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Certain NFL teams at disadvantage if April’s draft isn’t postponed during pandemic

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The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the NFL and that may cause significant complications for teams and players in the draft

Los Angeles Rams v Houston Texans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Being at the onset of an offseason gave the NFL the “luxury” of not having to deal with the coronavirus outbreak that has forced virtually every sports league in the world to stop all festivities completely with basically no warning. The NFL has attempted to keep things as normal as possible over the last few weeks and continuing on into the future, but under the surface plenty has already been affected.

As of this week, the president of the NFL Physicians Society said that free agents and draft prospects can’t be examined “until the health crisis has passed.” The NFL followed up to say that free agents and traded players are not allowed to travel to meet with any club personnel, including medical staff; facilities are closed to all players unless they had already been receiving medical treatment; and staff can’t travel to meet with any players, free agents, trade subjects, or draft prospects.

Instead, players can arrange to meet with a third-party doctor in or near their hometown. Free agents — such as Jadeveon Clowney, Cam Newton and Jameis Winston — can’t be physically examined directly by a team. This has already caused an issue for Michael Brockers. Neither can players who want to be rechecked after the combine or who weren’t at the combine.

Teams have also added provisions in deals that allow the team to recoup the signing bonus if the player ends up failing a physical once it is actually conducted, meaning that a player could see a three-year, $30 million deal with a $10 million signing bonus become a three-year, $20 million deal if he fails a physical. Even if that physical is months from now.

In this interview with NFL agent Mike McCartney (whose clients include Kirk Cousins and Joe Thuney), he mentions that the NFL does not allow e-signatures despite the fact that many trusted institutions have relied on e-signatures for years. This has created a bit of extra conflict.

The league has cancelled the all-important Annual League Meeting that was set to begin on Sunday, March 29. At last year’s meeting it was decided that pass interference could be reviewed. The “catch rule” was updated significantly at the 2018 meeting.

Teams can’t host or visit NFL draft prospects.

The start of teams’ offseason programs has been indefinitely delayed. Teams with new head coaches were set to begin on April 6, whereas everyone else was going to get going on April 20. Obviously that is not the case now.

The live draft festivities in Las Vegas have been completely cancelled.

The next key date after the draft is meant to be Rookie Mini Camp in early May. Even if there was a draft from April 23-24, as it is still scheduled to be, it seems unlikely that a mini camp could be conducted five to six weeks from now. Regardless of the safety concerns of gathering that many people together in that sort of contact environment, amenities like airline travel, hotels, restaurants, catering, and so forth may take awhile to get up and running again and there most likely would be plenty of complications in getting that sort of operation ready in that short amount of time.

But the NFL’s memo on Tuesday night explicitly stated that they’d like to keep moving forward towards a 2020 season:

“During this time, clubs are free to conduct all normal business operations, including signing players, evaluating draft-eligible prospects, selling tickets, and other activities to prepare for the 2020 season.”

However, the NFL has remained steadfast in their intention to run the draft roughly four weeks from today in spite of the current situation and numerous unexpected road blocks. At least seven general managers have reportedly expressed a desire to delay the draft, including Mickey Loomis of the New Orleans Saints:

Of course, we don’t know that the complications of delaying a draft won’t outweigh the fallout of having a draft where every team feels unprepared. But it is easier to rundown what Loomis and other GMs must be concerned about right now in terms of having a draft in less than a month.

Why Scouts Benefit

Teams can only go off of college tape, postseason all-star games, the combine, and whatever workouts or pro days managed to get off before everything was shutdown. This may be especially detrimental to players who didn’t get invited to the combine. Many, many players in the NFL did not get combine invites. Many, many players who have gone to the combine didn’t get drafted. Will we see a higher percentage of drafted players be those who got combine invites? Here are 10 notable combine snubs from this year.

McCartney speculates that teams who rely heavier on their scouts as opposed to their coaches will benefit from this lack of testing. It is remarkably “lucky” that the NFL Scouting Combine completed roughly two weeks before the mass shutdown. Had it not, we would have to find out what a modern draft without a combine looks like but instead we’re faced with a modern draft that lacks pro days from major schools such as Alabama and LSU and many more.

