INDIANAPOLIS – Comparison shopping and face-to-face contact with college prospects returned to the NFL this year after the 2021 scouting combine was scuttled by the pandemic.
Talent evaluators welcomed back college pro days and private workouts even as the COVID-19 broadside entered its third year. The core of the league's back-to-normal blueprint was the return of the NFL scouting combine to Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis.
No more relying solely on virtual visits like last year.
“The Zoom meetings we have with players or with reporters or anybody else, the engagement just isn’t the same as being here,” declared Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke, who again owns the top pick in the NFL draft.
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said that while teams have fused Zoom calls and FaceTime interviews into the spring evaluation process, “I like seeing players up close and personal, sitting down with them and watching tape with them."
Yet, not all head coaches embraced the combine's comeback.
Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan and Robert Saleh all skipped this year's event in which 324 players showed off some combination of their athleticism, fitness, skill, speed, quickness, strength and savvy for scouts, coaches and general managers in attendance.
“I think it’s still valuable from the standpoint of watching these guys all move around on the field together,” said NFL Network analyst and former pro scout Daniel Jeremiah, who calls the scouting combine the ultimate cluster-buster when it comes to teams setting their draft boards.
Say you have four cornerbacks with the same grade in your third-round stack, Jeremiah said, “and they're out there on the same field at the same time doing the same drills. It really helps to be able to separate and evaluate those guys.”
That could prove pivotal this year with a pool of prospects much deeper than last year's.
“This year especially, the difference between the 15th player and the 60th player in the draft is very small, and teams are going to have those guys in all different orders,” Jeremiah said.
Hitting on draft picks has always been a harbinger of success, although the Rams just won the Super Bowl with a roster built through trades and free agency.
The Rams don’t have a selection until the third round because they traded their first-round pick to Detroit for Matthew Stafford and their second to Denver for Von Miller. So, GM Les Snead, who famously wore a T-shirt at the championship parade mocking his team's lack of draft picks, joined McVay in skipping out on the combine.
San Francisco GM John Lynch, whose first pick is the 29th selection of Round 2, said Shanahan and his staff snubbed the combine so they could integrate new assistants in Santa Clara while evaluating prospects with their personnel department and scouts in Indianapolis.
“Kyle and I talked and we felt like his time and his staff’s time were best spent there," Lynch said. "The great thing about what we’ve learned over the last couple of years is when we’re interviewing players, those respective coaches and coordinators and Kyle will get on the Zooms. And so even though they aren’t here, they are here.”
Saleh and his staff coached in the Senior Bowl. Combined with the new primetime workouts creating more downtime for a lot of position coaches during the day, Saleh figured the Jets were better served staying in Florham Park.
Saleh scoffed at the notion that the Jets missed out by not being in the room with prospects during their interviews.
“If you’re going into the combine thinking a 20-minute interview is going to make or break whether or not you’re going to give a young man millions and millions of dollars, shame on you," Saleh said. “We still have pro days. We still have private workouts. We still have our 30 visits. We still have so many more conversations, phone conversations, Zooms.”
Chargers GM Tom Telesco said the 20-minute in-person interviews with players are “less valuable than if you had a guy on a Zoom for an extended amount of time. It is only 18-20 minutes here, you can’t figure a lot out in that time and you can’t get a feel for a player in that time.”
Ravens GM Eric DeCosta is among those who insist there's no substitute for the in-person interaction at the combine for those making the call when their team is on the clock.
"I think the access to the players is critical ... to get a chance to assess things like growth, mindset, motivation, ability to overcome adversity, resiliency," DeCosta said.
Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said it was important for him to attend the combine because “I just value this time to be able to look the player in the eye.”
“I’m not going to be able to go to every pro day, to go to every private workout or anything like that. So, it’s good to be able to get my eyes on them here,” Sirianni said. “It’s good to be around the guys and see them work out and get to put a face to who you’ve been watching on tape.”
A face, and a body.
“The thing about it is you get to see the full body language,” suggested Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera. “You ask a specific question, you put a specific thing up on the board and they get a chance to look at it and digest it. You just watch them and study and it’s so much better than when all you see is just that little square.
"I mean, you’re seeing the whole reaction, everything from the face to the body, the way they sit in their chair, the way they straighten up, you know? And if the questions get hard, you can see their reaction. That’s really the thing that I think we missed last year about a lot of these guys.”
Browns GM Andrew Berry said Zoom calls are entrenched in the evaluation process to one degree or another now because they save time and money.
SiriusXM analyst and former Buccaneers GM Mark Dominik said the combine can expect a handful of snubs annually "because we’ve morphed into a Zoom community and it’s made it so much easier."
“It’s something that most of us weren’t used to doing and now we all know how to set up a meeting, join the meeting and add people to meetings," he said. But, "there is going to always be that hands-on, in-person. experience, too, I’m sure. You can do 20 Zoom calls and when you go to dinner with somebody you know, or somebody don’t know, certainly it’s a different kind of connection.”
Bills coach Sean McDermott said he'll never boycott the combine.
“We haven't gotten to where we're trying to get to,” McDermott said. “And I could tell you, when we do, I'm still going to come here. I just feel like this is an important part of the process of improving our football team.”