Whitewater center Quinn Meinerz. He didn’t play in 2020 because his team’s season was canceled, but he came to Mobile in great shape and had a good week against big-school defensive linemen.

Though game tape is king, NFL personnel griped about the lack of basic testing information and measurables. There was no combine, and the number of prospects who didn’t run or provide complete measurables is higher than any other recent year, adding more uncertainty to evaluations.

AFC GM: “A lot of it requires going back and looking at more tape. The 2019 tape is all the more important, especially for teams who didn’t play as many games in 2020 and had guys opt out.”

NFC veteran position coach: “The lack of face-to-face meetings have been significant. I want to see their weight and how they run routes. I want to put them on the blackboard to see how they go through plays. It limits a lot of my evaluation. It makes things less certain.”

High-ranking AFC scout: “Most scouts would say if you have a top quarterback, you want to see that quarterback play live. Obviously we weren’t able to do that this year, to go to games, to see the arm strength and also not necessarily the football-specific stuff, but the stuff you can’t see on tape. The sideline demeanor, the leadership, the communication. Those types of intangibles you can pick up at a live game.”

Giants coach Joe Judge: “Ideally, leading into the draft you want to get out there, you want to meet in person with these players, you want to look them in the eye, you want to get on the field with them, you want to put them through drills and you want to really get a feel for these guys on the field — how they respond to your coaching, what they can and can’t do on the field and really get a feel for their skill set up close. You know, videotape is good, but there’s really no replacing in-person workouts.”

NFC personnel executive: “You want to get a full evaluation of players, but if you’re letting the combine or testing numbers impact your draft decisions, you’re already behind. I do most of my evaluation on the tape. The combine and pro day should either confirm or deny what I saw on tape. If you see him on tape and he couldn’t run, then he runs a 4.3, that makes you draft him higher? That’s a mistake. Play speed is more important than time speed.”

AFC regional scout: “It’s a little more pure where it’s just your evaluation, and there’s some pressure involved, but honestly that was kind of the fun aspect of [scouting in the pandemic], is it was just kind of the nuts-and-bolts scouting when it comes to the player evaluation.”

Combating a lack of access with technology

Zoom meetings replaced just about everything over the past year.

During the 2020 NFL season, many coaches held meetings via Zoom and scouts talked to college coaches and liaisons on the platform. Once players officially declared for the draft, teams were able to set up Zoom sessions; each team could hold up to five video conference sessions with an individual player.

The Tennessee Titans had nine team people on an initial Zoom call, quizzing a player and getting to know him. Titans coach Mike Vrabel realized nine people could be intimidating, but the goal was to see who needed to meet with the prospect for follow-up sessions. Sometimes, it would be the position coach in a later meeting who was talking scheme or going over tape. Other times, Vrabel, general manager Jon Robinson or director of player engagement Chic Ejiasi would be on to see how a particular player would fit within the team.

Zoom wasn’t the only technology that became prevalent. More and more, teams have been using play-speed GPS data to gather in-game speed. With no centralized testing, some teams preferred that to traditional testing like the 40-yard dash.

While NFL personnel learned technology can help offset a lack of access, it doesn’t solve everything and can lead to other issues.

AFC area scout: “The Zoom virtual meetings mentally taxed me more than I normally was in a year because of lack of in-person interaction. You feel disconnected from the team and building. My daily schedule was to get up at 6 [a.m.], walk 10 feet from my bedroom to my desk, watch tape for eight hours and type reports until 5 [p.m.]. It felt like Groundhog Day — same thing over again every day.”

New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman: “The problem is the lack of personal contact with the players and where the measurables are coming from. What we’re doing is educated guessing, so this makes us a little more uneducated, not having this personal touch with these players.”

DeCosta: “It’s the blending of traditional scouting and science. It’s the GPS, it’s the analytics; it’s all these other things that we can use to help us make decisions that, hopefully, will help us be better than everybody else this year.”

Vrabel: “We’re enjoying the Zoom interviews. I think that it’s allowed us probably more time than what we’ve had. You see what guys are like after the second and third interview, how they are the first one and maybe the comfort level that you start to have with a certain player and how they may be on a daily basis once they’re on your team.”

Rams GM Les Snead: “With technology and the adjustments we’ve had to change, there’s positives out of it. Some of those workouts, the way you can use technology now when you can record the workouts and compare them to workouts of combines and pro days past using the technology — hey, this guy changed directions at this speed. I call it ‘the old Rich Eisen’ when he’s running 40s [with the video of his sprint superimposed] against people and things like that. You can actually do that — that’s more than just the entertaining portion of the Rich Eisen 40 where you can compare people — so there’s a lot of ways you can do this. Things are evolving fast with technology.”

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