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NFL Draft prospects who weren't at Combine face a steeper uphill battle than normal this year

East cornerback Elijah Riley, of Army, during the

East cornerback Elijah Riley, of Army, during the second half of the East-West Shrine Game on Jan. 18 in St. Petersburg, Fla. Credit: AP / Chris O'Meara

By the week of the NFL Draft, teams have done all their work on the incoming rookie class. Typically, they've seen the players work out live, collected basically every bit of information about them and often have had at least one in-person conversation with the guys they like.

But this is not a typical year.

The coronavirus pandemic has made this year's pre-draft process far more complex, especially for those players not among the 337 invited to February's NFL Scouting Combine. Pro Days were canceled, in-person interviews were replaced by video calls and reliable scouting information became about as hard to come by as hand sanitizer.

“The non-Combine players where you didn't get a chance to get medical [info], where you didn't get a chance to visit with them, it's going to penalize them a little bit, unfortunately,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout for the Ravens, Browns and Eagles, said on a conference call. “And it's going to be the benefit of the guys that were big-school players or guys that have been to the Combine.”

In this world of limited info, a little familiarity is better than none — even if that is based solely on the school you attended.

“If you're a non-Combine player and you're at Alabama and teams have seen you — seen you in the fall, seen you at All-Star games — they've had exposure to you,” Jeremiah said. “They're more comfortable with you and they're going to be more comfortable turning in the card.”

Not every prospect comes from a powerhouse program, though. Those are the ones who face an even more uphill climb than they did in February before the pandemic.

Take Elijah Riley, for instance. Riley, the Newfield High School alum who played defensive back at Army, wasn’t invited to the Combine, and his Pro Day — which was scheduled to be on March 24 — was canceled. He did have exposure to scouts while he was at the East-West Shrine Bowl on Jan. 23, exactly three months before Thursday’s first round.

There’s also, as Jeremiah alluded to, the medical aspect. Teams get complete medical information on every player at the Combine, whether they were injured or not. That creates even more uncertainty around prospects who weren’t in Indianapolis in late February.

“The last thing you want to do is assume you've got a healthy player and you spend a fourth-round pick on him and he comes to your building and you find out, this guy has got an arthritic knee or some other type of an issue,” Jeremiah said. “So not having a chance to get your own medical [info] on those players is going to be tough.”

Nevertheless, teams still have a job to do in turning over every rock they can to find hidden gems, even if there are fewer rocks this year. So how can they learn everything there is to know about a prospect when there is significantly less out there for them to learn? They go back to the main thing that caught their eye in the first place.

“The biggest part of our evaluation, obviously, is from the tape,” Chris Pettit, the Giants’ director of scouting, said. “We always use the pro days and the Combine as just a supplement, another spoke in the wheel, just to validate what we thought that they showed on tape.”

Pettit said his scouts have reached out to players to fill in those spokes, and those prospects have sent along videos of virtual Pro Days and anything else that would help their case. But in the end, watching those videos — which easily could be worked to the players’ advantage — isn’t the same as sending a rep to a Pro Day to get the information on his own.

“We have to go back to what we really base the majority of our evaluation on, and that’s the tape,” Pettit said. “That’s why we’ve spent the last month really going back and digging into the film, looking at it from a different lens maybe, and that’s kind of helped get some of that information for us.”

With Tom Rock

New York Sports