Draft season was always going to be weird in the age of COVID-19. Last year, the NFL got the annual Scouting Combine in before they had to kick a series of protocols into place. The league managed to power through the season with only a couple of majorly absurd situations, but with vaccine rollouts going on across the country and the prospect of a season ahead that could be a lot closer to normal, the NFL is not in a risk-taking mood with draft season.
Per NFL reporter Tom Pelissero, the league is taking away one of the staples of draft season, the in-person interviews and workouts, as well as medical exams. Teams can have three staffers at pro days or all-star games and conduct virtual interviews—and presumably request medical records—but they’ll be pretty limited this year.
The NFL informed clubs tonight they are prohibited from timing, testing, interviewing in-person or giving medical exams to any draft-eligible player at any location except a school’s pro day or all-star game this year because of ongoing concerns surrounding COVID-19, per source.
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) January 23, 2021
It probably goes without saying that this is going to make the draft more difficult. I think teams have learned that interviewing people in person is less necessary than once thought, but no in-person timing, testing, and medical exams feels more impactful. Teams will have less information and less in-person work to make decisions on, both of which could lead them to miss red flags they may otherwise have picked up on.
In the place of those, teams will be much more reliant on pro days, game film, and the quality of their virtual interviews, which now seem to be unlikely to be dominated by questions like “if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be in pass protection?” Forcing teams to focus more on a player’s body of work in college than a potential outlier workout at the team facility certainly seems like it might actually help some teams, but on balance less information and less one-on-one time with a player you might be investing years and millions of dollars into heightens the risk.
It will also make for a very interesting offseason for the Falcons in particular, given that they have a brand new general manager and head coach and a roster that will require an influx not just of draft picks but also useful undrafted free agents if they’re going to have any kind of depth in 2021. How the team handles this new challenge may well determine how well they fare in the season ahead, but at least they’ll know every other team is in the same boat.