The 2021 NFL draft cycle will be unique, different even than the challenging run-up to the 2020 draft that saw pro days and prospect visits canceled as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country hard last spring.
This year, that part of the script will be flipped. The NFL scouting combine, which has happened annually in some form or another for nearly four decades, has been canceled this year. But the pro days are scheduled to happen, along with the possibility of regional combine sites allowing players to work out, be measured and interview with NFL clubs.
And despite a slew of other pre-draft all-star games being canceled, the Senior Bowl — a sui generis version of it, naturally — will happen as planned this year. Other pre-draft all-star games, such as the East-West Shrine Game, the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and the Hula Bowl, have been canceled.
The Senior Bowl will go on. Held annually in Mobile, Ala., the event has grown in size, scope and importance in recent years under the guidance of executive director Jim Nagy. It’s a critical evaluation stage for any draft cycle. But the 2021 event likely will be even more important than normally given the pre-draft limitations elsewhere.
“Just talking to general managers around the league this season, outside of one GM who didn’t travel with his team to their games on Sundays, I haven’t talked to many who (were going) to many games to watch prospects,” Nagy told Yahoo Sports.
“I just can’t imagine getting to April if you’re a general manager and picking players that you’ve never seen physically before.”
But just because the players, scouts, coaches and others are shipping in from all parts of the country for Senior Bowl week doesn’t mean things will exactly be business as usual.
Extra safety measures, fewer Senior Bowl events
In years past, there were multiple events throughout the week, but this year it will be boiled down to mostly football — following Monday’s weigh-in, players will be limited to practices and the 72nd annual Senior Bowl game next Saturday.
Gone are the annual parade, the various civic events sponsored by the Senior Bowl and the annual media day that typically has kicked off the week.
“It’s really disappointing because we’ve worked really hard to build the week out, and we really see it growing even more in the future,” Nagy said. “Last year was a big step forward for that. But the main thing is getting these teams in front of these players. Getting them live exposure in front of scouts.”
The safety measures Nagy has put in place are starting to trickle out as the event gets closer. Media and scouts will have designated viewing spots for both practices and the game at the event’s new location, Hancock Whitney Stadium at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, which replaces Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
“We’ve had a lot of time to prepare, there’s no doubt about that,” Nagy said. “It’s been a process putting the contingencies in place, and I think what we’ve all learned with COVID is that things can change quickly. So we are ready to adjust if we need.
“We have been in constant communication with the league, the teams, health officials, and we do really like our plan. We are going to keep everyone safe. I think at the minimum I can say that there will be plenty of testing during the week.”
Quarterbacks will be a big story
There are currently seven quarterbacks committed to attend this year’s Senior Bowl. All six have a shot at being drafted, with a handful of first-round and Day 2 (Rounds 2 and 3) possibilities.
The American Team roster, coached by Matt Rhule and the Panthers’ staff, features Alabama’s Mac Jones, Florida’s Kyle Trask, Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond and former Wake Forest and Georgia QB Jamie Newman.
The National Team, coached by Brian Flores and the Dolphins’ staff, will work with Texas’ Sam Ehlinger, Notre Dame’s Ian Book and Arkansas’ Feleipe Franks, who started in front of Trask at Florida in 2018 and 2019.
It’s possible that the National Team could receive another QB commitment along the way. Nagy told Yahoo that there were a total of nine quarterbacks who would be worthy of an invitation in the eyes of him and his staff.
Although he would not indicate which other quarterbacks might be on the game’s radar, some of those invitations included underclassmen who had completed their degrees and were eligible for the game, but it’s possible not all of them will have declared for this year’s draft.
Despite the notion he benefited greatly from his supporting cast, Jones is perhaps the one possible first-round pick in the QB lot, we believe. Leading the Crimson Tide to a national title this past season, Jones picked up where Tua Tagovailoa left off and displayed great poise, touch, toughness and leadership.
Bama had one of the most talented offenses in the country this season, and two of his offensive linemen and star RB Najee Harris also plan on attending. (Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith also will be in Mobile, but the thumb injury he suffered in the national title game will prevent Smith from practicing or playing.)
Scouts have wanted to watch Jones outside the talent hive at Bama. The Senior Bowl rosters, of course, are just as loaded with NFL prospects, too, but seeing how Jones operates in unfamiliar surroundings with new teammates will be an important phase of his evaluation. Jones’ week, as it has for many Senior Bowl QB prospects in years past, could serve as a huge boost for his draft stock.
Similar questions and concerns exist with Trask, too, even if NFL scouts don’t view him now as a first-rounder. One scouting director we spoke with last week predicted that Trask could fall to Round 3.
But Nagy has been a fan of the Gators QB since he first saw him up close in Florida’s narrow loss to Joe Burrow and LSU in Baton Rouge prior to the Tigers winning the 2019 national title.
“(Trask) made some really impressive throws in that game, and even though I wasn’t there to watch him specifically … he got my attention with how calm, cool and tough he was,” Nagy said. “He was getting beaten around pretty good and was holding his own.”
