The 2021 NFL Draft kicks off Thursday after a scouting season unlike any before it, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing teams to make do with less information about their potential target players.
With the annual NFL Scouting Combine called off, league hopefuls were under extra pressure to impress during the roughly month-long pro-day circuit from March 5, after a chaotic college football season left some with fewer opportunities to play.
Coaches and scouts, meanwhile, had just roughly 150 players – less than half the typical pool – available for in-person medical evaluations in Indianapolis.
“You’ve got incomplete medical information on these guys, and nothing scares a general manager more than not having the medical,” ESPN analyst Daniel Jeremiah told reporters.
“When you look at the number of picks and you look at the number of physicals, there’s going to be a lot of guys that get picked this year that teams are not comfortable with medically.”
The former NFL scout said that could have a dramatic effect on already fraught draft night decisions.
“You’re going to see teams very willing to part with late picks in this draft… and you’re going to see teams comfortable with trading some picks this year for picks next year just because once we get to the back half of the draft you’re literally flying blind on these kids medically,” said Jeremiah.
While NFL teams are notoriously reluctant to tip their hand ahead of the annual draft, coaches acknowledged in the days leading up that their scouting process was unlike previous years.
With five quarterbacks projected to go in the first round alone, the San Francisco 49ers parted with their 12th overall pick, a third-round pick, and first-round selections in 2022 and 2023 in a blockbuster trade last month with the Miami Dolphins to claim the third overall selection.
“We had a guy probably at first back then, but we knew that wasn’t set in stone and we knew the only way we could figure out a little bit more, especially when you can’t work out guys, you can’t meet with these people — there’s a lot of things you can’t do this year — the only way we could go off that was if we got closer to where we could do a little more in-depth thing that we didn’t have to hide, and we did,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan.
With Heisman Trophy runner-up Trevor Lawrence all but assured to go to the Jacksonville Jaguars first overall and BYU’s Zach Wilson poised to go second to the New York Jets, an enviable trio of quarterback talent remains, including North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, who was afforded just one game to play in the fall due to the pandemic.
Coach Bill Belichick, whose 7-9 New England Patriots are a possible landing spot for 20-year-old Lance, told reporters there were “a lot of circumstances” to acknowledge in the most recent collegiate season.
“It made the evaluation a little bit different and just have to figure out what a player will be able to do (on) your team, what his role will be, and what the rate of development or the process will be when you get him on your team,” said Belichick.
“It’s maybe a little bit less information than we normally have but all teams are working with the same general information.
“Each team is going to have to make its own decision.”
The NFL Draft begins Thursday.