The only certainty in the confounding 2021 NFL draft is Trevor Lawrence going to the Jaguars with the first overall pick. Beyond that, it’s really anybody’s guess following the most unorthodox of run-ups to the league’s annual parade of prospects. COVID-19 opt-outs and shortened or shelved seasons in the fall were followed by the combined cancellation and the elimination of in-person interviews this spring because of the pandemic.
Teams had to rely on Zoom calls to get to know players.
“I’ve said this before: what we’re doing is educated guessing,” Giants general manager Dave Gettleman said. “So, this makes us a little more uneducated, not having this personal touch with these players.”
Although all 32 teams received the videos from all 103 pro days, the lack of uniform, electronic timing resulted in suspect 40-yard dashes on fast surfaces clocked by hand.
“It’s hard to compare apples to oranges. You’d like to have everybody run on the same surface,” Chargers GM Tom Telesco said. “That’s the biggest part of the Indianapolis combine when the players go in and get their physicals done.” Only 150 players went to Indy this month for physicals, leaving spotty medical reports on many athletes heading into the 259-pick draft.
All of this should result in a wild weekend of buildup for the 2021 season when the NFL hopes sellouts replace opt-outs and normalcy returns in sports and society alike.
“It’s a very complicated draft,” ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “I always say, ‘mysterious/complicated’ draft” because teams didn’t have uniform 40-yard dash times and other measurements and didn’t get to poke and prod the prospects themselves.
“The opt-outs complicate things even more,” added Kiper.
“It’s a year like no other,” agreed Bengals player personnel director Duke Tobin. “There are players in this draft who have really only played one year of college football. You’re projecting.”
More so than ever.
“There are guys in this draft that (come) August it’ll be the first time in 20 months they’ll have put pads on,” Gettleman marveled. “And some of those guys are very, very highly rated.”
Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian called this year’s draft a throwback to a bygone era before technology changed the scouting world.
“I think it will probably be less homogenous than it’s been in the past – which is not a bad thing,” Polian said.
This year, NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said consensus was as elusive as Tyreek Hill is in man coverage.
“Look, group think is a real thing,” Jeremiah said. “When you get scouts that pal around together, we go to the same schools, and you’d be at the same places watching the same players. Everybody ends up talking and you kind of end up getting some consensus on some players.”
It same thing at the combine.
“So there’s just been less gathering. I think in some ways it’s better because you get individual evaluations,” Jeremiah said. “But I can’t remember more variance just talking to buddies around the league about specific players where the (evaluations) are so wildly different.”
Jeremiah also considers this shakeup a positive development.
“That makes it fun,” he said. “I think a lot of teams that I’ve talked to have really tried to shrink their draft board more so than in years past.”
You know what else has dwindled?
The entire pool of candidates.
With the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic, a crush of players stayed in school. By mid-April, fewer than 700 players had signed a standard representation agreement with an NFL agent, about one-third the usual number. That left this thinnest of draft classes with their college pro day performances to replace the one-stop scouting combine – unless they were lucky enough to get invited to the Senior Bowl, where every team got 15 minutes of face time with them.