Trask took over for an injured Franks (who would transfer after the 2019 season) and took his game to new levels in 2020. In his first full season of starting in college or high school, where he backed up Miami QB D’Eriq King, Trask was named a Heisman finalist after throwing for 4,283 yards with a 43-8 TD-INT ratio in 12 games.
Although Trask played great against Alabama in the SEC title game, accounting for four TDs (three passing, one rushing), Jones and the Tide were just a hair better. Now they’ll be splitting practice reps for Rhule’s Panthers, a team that could be in the market to draft a QB who can challenge starter Teddy Bridgewater.
Trask also struggled in the Gators’ Cotton Bowl loss, as many of his offensive starters missed the game.
“Even though (Trask) showed good accuracy on his 2019 tape, his ability to put the ball where he wants to put it (in 2020 was) awesome,” Nagy said. “It’s going to be big for him down here. He’ll be a fun guy to sit and watch tape with because there are some plays where you might question his decision making, when he’s really trying to fit it into a tight window, but I really think he’s just so confident in his touch and precision.”
“But we’ve had him our highest-graded senior quarterback since last March. He’s got a great opportunity awaiting him down here.”
Mond, Newman, Ehlinger, Book and Franks all have their respective fans in the scouting community to varying degrees. They also will have their shots to impress in this setting.
Newman hasn’t played since leaving Wake Forest last season for Georgia, having opted out prior to this past season. And while Ehlinger took a step back as Texas lost weapons and dropped back to the pack this season, Mond, Book and Franks all helped improve their stocks prior to this week.
“(Book) always been a winner, we’ve seen that,” Nagy said. “But I really think the game has slowed down for Ian. He’s played all this football, and you might have hoped (his development as a passer) would have happened sooner, but there’s a level of calm with him this year that I hadn’t seen before. He’s peaking at the right time. He and Kellen Mond have played their best football at the right time.
“Sam lost Collin Johnson and Devin Duvernay, two big-time playmakers. It was a transition year for him. Sam’s experience is a huge plus, and what you don’t get in the NFL (as as backup) are reps, so there’s less of a developmental aspect to him because of that. He just needs to find the right team and the right situation to thrive.”
Other non-QB prospects of note
Harris might be the biggest non-QB name attending the game, having accepted his invitation this past week. He’ll have a chance to go in Round 1 following a brilliant career at Bama that featured two national titles and the development of his three-down ability to go with his tremendous running skill.
But there are many other top-50 possibilities attending the 2021 Senior Bowl.
The National team has several prospects who could land on Days 1 or 2 of the draft, including Washington DL Levi Onwuzurike, Pittsburgh DL Rashad Weaver, Oklahoma OL Creed Humphrey, Oklahoma State WR Tylan Wallace, Wake Forest WR Sage Surratt, Northern Iowa OT Spencer Brown, Ohio State LB Baron Browning and Western Michigan WR D’Wayne Eskridge.
The American roster is plenty loaded too with similar-caliber prospects, including Wake Forest DL Carlos Basham Jr., LSU WR Jabril Cox, Tennessee OG Trey Smith, Clemson WR Amari Rodgers, Florida WRs Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes and Alabama OLs Alex Leatherwood and Deonte Brown.
Opt-out players for 2020 such as Newman, Onwuzurike, Brown and Michigan’s Nico Collins also earn the benefit of getting to add fresh tape to their arsenal.
“Those are the players who could stand to benefit the most, the ones who missed last season or who were injured or limited last year,” Nagy said. “A full week of work at the Senior Bowl will carry a lot of weight in the eyes of scouts who haven’t seen them play live in over a year.”
Like Brown, many other FCS players had their seasons taken from them as the subdivision forwent a 2020 season. The list of impressive smaller-school prospects at the event includes North Dakota State OT Dillon Radunz (QB Trey Lance’s left tackle whose team played one game this fall), Wisconsin-Whitewater OG Quinn Meinerz, South Dakota State WR Cade Johnson and Grambling State OG David Moore.
(Other smaller-school prospects who have accepted invitations but do not currently appear on either Senior Bowl roster include Illinois State DB Christian Uphoff, North Carolina Central CB Bryan Mills, and Northern Iowa EDGE Elerson Smith.)
That’s a smaller group of lower-level players than we typically see at the Senior Bowl. But it also underscores just how tough it is to stand out as a smaller-school prospect with more big-name prospects such as Harris and Jones committed to play.
Multiple agents told Yahoo Sports that the Senior Bowl’s increased selectivity in recent years makes it a better-quality game than it had been in the past prior to Nagy’s arrival, even if it comes at the cost of no longer being able to use their influence to land their clients at the event.
“You used to be able to talk your guys up a little bit before,” one longtime agent said. “But (Nagy) takes the players (he and his staff) think are best. You have to respect that, even if it means it’s tougher to get some of your borderline guys in there.”
Especially in a year where many of the borderline prospects faced tougher challenges for even showcasing their talent and proving they belong among the best seniors.
More from Yahoo Sports: