How NFL scouts will get creative to evaluate 2021 draft class without fall college football

The process started in June. Every scenario was laid out — good, bad or otherwise — and the skeletons of one NFL team’s scouting plans for the 2020 college football season started to formulate.

“Having direct supervision of all area scouts, I knew I needed to have a plan for them in place before any decisions were made [on whether there would be college football],” one NFC college scouting director told Yahoo Sports.

Scrambling for the 2020 NFL draft after the COVID-19 pandemic first hit was a big enough hurdle for teams this spring. But there’s no scouting rubric for how to create a full-year plan for franchises to gather the same level of information they would cull in a normal draft cycle.

That means developing multiple scenarios depending on what happens with college football, the majority of which won’t be played this season.

“We’re just trying to predict the future here, no big deal,” the director deadpanned.

The entire NFL scouting process is changing amid all the pandemic uncertainty. And it's likely to change some more. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
The entire NFL scouting process is changing amid all the pandemic uncertainty. And it's likely to change some more. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Among the scenarios they planned for to help area scouts sketch out their summer and fall:

  • No August practice and no scouts allowed on campus in August but maybe some will be allowed in fall.

  • One scout per NFL team allowed in August and then two scouts per team in fall.

  • No scouts allowed in August, then one allowed per month per each school.

  • One scout visit allowed in training camp, and nothing during the fall.

  • No college football and no visits.

This is just a snapshot of how scouting departments are currently scrambling for the 2020 college football season, with the Big Ten, Pac-12, Mid-American and Mountain West conferences having already punted on a fall football season, along with most FCS schools. Others, too, might follow suit in the days ahead.

And NFL scouting staffs will have to adjust on the fly.

“If there’s no college football at all, and information seems to change by the minute, I don’t know how it’s going to look exactly, but I think we’re just going to have to get creative in how we do this,” the NFC director said.

Will scouts get to visit campuses?

Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst noted this week that his team’s area scouts are “itching” to get back on the road and do their jobs. It’s likely not that easy.

Scouts can get character and background information over Zoom chats, which are happening across the country now. They’re part of the information-gathering process and not too different from a normal year. But most area scouts, the NFC director said, would already have made “six or seven” school visits by this point, watching practices and talking to multiple people — strength coaches, pro liaisons, assistant and head coaches, plus the players themselves.

The director made sure that one of his worst-case scenarios included no on-campus visits of any kind. At the time he was brewing up those possibilities earlier this summer, some college programs were struggling to contain their early positive coronavirus tests.

“It was like, why would a school want a scout on their campus? They’re trying to get their own situation figured out,” he said. “At that time, that’s when Clemson was getting that outbreak. I’m thinking, ‘Man, if a school like Clemson, that has every resource imaginable, can’t get theirs under control, I’m sure they’re not thinking about us scouts.’”

Some college programs have told scouts not to come. Others that are still conducting business as usual have opened their doors, at least until someone higher up the chain shuts that down.

And likewise, some schools have been very proactive with making all those sources of information available to scouts virtually, in lieu of in-person visits, while others have offered up one person for scouts to speak with.

“Sometimes if you’re not there on campus, it might be tougher to track down some of those other sources that might not be on some schools’ Zoom calls,” the director said.

One NFL team’s West Coast scout texted Yahoo Sports: “Guess I’ll be scouting from home this year. Not sure when my next trip will be.” Most schools in his region won’t be playing football this fall, and perhaps not at all before the 2021 NFL draft.

This is where the NFL franchises that have invested heavily in scouting — and the ones that have developed their scouts the best over the past few years — will thrive, while the rest might stumble.

I’ll tell you this, scouts now become more important,” Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard told local media last week. “Let’s say the disaster happens, and we’re evaluating all of last year’s tape. It’s going to take real work and real skill to get that done.”

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN - SEPTEMBER 07: Purdue Boilermakers wide receiver Rondale Moore (4) returns a punt during the college football game between the Purdue Boilermakers and Vanderbilt Commodores on September 7, 2019, at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, IN. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore, pictured returning a punt against Vanderbilt in 2019, opted out of the 2020 season before the Big Ten unplugged the fall campaign for every one of its schools. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Be kind, rewind

Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore is a thrill-a-minute playmaker who has averaged more than eight catches per game, nearly 110 scrimmage yards per game and a touchdown every 8.9 touches. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Moore is also a gifted returner, and he projects to be a home-run-hitting slot receiver on the next level.

Since taking college football by storm as a freshman in 2018, Moore hasn’t played a lot of actual football. In his fourth game last season, Moore suffered a torn left hamstring, ending his 2019 season after 185 snaps.

