Expectation for NFL's virtual draft: 'Someone will have a problem'

Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist
·6 min read

If there’s anything the NFL has learned over the past month, it’s that technology is only as perfect as the people who are in charge of it. That probably explains why the Cincinnati Bengals might have been a tad touchy about Monday’s reported “practice draft” malfunction, which left some of the league’s decision-makers sitting in silent frustration when a technology snafu triggered a nearly three-minute delay at the start of the league’s first virtual test run.

“It wasn’t [a Bengals] problem,” a source told Yahoo Sports on Monday. “That should be clear. It was on [the league’s] end.”

The need for that clarity has an undertone to it. For some of the franchises involved in this week’s draft, it’s clear that there are two chief concerns when this thing rolls out. First, teams don’t want their technology to compromise their ability to pick or trade; and second, no one wants to be the team that blows a digital tire in the middle of the draft and then holds up the entire affair, all while the world watches.

The opening pick in Monday’s virtual run was a prime example of that, with the NFL stumbling over the first and easiest selection of the draft. A mistake that set off some pre-loaded eye-rolls from some front offices that think this entire virtual setup is rushed and ill-conceived.

“Not going to be a very patient bunch,” a general manager texted after Monday’s practice run. “It took a little bit to get things moving but then it was OK. … Someone will have a problem. There’s too many teams [and] too many picks to not have something happen.”

Alabama tackle Jonah Williams poses with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after the Cincinnati Bengals selected Williams in the first round at the NFL football draft, Thursday, April 25, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
The Bengals had no issues with making their first-round selection last year, as they took Alabama tackle Jonah Williams. This year, the draft is entirely virtual. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NFL sets up a ‘Global Security Operations Center’

For its part, the NFL is doing everything it can to minimize that margin of error. Whether it’s the multitude of avenues to get a pick or trade in to the league office allowing breathing room in the face of technological failure, a litany of scenarios have gotten trouble-shooting from the NFL’s IT department over the past week. That has included pressing issues of online security for teams, players and the league, leading to the formation of an “NFL Global Security Operations Center” to help with any threats to the virtual process. Those potential issues include some of the social media chaos that rocked the draft in recent years, from the Laremy Tunsil gas mask incident to hacked feeds to extortion attempts tied to social media releases either before or during the selection process.

The league is still bracing for the likelihood that Thursday’s first round will present a problem or two that can’t be seen now. And the hope is that everyone can learn on the fly between Rounds 1 and 2, hemming up unforeseen problems during the overnight break, while also hoping that any logistical problems in the opening round weren’t painfully obvious to the audience tuning in.

In some ways, this draft will illustrate the NFL climbing another rung of the technology ladder. Draft boards have gone from magnetic boards to password protected digital versions on internal servers. For most franchises, a team’s cloud server is now the central hub of basically every single tool used for evaluation — college and practice film, scouting reports, analytics data and warehoused interview videos from the scouting combine.

Technology is forcing NFL efficiency

For a while, it has been apparent that NFL teams can do a lot of work without being on site for some of the age-old staples of a season. It’s why we saw more teams leave scouts home for the combine this year and some key decision-makers skip large portions of the event. A few months ago, it was painted as a problem with how the league had changed the event’s interview schedule. Now, some teams are admitting that the work can be more efficient and cheaper when it’s done from afar.

“I did my entire combine [work] in basically one or two days off the cloud,” one scout told Yahoo Sports. “It was a lot more efficient. Normally I’d be gone for more than a week. From a time standpoint, it wasn’t even close.”

In March, another scout told Yahoo Sports: “I’m already done with this year’s [evaluation] for this draft and I’m starting on next year. It’s not even due until like June, but I can probably be done with it in about a week of work.”

Undoubtedly, part of the efficiency is related to the coronavirus pandemic. With the cancellation of pro days and visits, there was less work to do on late-round or small school prospects, leaving evaluators to drill down and quickly exhaust all the information at hand. That’s also part of what irritated some general managers, who believed pushing the draft out further would give teams more time to scrape up additional information and put it to use rather than just living with what they had compiled into mid-March.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 27: General view as team scouts time the 40-yard dash during the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 27, 2020 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Team scouts time the 40-yard dash during the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 27, 2020 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Even for the grousing, there have been some revelations from the national shutdown, too. One general manager who has a long history of being a “boots on the ground” evaluator told Yahoo Sports that all of the Zoom meetings with prospects opened his eyes to some flexibility with his time.

“I don’t think I’ll be at the combine more than a day or two ever again,” he said. “All the prospect interviews [at the combine] are important, but we can just set it up so I can watch those online the way I do now. We’ll still have people in the room with [the prospects] in Indianapolis, but I don’t have to be there. I can be there on a Zoom connection or whatever. That’s going to give me a lot of time to stay back [at the facility] and work on some other things here.”

Asked about the lost time with agents and other general managers at the combine — which is where free agent contracts or trades can be engineered — he pointed directly at how the pandemic has changed his thinking.

“I’ve realized all of that can be done over the phone or even on Zoom,” he said. “It’s what we’re doing right now, so what’s the difference? Now I know we can do it, so why not use that to our advantage and then take my time and use it elsewhere? I’m serious. I don’t think I’ll do the combine the same way ever again.”

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