When I was an NFL general manager, my biggest draft day fear was selecting a workout warrior who wound up as the next big bust. So as I participated in March and April pre-draft meetings with our scouts, I always pushed for us to focus more on players' performances in actual games and less on their drills and measurables from the Combine, pro days and team visits.
Well, unfortunately due to COVID-19, that’s precisely what GMs, coaches and scouting department personnel are going to be doing out of necessity to a much greater extent than usual this draft season. While I always wanted as much information on prospects as possible, I don't think it's a bad thing for teams to be forced to go to the game tape more extensively.
This is all an offshoot of the NFL's pronouncement that prohibits all in-person pre-draft visits and medical re-checks with players until further notice. Thus the usual process has been thrown into turmoil due to the health crisis, and it’s hard to envision how this edict would be lifted before the draft that is now just a few weeks away.
While it will be a detriment for many small college players who weren’t at the Combine or Senior Bowl and have had pro days canceled so more information is needed on them, I can see it actually working in favor of players such as Tua Tagovailoa.
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Teams probably will not be able to have their medical staff fully examine Tagovailoa before the draft. He will continue to share edited workouts via social media (as he did this week) in an attempt to show he is fully recovered from the dislocated hip that ended his 2019 Alabama season after nine games. Players such as Tagovailoa will have their agents and personal physicians send teams filtered information on their physical status.
Teams will be allowed to do video conferencing for up to an hour three times per week with players, and some teams will surely try to watch players working out in these sessions. But that will be of limited benefit compared to seeing a player in-person.
Tagovailoa is the most prominent player with physical uncertainty in this year's draft. He was examined extensively by team doctors at the Combine, but he wasn’t cleared to work out in Indy and had targeted his April 5 pro day for his full on-field workout, which is now scrubbed. In the video he tweeted, he appeared to move well with his side-to-side and backpedaling movement. But skeptics in the team ranks will wonder if the speed of the video was perhaps altered. And it doesn't show Tua running full speed ahead.
— Tua. T (@Tuaamann) March 24, 2020
With no in-depth physicals or re-checks allowed, I see teams talking at length with their medical staff on the likelihood of a full recovery from the injury Tagovailoa sustained along with a discussion on his overall projected durability since he also has dealt with ankle problems and other minor injuries. There will be similar discussions on other players coming off significant injuries.
Assuming a relatively positive response from the team doc, it will be back to the video, which will be a great thing for Tagovailoa. He went 22-2 in his college career, played in two national championships (winning in 2017 when he was the game MVP) and set a new NCAA FBS passer rating record the next year. Over his two seasons as the Crimson Tide starter, he threw an impressive 87 touchdown passes against 11 interceptions and added nine rushing TDs. The video will show a player with great accuracy, QB smarts and mobility for the all-important ability to extend plays before finding the open receiver or running for a first down.
Despite the caution flags, there's a good chance Tagovailoa will be picked third in this draft after LSU QB Joe Burrow and Ohio State pass-rusher Chase Young. The Dolphins are likely to use their draft capital (six picks in the first three rounds, including three No. 1s) to trade up and not risk losing him — unless they feel the safer pick durability-wise is Oregon QB Justin Herbert at their No. 5 spot. But Herbert won’t get the South Florida ticket buyers as excited as Tagovailoa will.
I think it will work out fine for Tua and other Power 5 conference players who have been well scouted during their college careers and at the Combine and perhaps the Senior Bowl. I believe the greatest negative impact from the pre-draft restrictions will hit the small school players who were relying on their now-canceled Pro Days to showcase their skill sets to NFL GMs, coaches and scouts. And then they were hoping to be invited to team facilities for closer looks.
There also were plenty of Power 5 players who didn’t work out at the Combine, so for them, teams might only have an estimated 40-yard dash time and miss other measurables such as vertical leap. But there’s plenty of game video on them against top competition, so it shouldn’t affect their status as much.
A handful of pro days were held before the shutdown that will benefit players from non-Power 5 schools. Air Force, for example, had one of the last pro days on March 9. For so many other players, it's no such luck.
The problem for such players is that, unless they played several non-conference games against the big schools, it’s difficult for scouts to grade them without seeing them play against NFL-caliber competition.
I also understand this issue through my work with an NFL agent group, as we have several small school rookies who we expected to have good pro days and gain a higher profile on the NFL scouting radar. Now the more likely result is that these players will go undrafted and should be signed as priority free agents after the draft.
As long as players get signed and compete in a training camp, they will have opportunities to prove their worth in order to make a final roster or practice squad. These under-the-radar players can certainly become eventual starters and stars. That was the case when I signed undrafted defensive tackle John Randle with the Vikings in 1990. He wound up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The good news for these players most affected by the current scouting system semi-shutdown is that teams need plenty of late-round picks and undrafted players to make the team at close to minimum salaries in order to balance out the salary cap with the high-priced stars.
In the final analysis, while the NFL has not yet been impacted as much as the other major pro sports leagues have, it’s still strange days indeed for this draft class and the team personnel who are evaluating them.
Jeff Diamond is a former president of the Titans and former vice president/general manager of the Vikings. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year in 1998. Diamond is currently a business and sports consultant who also does broadcast and online media work. He makes speaking appearances to corporate/civic groups and college classes on negotiation and sports business/sports management. He is the former chairman and CEO of The Ingram Group. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffdiamondNFL.