News & Analysis

How COVID-19 is impacting scouting for the 2021 NFL Draft

The 2020 NFL Draft was easily the most bizarre iteration of the annual football fixture this century, and it’s safe to say that 2021 is going to crank the weirdness up a notch. Between opt-outs, season cancellations, travel restrictions and overall uncertainty about what life will look like weeks from now — let alone months — the 2021 NFL Draft brings about more questions than answers at this point. Let’s dive into all the different ways this draft process has been, and will be, different due to COVID-19.

[Editors Note: PFF's customizable NFL Mock Draft Simulator gives you the opportunity to be the GM of any team and is now updated with a select group of 2021 prospects] 

Last Spring

Even with numerous scouts and months of lead time, one of the most important pieces of the scouting puzzle comes from simply knowing who to watch. That process starts well before this fall and comes all the way back in the spring. Colleges traditionally run their returning players through scouting combine drills and distribute those results to NFL teams. Scouts' conversations with coaching staffs they’re familiar with also guide them to players who may be on the cusp of breakout seasons. For many schools, those drills didn’t happen this spring and those conversations weren’t nearly as abundant. Hidden gems in the draft process this year could very well stay hidden.

The one unintended consequence of all that, according to NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, is that scouts — for the first time ever — are getting to watch players' entire careers. “At PFF, you guys talk about being able to watch every single play. They’ve never had this luxury of time to devote to one season of play,” he said on the 2 for 1 Drafts podcast.

This Fall

There are some very obvious ramifications to canceling college football games. Not having the single most important season of tape on a player prior to the draft throws a huge wrench into scouts' evaluations. Here’s a list of 2020 first-round picks that didn’t make the initial cut for the 150 players included in PFF’s draft guide prior to the 2019 season:

    • #1 QB Joe Burrow, LSU
    • #10 OT Jedrick Wills, Alabama
    • #11 OT Mekhi Becton, Louisville
    • #18 OT Austin Jackson, USC
    • #19 CB Damon Arnette, Ohio State
    • #20 ED K’Lavon Chaisson, LSU
    • #22 WR Justin Jefferson, LSU
    • #24 IOL Cesar Ruiz, Michigan
    • #25 WR Brandon Aiyuk, Arizona State
    • #27 LB Jordyn Brooks, Texas Tech
    • #28 LB Patrick Queen, LSU
    • #29 OT Isaiah Wilson, Georgia
    • #30 CB Noah Igbinoghene, Auburn
    • #32 RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU

That’s nearly half of the first-round! A big part of that is physical. Players who are 20-22 years old can often remake their bodies in the span of 6-12 months, and it’s impossible to know that with no games or access. Daniel Jeremiah has alluded to the fact that NFL general managers were even taken by surprise by how some of their own players came into camp 20 to 30 pounds heavier than normal.

“Now you’re in a situation where you don’t have any contact with these college kids and you haven’t seen them,” Jeremiah said. “You don’t know what they look like or how they move.”

While it’s easy to see how not playing football altogether could impact scouting, there are some far less obvious consequences of COVID-19, as well. In any normal year, scouts would already be on the road visiting college campuses and talking to coaches about their players. That’s won't be the case anytime soon. While some of those conversations are still taking place over Zoom calls, Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said that presents a challenge in itself.

“It’s very vanilla,” Nagy said. “You’re really not getting some of the information that you’d get as a veteran scout that has great context and relationships. You’re not just going to go on a Zoom call and spill your guts on a player in front of 32 teams on something that can be recorded.”

Pretty much everyone can attest to how much COVID-19 has taken a human element out of their daily lives. With personality and attitude being so important to success in the game of football, that aspect is going to be difficult to assess this draft process.

Next Spring

Will the conferences that canceled this fall actually play next spring? Former Ohio State coach and Fox analyst Urban Meyer came out and resoundingly said no. Pretty much everyone else in the football world agrees with that sentiment. If that’s the case, you’ll see big changes incoming to the landmark processes of the draft.

The Senior Bowl

Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy has already stated he has he had talks with the NFL about not only pushing the Senior Bowl back a month, but also extending it beyond the one week it usually lasts for.

“I really think we can fit in more practice time this year to allow for the acclimation process” Nagy stated on the 2 for 1 Drafts podcast earlier this week.

For players with no fall season, this could be their only chance to prove what they’re capable of. I’d also expect a good deal of juniors to load up on online credits this fall so they can graduate and participate, as that’s the only way underclassmen can be eligible for an invite.

The Combine

The NFL has already been toying with the scouting combine in recent years. They started letting fans in a few years back and switched the drills to the primetime TV slot last year to drive more interest. It's also rumored that after the current deal ends between the NFL and city of Indianapolis to hold the combine there through next year, the NFL will be taking it out west to Las Vegas.

All that means is the NFL should have no problem making big changes to this year’s event. If COVID-19 persists into February, you can expect the NFL to push the combine back as long as is feasible. If it’s then still ongoing, expect limited representation from clubs and bubble-like living quarters.

If those aren’t concerns at that point, and we saw many seasons get canceled this fall, expect far more on-field drills than ever before. Teams aren’t going to be happy going into the draft horrendously underprepared. They will find a way to see these players in pads and competing as much as they can.

Pro Days

I wouldn’t expect these to materially change like the Senior Bowl and Combine very well may, but rather their feasibility is still wholly dependent on the pandemic's status at that point.

The Draft

The draft is scheduled to begin on Thursday, April 29 in Cleveland next year. The latest collective bargaining agreement states that the NFL draft cannot be held any later than June 2. As is the case with pretty much anything related to the NFL, don’t expect this to change unless forced to. I’m guessing the NFL will hold onto the original date well into the regular season and announce a change only if most colleges have a plan in place to play winter/spring football.

How PFF is affected

If you follow the PFF draft evaluation process, you know we take a distinctly different route to our final draft board than those within the NFL. If I were to boil what both we and the NFL look for down to its core, it would be this:

NFL: Talent

PFF: Performance

Now, we obviously take into account talent— and the NFL values certainly values performance. Oftentimes, the two coincide. Sometimes, they don't. One is very subjective (talent), and the other less so (performance). That's why you’ll hear that scouts watched 2-3 games on a player before finalizing a report. You can assess things like size, speed, change-of-direction ability, strength, play style, etc. over that small of a sample. Performance, on the other hand, needs large amounts of data to feel confident in.

The many college football players being unable to compete this fall hurts PFF’s scouting methods far more than those in the NFL. Yes, there are some who have played well enough in years past to feel comfortable with their evaluations. That may make the top 5-10 picks more valuable than prior years. But it also makes picks 30-100 damn near interchangeable with how small the samples will be. If there’s anything to take away from this article, it’s this: Trading down outside of the top 10 will be a better decision this year than ever before.

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