Even presumed number one pick Joe Burrow has talked about helping in whatever we he can to get a pro day going for his teammates, which had been scheduled to happen on April 3rd. Last year, players such as Dwayne Haskins, Deandre Baker, and Maxx Crosby helped their draft cases significantly with strong pro day performances.

Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune interviewed three scouts about how their jobs are different this year. Some key takeaways:

  • They’re going to watch more tape than they ever have before.
  • Interviewing a prospect over the phone or Skype is not the same as sitting down with them in person.
  • “When you can’t confirm things, you want to take a little less risk than reward.”
  • It’s going to hurt prospects who have character issues, players who didn’t go to the combine, players who were relying on pro day results.
  • It’s going to help players who have good college tape, high character guys, and players who already know the system of the team selecting them.
  • Colleges, players, agents, or anyone who tries to send in footage or live stream pro day workouts won’t get the same credit for the results as they would if it were done in person. “It would be pretty simple to speed up the film of a 40-yard dash, even if it was just from yard line 21 to 25, just a touch.”
  • Talent may not be as highly valued this year as reliability.
  • Teams with established QBs will have an easier time navigating 2020 than teams hoping to turn over the offense to a rookie. “Mickey Loomis comes out and says, ‘Push it back.’ He’s got Drew Brees. He isn’t changing anything.”

One of the anonymous scouts seemed less concerned and figured that “75 percent” of scouts may love this arrangement and that teams may like the cost savings. Another also brought up money but says that is what’s driving the league to not delay the draft.

“I have no idea why the NFL will not push the draft back. But it’s got to be something related to money. It always is.”

But what I found to be the most pertinent observation by any of the scouts was this:

“Here is one thing I can guarantee you: there are going to be a lot more challenges and I promise you we haven’t thought of them all yet.”

Incomplete Free Agency

Another complication that I’ve noticed that hasn’t been discussed much is the fact that free agency does not even feel complete this year and that too is because of the ongoing pandemic and shutdown. Consider how important it is for a team to go into the draft knowing what their needs are but many high profile players remain free agents, potentially because of their inability to get physicals, to travel for in-person meetings, and so forth.

There’s also the matter that teams seem hesitant to commit to players this year. We’ve already read about that in regards to certain provisions being added to deals this time around but it’s also evident in the franchise tag and the lengths of contracts as compared to previous years.

After there had been 11 players given the franchise tag in 2018 and 2019 combined, 12 players got tagged in 2020, plus one transition tag. This is not a record amount, but it is the most since 2012. Teams may feel it is safer to “put a hold” on negotiations with their top free agent until they have a better idea of how the next two days, two weeks, or two months end up going.

Of the top 10 free agents ranked at CBS Sports headed into the offseason, four got the franchise tag, one signed for one year, three signed for two years, Amari Cooper signed for five years, and Jadeveon Clowney remains a free agent.

Of the players ranked 11-20, five got the franchise tag, two signed for three years, two signed for five years, and Jameis Winston remains a free agent.

Of the players ranked 21-30, three got the franchise tag, one signed for two years, five signed for three years, one signed for four years.

So out of those 30 players, we see 12 tags (40 percent), one one-year deal, four two-year deals, seven three-year deals (23 percent), one for four years, three for five years, and two free agents.

Now let’s go back to 2019’s free agent period and the top-ranked players at CBS Sports. Six players got the franchise tag en total and Clowney was the only one to not sign a long-term contract. Two of the deals were for four years and three were for five years.

Among the top 30 free agents (who didn’t get the tag) there were 13 four-year contracts, three five-year contracts, and one six-year contract for Trey Flowers. If you add back the five tagged players who signed long-term deals, that now gives us 15 four-year deals and six five-year deals, bringing the total to 22 contracts that were at least four years long. It would be easy to say then that 22 of the top 30 free agents last year got 4+ years (73 percent) and this year it might be four (13 percent).

Let’s also add that many gyms are closed around the country and not all players have a home gym, so offseason training is more key than ever. McCartney believes this could hurt big offensive linemen the most.

Is the three-year contract trend simply the way things were headed already?

Will this number be drastically raised within a month after tagged players agree to long-term deals?

Weren’t most contracts really just 1-3 years already with some “fake” years added on to spread the bonus over a longer time period?

Any of these could be reasonable explanations but we are currently living a world that would have been considered unreasonable not long ago. The first half of the NFL offseason is critically important for two main reasons: veteran player movement and the addition of new players into the league and these two things are intrinsically tied together no matter how you look at it.

They Aren’t There!

Another thing that may give Loomis and other GMs pause about conducting a draft in four weeks is that the NFL just shut down all club facilities until at least April 8. We all know that Zoom meetings are through the roof these last two weeks but many would acknowledge that there are potential fallbacks to missing out on in-person interactions. At the very least we could reasonably expect that getting used to remote work may require an adjustment period, perhaps especially for coaches and front office personnel who have been working in this league since long before the internet.

What’s one aspect of a show like Hard Knocks that seems consistent year after year? To me, right now I’m thinking of a head coach who gets into his office at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m., flips on the lights, and settles into his real home. Offices are important to people. Loomis and Sean Payton, who has recovered from coronavirus, perhaps further cementing the Saints’ argument that they’d like more time to adjust, have been at this together in New Orleans since 2006. Going to the same offices, conducting business the same way, and maybe not feeling ready to try to have the same success remotely.

Bill Belichick is going into his third decade of working in the same office.

Perhaps this month would benefit a younger coaching staff like that of Sean McVay and the LA Rams. Or other staffs that seem to fall in the more “modern realm” of the NFL, like the Baltimore Ravens and John Harbaugh. In any case, it seems like the league has taken away something very valuable — with good reason — but has not yet given equal response to delaying the draft, which is arguably the most important process in football.

It’s like if the professor stops showing up for class midway through the semester but doesn’t move the date of the final exam back. You have most of the tools you need, but not all. Some of the students will ace it regardless, some will panic, and others will become too focused on partying.

I don’t know that keeping the draft exactly where it is would be the wrong thing to do. It’s already difficult to know what is right and wrong these days as is. There are complications with not delaying a draft, but potentially even bigger implications if the NFL does announce that they are postponing the draft:

  • Is it an admission that the 2020 season won’t start on time? We know that it may be unlikely for rookie minicamps to start in early May either way, but delaying the draft puts off even being able to discern the organization of your roster and getting playbooks into the new players’ hands immediately. If you push back the draft, you probably aren’t pushing it back one week. If you push back the draft from April 23 to May 23, you’re basically giving teams two months to prepare rookies for training camp instead of the usual three. If you push it back to June, now you’re teetering on one month. That is unless training camp isn’t going to start in August and the season isn’t going to start in September.
  • What about the hundreds of prospects who’ve spent the last 10+ years working hard towards this moment, if not at least the last six months? What happens to their training between now and whenever the draft actually is? What happens if they get injured on May 1st if the draft was pushed back from April 23? How much does this hurt them in being able to contribute as rookies and to get their careers off to normal starts? I don’t have answers as to what is right, and this is a result not of something someone is doing but of a virus that people are trying to appropriately respond to when we don’t know what “appropriate” always is. There isn’t just potential fallout for teams though but also the players. The players can’t be overlooked.
  • What is the NFL’s plan to turn the draft into a COVID-19 fundraiser? Per Adam Schefter, the NFL wants to use the draft as a means to raise money for COVID-19 relief, which would be a good thing of course. It will be interesting to see what plan the NFL does unveil as far as adjusting during this difficult time and even if it wasn’t planned, we may see many huge and permanent changes in how the NFL Draft is conducted because of this.

As of now, the draft remains on schedule to being on April 23 with the Rams not picking until the second and third rounds on April 24. That might be the right thing to do but as we’ve already seen, just because the league is in its “offseason” that doesn’t preclude them from having huge events cancelled and postponed, offices completely shutdown, free agency jumping through hoops and potentially grinding to a halt for many players, and monumental paradigm shifts.

At this point, we have to prepare for every possibility.