In any normal year, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta and head coach John Harbaugh would spend a week in late February in Indianapolis at the NFL Scouting Combine, getting a good read on roughly 325 of the top NFL prospects.
This, of course, is not any normal year. As with so many other things, the coronavirus pandemic has dramatically altered the predraft process. The NFL announced in January that it was scrapping the annual Scouting Combine, a one-stop shop where GMs and coaches watch college players from around the country go through a series of drills of speed and strength. They also meet with many of the players in what amount to job interviews, and they gather information on any medical concerns.
The cancellation of the Combine comes after a fall college football season in which scores of games were canceled and on-campus visits from pro scouts were wiped out. Two of the top postseason college showcase events, the East-West Shrine Bowl and the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, never happened, either. (The canceled bowls offered virtual activities with invited players, but no on-field evaluation or competition.) And some top college players opted out of the 2020 season altogether.
All of this has greatly reduced exposure for prospects and given NFL teams far less information than they would normally have as they prepare their boards for the draft, which begins Thursday, April 29. It has also greatly increased the importance of spring pro day workouts.
“There will be some differences,” DeCosta said. “There will be some challenges, no doubt.”
The Ravens, coming off an 11-5 season that ended in the divisional round of the playoffs, tentatively have six picks in the draft, including No. 27 overall in the first round.
DeCosta noted that while this year’s predraft process is far from ideal, last year presented similar challenges; although the Combine and all-star games took place, pro days and predraft visits to team facilities were canceled leaguewide when the pandemic forced shutdowns across the country in mid-March.
In light of that, DeCosta said, “I think we actually, in a lot of ways, are more prepared this year than we were last year.”
Senior Bowl, pro days become even more important
The loss of the Combine has put a much greater emphasis than usual on the Senior Bowl, which unlike the other marquee postseason games did take place, and on pro day workouts, especially for those prospects whose seasons were canceled or disrupted by the pandemic.
One such player is interior offensive lineman Quinn Meinerz, whose pancake blocks during Senior Bowl workouts lit up social media. Meinerz played at Wisconsin-Whitewater, which, like the rest of Division III, had its entire 2020 season canceled. He is now preparing for a pro day evaluation.
“Players at major, big powerhouse schools, they’re going to be fine,” said agent Chad Wiestling, a former NFL scout. “They’re going to get the most love, as they usually do. The Alabamas, the Clemsons, the Ohio States … all the scouts will go to those pro days, and they have plenty of film to watch. Those guys will be OK. It’s the other schools, the smaller schools, where pro day is the most important thing. It’s all they got.”
Wiestling said at this stage of this altered process, exposure is critical.
“How am I going to get my guy seen? That’s the number one goal right now,” for agents, he said.
Former Towson running back Shane Simpson said he is preparing for a March 24 pro day at Virginia that he knows is “going to be real, real big.” Simpson transferred to Virginia for his final collegiate season after Towson announced that its fall season would be postponed. (The Tigers have since scuttled plans for an abbreviated spring season as well.)
Simpson’s 2019 season had been limited to three games because of a knee injury, so he wanted to show NFL teams that he was healthy again. He had 54 carries for 278 yards and two scores for the Cavaliers, then took part in the postseason Collegiate Gridiron Showcase, a combine-type event for draft hopefuls.
Others at that event included linebacker Shaq Smith and running back Jake Funk from Maryland and cornerback Cameron Kinley from Navy. Kinley and Navy guard Peter Nestrowitz also played in the Hula Bowl.
“Being able to move around in front of scouts and interview with scouts was definitely a huge part,” Simpson said, “especially with them not being able to come to campus this year.”
Towson coach Rob Ambrose didn’t begrudge his former team captain for leaving, saying, “I wanted him to finish his career here, but you gotta go where the work is. You’re trying to be evaluated to have a shot, so you gotta go somewhere where you can play.”
Even that was greatly variable this year. While Alabama, Notre Dame and Oklahoma played a full complement of games, other schools played abbreviated seasons as COVID wreaked havoc with schedules. Maryland played just five games. In the Pac-12, no team played more than seven, and some played as few as four.
Yet that was a step up from teams such as Delaware and Maine, smaller, Championship Subdivision schools that produced current Ravens Nick Boyle and Patrick Ricard, respectively. Those teams had no fall season after the Colonial Athletic Association shut it down. The league is planning an abbreviated spring season. Would a player such as Ricard, who did not attend the Combine and went undrafted out of Maine before signing with the Ravens and becoming a Pro Bowl fullback, even get a look this year?
“The [Bowl Subdivision] schools that played schedules, they have a little better chance of being evaluated because they got another year,” Ambrose said. “But for the guys that didn’t play at all? There’s no magic pill to make this right.”
Ambrose said virtually his entire draft-eligible class is planning to return for the fall 2021 season after the NCAA granted an additional year of eligibility because of the pandemic, but elsewhere, “There will clearly be opportunities missed that will never be able to be regained.”
Wiestling pointed to the lack of on-campus interaction as a big loss in the evaluation process this year. Scouts have enough tape on some players to get bleary-eyed, but much of their most important work is done in tireless travel on the road, hopscotching from campus to campus.
There, scouts talk to coaches, strength and conditioning staff, trainers, anyone with information that can help build a profile of a player — including any potential red flags — and that can’t be gleaned from film study.
“Scouts are basically information gatherers,” Wiestling said. “They’re missing that part of it.”
Still, DeCosta expressed confidence that his staff, led by directors of player personnel Joe Hortiz and George Kokinis, will navigate this uncertainty to produce a strong draft class.
“We’ll have to be more flexible,” DeCosta said. “We have great area scouts, the best in the league. We will rely on those guys, for sure. Those guys will get us the information, as much information as we can get. … We will be able to have a draft, and we will feel comfortable that we will have all the information that we can.”
“I’m a traditionalist,” DeCosta added. “I believe in the Combine. I believe in workouts and pro days and interviews and all of those things, but I remind myself that we didn’t have these things last year. I feel like the draft last year for us was pretty good. So I have reason to think that this year will be no exception.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens