The 2020 football season has presented myriad challenges to coaches and players alike. But the atypical fall has also been a struggle for NFL team scouts preparing for the 2021 draft. COVID-19 safety protocols have deprived scouts of valuable face time with college coaches and the programs’ support staff, and limited their ability to attend practices and games (making it difficult to body-type and gauge how players interact with their coaches and teammates).
The upcoming offseason doesn’t appear as if it will provide scouts with a respite, either. “We’ve already lost two all-star games with [the East-West Shrine Game and the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl] both canceling,” said Dan Hatman (director of scouting development, Scouting Academy), and it’s likely a large portion of the Pro Day circuit will be shelved (as it was last year). “The NFL could decide at any time not to sponsor a [potential] super spreader” (see: NFL combine). The anticipated lack of face time with prospects in this draft cycle means the ’21 Player Selection Meeting “definitely has more opportunity for error [than years’ past].” Remember, while NFL scouting departments lost the spring last year, they “had the whole fall and did all that fall [evaluation] work. This year, they didn’t have the summer or fall and may not have the spring,” Hatman added.
Our Take: NFL scouting departments will have little choice but to rely heavily on game tape to evaluate this year’s class. That means players who “played more and have more good film are going to go higher [than those with less ’20 film],” Hatman said. “If [a player] only played in a couple of games [this year], he’d better have put some really good film together in those [appearances], or it could be rough.” Don’t be surprised if talented players without a large body of recent work fall back or slide beyond the top 100 selections.
The relative lack of information scouts have on prospects in the class is likely to lead to NFL teams opting for the perceived “safe” pick in the early rounds of the ’21 draft. Former New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum said that should benefit “players from Power Five schools,” particularly SEC, ACC and Big 12 athletes because they’ll have the most tape, and “because [coaches] will be able to fall back on institutional relationships and contacts with a greater degree of certainty [in terms of] how players are coached.” Unfortunately, that means players from less prominent football programs will fall further than they probably should.
Both Tannenbaum and Hatman suggested Trey Lance (QB, North Dakota State) was likely to be among the players negatively impacted by the altered scouting process. “Lance is a phenomenal player, but he played one game this year,” Tannenbaum noted—and it wasn’t a particularly good game. He was 15/30 for 149 yards and two TDs (with one INT) in a win over Central Arkansas.
Historically, the fall has been a valuable period for scouts. While they no longer need to make a trip out to a school to watch film (at one time they had to bring their own 35-millimeter projectors and watch in the building), in the pre-pandemic era scouts still spent weekdays on campus “meeting with coaches, staffers, pro liaisons and academic coordinators,” Hatman said. This fall, all of those encounters are taking place via Zoom meetings open to all 32 teams. Unsurprisingly, scouts say information is not nearly as free-flowing on the video conferences as it was when they could converse in person. That means scouts with deep Rolodexes and strong relationships—those who can get coaches to talk on a one-on-one basis—should be at a significant advantage this year. Hatman cited Baltimore, Indianapolis, Green Bay, Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Seattle as clubs known to have a stable of long-time, well-connected scouts.
The NFL Draft is currently slated for April 29 to May 1. Hatman said that with the difficulty in extracting information this year, “there is a lot of push from certain scouts and people in the space to have [the three-day event] moved to the beginning of June.” The hope is by then there will be a widely available COVID-19 vaccine and that more of the process could take place face-to-face. As of now, that doesn’t appear likely. “There’s been no discussion of [moving the draft],” said Brian McCarthy (VP of communications, NFL). “We successfully launched the league year, free agency and hosted the Draft as scheduled last year. If there are reasons to make adjustments based on health and safety concerns, we evaluate the situation at the appropriate time.”