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With 2020 college season near a shutdown, NFL teams brace for toughest scouting challenge in decades

·Senior NFL writer
·5 min read
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All you hear during the lead-up to the annual NFL draft is how important game film — or “tape work” — is to the scouting process of collegiate prospects. First-round picks almost always have to check at least two boxes — good tape and above average athleticism.

No matter how good a prospect, it’s almost impossible to be a first-round pick without having good tape from the previous fall. And for the players who might test poorly physically, having good tape is critical to getting drafted at all, let alone signing as an undrafted free agent.

College football is looking at a shutdown as the Big Ten and Pac-12 are canceling play in the fall, joining the Mid-American and Mountain West conferences.

So you can imagine how terrifying the task will be to evaluate players for the 2021 NFL draft based on 2-year-old tape, especially given how one-year wonders regularly leap every year into the first round. LSU’s Joe Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick, was the prime example in April.

“It’s rough — it’s an inexact process, even when we have all the information,” one AFC scout told Yahoo Sports. “So this is going to muddy the water quite a bit.”

There’s one saving grace to this, an AFC executive noted.

“Everyone will be at the same disadvantage with the lack of recent film,” the executive said.

LSU quarterback Joe Burrow celebrates a touchdown.
NFL scouts got two full seasons of game tape from LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, pictured here celebrating a touchdown against Georgia in 2018. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

Which NFL teams have edge if 2020 college season is canceled?

There will be more unknown than normal if the 2020 college season is canceled, especially once the second day of the 2021 draft rolls around. While there’s no shortage of tape on cinch first-round picks like Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields, some fear there will be less information than ever on the rest of the draft class once the cream of the crop is off the board.

“It will be huge,” one NFC executive noted. “The top prospects will be talked about for months and be built up, [but] most of a [pro] team’s roster is built from the middle of the draft down through [undrafted] college free agency.”

All of which means that college scouts, the people charged with navigating these unknowns, will be particularly important over the next several months.

“You really do have to rely on your evaluators and your sources at the schools now more than ever,” the AFC scout said.

NFL teams largely split up their scouting duties by region, assigning each scout an area or a range of schools they are in charge of covering. Scouts then write up reports on draft-eligible players from the schools they’re responsible for.

“They’re definitely experts on these football players in their area because they’ve seen these guys go from high school to freshman to maybe junior or senior and have seen every play good and bad between then and there,” Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead once told Yahoo Sports.

Scouts aren’t just charged with watching game film and evaluating players on the football field. They have to go beyond the tape.

“The teams that have scouts who can identify talent, as well as tap into what drives them and who they are as people, will have an advantage this year,” the NFC executive said.

And this, more often than not, is what separates the good scouting staffs from the rest of the pack. Some teams employ more college scouts than others — the Cincinnati Bengals have only three while other teams employ double or triple that — but some scouts are simply better than their contemporaries at evaluating talent and gathering information on players. That’s important because being an NFL scout is much like being a private investigator these days. The best scouts, for example, know what makes the players they’re evaluating tick, and whether they have any personal warts that may keep them from reaching their potential. These are the scouts who might have people they trust at each school giving them hard-to-get information about players that other teams may not have.

“Teams with good connections and relationships with colleges will get the best info, which will be incredibly valuable as that’s the only leg up we can get,” the AFC executive told Yahoo Sports.

Luck will be a big factor for 2021 draft

Scouts who have been covering their areas for a long time could have a leg up on their young contemporaries, since most of their background work will have to be done over the phone due to the limited travel opportunities caused by COVID-19.

“It would be a really tough year to be a first-year scout on the road right now without any connections,” the AFC scout said.

There’s also an opportunity for the most detailed of scouts — those who aren’t relying on just National Football Scouting and BLESTO, the league’s two major scouting services to get an early read on players — to help their teams benefit in the 2021 draft.

“Scouts who, last fall, were able to scout for 2020 players and take note of 2021-plus players will really show their value,” the NFC executive said.

Still, there’s an understanding that scouting is, was and will forever be an inexact science, especially this year. And upon further reflection, one of the executives added, there’s one other factor that will likely loom large in 2021.

“My best guess? Whoever does well in the 2021 draft will have gotten lucky,” the AFC executive said. “And whoever doesn’t do well will have been unlucky, unless [their] picks fail because of character.”

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