Racking up sky miles, frequent trips to rental car establishments, and reaching high totals on Starbucks apps, scouts have somewhat returned to normalcy with their scouting routine as we are nearing the tail end of the 2021 pre-draft process. Entering the first week of April, we are just under a month away from the 2021 NFL Draft.
The 2020 college football season was unlike any other. Scouts and evaluators are in a position that they aren’t used to. Playing catch-up has been the name of the game since January. Without a scouting combine and lots of empty sections on pre-draft portfolios entering pro days, the biggest job interview for prospects reached completely new heights as the testing portion was many scouts' first time actually seeing some prospects up close. There were a limited amount of schools that actually offered scouts the opportunity to check-in and live scout games on campus. There were some that were even forced to buy their own ticket because of the difficulties faced with the pandemic.
A situation that even the most knowledgeable person could’ve never predicted, the past calendar year leaves plenty of interesting dynamics concerning the draft. With under a month to go, this year's process is even different than last.
The early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic took the United States by surprise in March. By then, the scouting combine had already taken place, so teams had the necessary information needed in order to form evaluations about prospects that would or wouldn’t be placed on their board. Without any of those components factored into the equation due to the banishment of many important stages of the pre-draft process in 2021, teams will likely have to make even more of an educated guess than the draft already is.
Inflated 40-yard dash times have been a back-and-forth debate that we’ve seen happening on various social media platforms. Even if true, it seems to be a narrative that’s much more media-driven as worrisome than what actual scouts believe, because they trust the times that they are recording by their own standards.
“Everyone on you guys’ side is making a big fuss of the times, but it’s still the same process for us," one scout said. "Even if we were in Indianapolis, we’re still going by the time that we record on the stopwatch inside.”
This raises another point when considering the recent implementation of GPS tracking systems. Teams now have analytics and instruments that can track how fast certain players are moving on game tape instead of relying on doing things by hand. This slowly seems to be the way that the league is trending and may eventually become the norm amongst all 32 teams, which would make the 40-yard dash times less important.
How have scouts handled the adjustments of pro days and what can be considered an unconventional draft process? The biggest adjustment has been the limited restrictions on the number of representatives for each team, which is three. It’s important to pay close attention to who teams send to pro days because it may signal a gauge on which player they could be taking a liking to. Whenever a team sends their general manager, head coach, and/or position coach, it’s usually a big deal. Some things are hard to believe at this point of the process, but there are some factors that are impossible to hide. Sending those types of high-ranked individuals has a significant meaning.
For area scouts, it has been challenging because they are the usual ones that are sent to that particular pro day, but with the restrictions, there’s a possibility that they aren’t the individual that gets to lay eyes on a particular prospect that they have been scouting since last fall.
The current predicament has been challenging for many behind the scenes, but all of the pieces of the puzzle are starting to come together. The first week of April is when many teams finalize their draft board in preparations for the draft, and that plan hasn’t changed based on those that I have talked to. What will change is the amount of information that continues to come in on prospects. Continuing to enter that information has been a daily process, but one that scouts continue to abide by as we churn through the final stretch of 2021 pro days.