Those 185 snaps now will be picked apart more heavily than normal. Moore announced that he opted out of the 2020 season and will begin to prep for the 2021 draft ... with zero game reps on his résumé since Sept. 28, 2019.

Moore’s health isn’t a worry now but his lack of game tape could work against him.

“There’s no pick-up games in football,” Gutekunst said.

In recent years, players such as Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and UCLA’s Myles Jack opted out early into their final college seasons and still were drafted very high (Bosa at No. 2 overall in 2019) and relatively high (Jack at No. 36 overall in 2015).

They each had parts of three games to evaluate from the season prior to the draft. That won’t be the case for many highly touted 2021 prospects.

“We just have to be prepared that we possibly could be drafting players that had a year off of football,” the NFC director said. “In any other normal year, that’s always a concern.”

Tape, especially recent tape, remains king in scouting, as Yahoo Sports’ Terez Paylor wrote this week. Without that for some prospects, scouts will have to continue developing their gumshoe instincts on their subjects.

“This is where your connections as a scout become very important, because if you can’t get on the road, you have to have enough connections where you are able to pick up the phone and really dig and call, and people have to trust you to really give you the accurate information,” Ballard said.

A group of coaches and scouts from various NFL teams observe the action during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2019. If there is a combine in 2021, prospects' workout numbers, testing and even positional drills there likely will carry extra weight in draft evaluations. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
A group of coaches and scouts from various NFL teams observe the action during the scouting combine at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2019. If there is a combine in 2021, prospects' workout numbers, testing and even positional drills there likely will carry extra weight in draft evaluations. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Could NFL draft schedule change with spring football?

Even though some conferences say spring football is possible, and NFL scouting staffs are preparing for it, many don’t believe it’s happening.

“My personal opinion is that I don’t think there’s college football in the spring,” one talent evaluator said. “I think pushing the spring thing is appeasing [fans], keeping some hope in [their lives].

“It just sounds so vague and ambiguous. Like, ‘Oh, we’ll have it in the spring.’ Well, like, what is spring? Is that Feb. 1? March 1? April 1? Are all sports going to play at the same time? It’s just too vague to where I really don’t see that.”

One reason, as former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer noted to Yahoo Sports, is safety. Asking players to play a college season in the spring, followed by an NFL season — or another college season — in the fall isn’t realistic. That’s a lot of wear and tear on players’ bodies in a shorter time frame.

“I agree with [Meyer],” the NFC director said. “Say they did push the draft back if they play in the spring. You’re still running the risk of it being more unsafe for players.

“They’re supposed to play in the spring, they’re done in April or whatever, and then you gotta get started in OTAs? Like, come on. I just think it’s too much of a domino effect and more unsafe on the whole.”

That doesn’t mean the NFL couldn’t push the draft back to give prospects who opted out or whose seasons were canceled a bigger chance to perform competitively in front of NFL scouts.

“We’re going to have to do a lot of our evaluations off the tape from 2019, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we got down to that December area where you might see different kind of combines or workouts we’ll be able to attend,” Gutekunst floated.

Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy told Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel that the sport’s preeminent all-star game could look different this year.

There could be two and a half weeks of practice instead of the standard one week. Maybe the NFL will grant special access for underclassmen who typically aren’t eligible for the game. Perhaps the Senior Bowl is pushed back — if holding the event is even possible next year.

And whenever the NFL scouting combine is held, the prospect’s workout numbers, testing and even positional drills there likely will carry extra weight.

“I hate to say it,” the NFL evaluator said, “but we’re going to be tilting the scales more on the combine. Call me old-school, but I don’t like it. Still, I just can’t see how it isn’t weighed more heavily [for players who don’t play this fall].”

Even the date of the draft, scheduled to start April 29, could be delayed. (The league’s collective bargaining agreement states that the draft won’t be held any later than June 2, so moving it after that would require the NFLPA’s approval.)

So far, sources have indicated to Yahoo Sports that pushing the draft back isn’t likely right now. But what if some vestige of college football is attempted in the spring? And if so, how many NFL prospects would suit up for such a thing?

Those are major questions in a lot of NFL scouts’ minds these days.

“I just don’t see that happening, but we’ll see,” the NFC director said, followed by a gallows laugh.

It’s the new normal for him and his colleagues around the league. No one knows what tomorrow will look like, much less six months from now.

“It’s like planning a beach day, and you have to bring the umbrella for the sun and then one for the rain,” he said. “Bring your swimming trunks and your raincoat. Your sunscreen and your long sleeves.

“At some point, you just have to get to this reality: Scouting is going to be different. It’s going to change. We’re going to have to adjust. And we’re going to have to just play the cards we’ve been dealt.”

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