By Amy Tennery
NEW YORK (Reuters) - National Football League (NFL) prospects are navigating an unusual path to the draft this year, with the annual NFL Scouting Combine canceled after a chaotic collegiate football season that left fewer opportunities to impress.
League scouts are descending on college campuses across the country through April 9 for a pro day circuit that may be more critical than ever after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted some collegiate conferences to cancel games and some players to opt out.
"This group of draftees is unusual in that some of the biggest stars opted out of college football this year," said Leigh Steinberg, a veteran NFL agent and real-life inspiration behind the "Jerry Maguire" film.
"So instead of having three years of film to look at, (scouts) have two years of film to look at so that already sets the process back."
Steinberg, who represented last year's fifth overall pick, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa who joined Miami Dolphins, told Reuters players and their agents - particularly those who would have benefited from an appearance in the combine's rigorous gauntlet of physical and mental tests - need to find an "innovative way to emphasize their skill set.
"It's really hard to create an even playing field because of the differential between how conferences scheduled football in the pandemic," he said.
North Dakota State University's (NDSU) 6'3" quarterback Trey Lance opted to forgo his final two-plus years of eligibility and is a potential first-round pick, thanks to a monster arm.
But after starting just 17 games at NDSU - including their lone fall game in October - quarterbacks coach Randy Hedberg said some coaches and scouts had raised concerns over his experience.
"That’s the biggest question I think that I’ve got from different people. It would have been nice to have a full season this fall for him... so he could have played potentially 15 more games or so," Hedberg told reporters. "That would have helped him in the long run."
For players, the altered scouting process comes with added stress.
"For our guys it's different because they've kind of got one shot at it," Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley told reporters.
Like his coach, Oklahoma running back Rhamondre Stevenson told reporters that there was a clear, added emphasis to excel.
"I don't like to use (the word) 'pressure' but it's just a lot of anxiety," said Stevenson. "You've got to do your best and prepare well."
All interviews and psychological testing have been moved to a virtual format as well, giving NFL teams scant in-person access to potential draftees.
"It's one thing to have a coach tell you that a guy is passionate, he likes football," NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah told reporters this week.
"It's another thing to go out there at practice and see a guy bouncing around and leading every drill and kind of getting his team mates going. Those are the pieces of information that we just didn't get."
The NFL Draft is set to kick off on April 29.
(Reporting by Amy Tennery; Editing by Ken Ferris)