The 2020 NFL draft will go on as the world is shut down due to COVID-19. The draft will not be in Vegas, instead, it will be in NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s basement. It would be an understatement to say that this draft will be unconventional. General managers, scouts, coaches, and owners who are used to sitting in a state of the art war rooms, will now make decisions that could cost them their job while their kids may be fighting in the other room. Of course, things could be MUCH worse but it’s less than ideal circumstances for the teams trying to pick the best player. At face value, these new situations that teams are placed in would make you think that this draft will probably have more busts and more players that just don’t work out. Yet will it? Could these altered interactions help the NFL teams draft better?
It’s not just the actual NFL draft that had to be changed due to COVID-19 but also the events leading up to the draft. In a normal NFL year leading up to the draft there is the combine (which the NFL was able to get in), and then the other major events which are pro days. Pro days are held by schools to help showcase their talent, think of it as a mini-combine. At these pro days, it provides players an opportunity to show their skill to scouts of NFL teams that they can help their team if they are drafted. This is an opportunity for players who ran too slow at the combine to get a second chance and allow players that weren’t invented to the combine to showcase their skills to scouts. Unfourtantly, pro days were canceled this year due to the coronavirus. Yet, there are two other key aspects of pro days that play pivotal parts in helping a player get drafted. That’s scout communication and player-team conversations.
First, with scout communication, this is a key element of the draft process. NFL scouts are human, so when they travel to all of these pro days across the country, they talk. Some of those conversations are about the NFL draft and about where they have players ranked and who they may like. I’m not saying one scout is giving the other his team’s draft board, but there is a communication of which players they may like. Of course, the obvious thing right now is that this doesn’t exist. Scouts may be talking with scouts from other teams but the odds of the team finding similarities make it much more difficult. Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network sent out a tweet this week detailing the exact point saying there will be “less groupthink in the draft this year”. Now, what does that mean?
Since there will be less awareness about which players are valued as superior, the more likely we see players that are low on some boards to be ranked higher on others. The advantage of this is for the players. Teams will rely more on what they see and take players based on the talent from the tape rather than what everyone else thinks. A lot of teams may second guess taking a player higher because other teams don’t value player X that high. Less of that will happen in this draft because teams will go with their instinct and draft player X because they won’t have as much knowledge of what other teams are thinking.
The second element of this equation is the removal of person-to-person interactions that teams use to interview players. Now luckily in today’s society, we have Skype, Zoom, and hundreds of more ways to talk to people through devices. Although, anyone that has ever used any of these devices realizes that it doesn’t exactly feel like the same experience. Teams will place lesser emphasis on this interaction because it simply isn’t the same thing as sitting across from someone and looking them in the eye. Then how is this a good thing? I’m going to rely on Malcolm Gladwell to help me with this.
A lot of people have made a similar reference that I’m about to make, but this example might have more than one connection. For that reference, I look back at Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book Talking to Stranger. Those not familiar with Gladwell’s work, he proposes theories that are backed up through historical references and tied together to make a point. One particular part of the book connects closely to this idea of social interaction being a deterrent in our ability to judge someone’s character. Gladwell uses the example of when British prime minister Neville Chamberlain met Adolf Hitler. Just wait, it ties together.
If you don’t know how this infamous meeting unfolded, I’ll explain. Chamberlin decided to meet with Hitler, at his request to talk about Hitler’s future plans. The year of this meeting was 1938 which was before WW2 began and Chamberlin wanted to make sure that this would never happen (spoiler alert it did). Hitler at the time was talking about invading Sudetenland, which if he did would have started WW2. So Chamberlin sat down to talk to Hitler, and Chamberlin shifted the questioning, to if Sudetenland was all that Hitler wanted. Of course, Hitler said yes, and Chamberlin came away with the impression that Hitler was “a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.”
“a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word”Neville Chamberlain on meeting Adolf Hitler
Chamberlain would fly back to talk to Hitler two more times and he stayed convinced that he would stick with his word. Obviously, Hitler didn’t stick to his word and the events later would, of course, be the start of WW2. So why did I mention that? The connection that Gladwell drawls from this event connects to the draft (obviously on a very different scale). When people interact it’s impossible to know their real intentions, and it creates a bias. When we talk to someone face to face we create a connection and everything we do in the conversation gives us a basis on how to feel about a person. It’s clear how this connects to the NFL draft.
When a team talks to a player, no matter what, they are now going to be influenced by the interview (obviously). The question then arises, how much does that help? Teams have tape, numbers, references from the player, why do they need to talk to them? People usually answer this with, “You can learn a lot by looking a man in his eyes”. From the example, maybe not. If Adolf Hitler could convince someone that he was loyal, then an NFL draft prospect can easily convince someone of some small detail that the team is questioning them on. I’m not saying that all prospects lie, or that nothing can be gained from the person-to-person interaction. What I am saying is that, when evaluating if a player is talented enough to be chosen with a first-round pick, how much do you gain when talking to them? Just through one example, it’s evident that we have much more to lose.
Of course, there is a downside to this alternative draft system that the NFL has thrown together. There is less systematic data to rely on, and the other main downfall is limited medical information. For Tua Tagovailoa, the former Alabama QB who suffered a dislocated hip and posterior wall fracture is one of the players that is going to be hurt by this pseudo draft process. Since team doctors can’t meet with the players, there are less reliable sources giving information about the impacts that his injury may have. It’s going to hurt his draft stock, but the fraction of players, like Tagovailoa, that fall into this category is small. Also, even if teams could check out his injury, the past has shown that this also may be misleading, just ask the Dolphins with Drew Brees.
Overall, I’m by far not saying this is a great outcome for the NFL. The world right now is suffering and the NFL draft will serve as a much-needed distraction for people. I understand that people are angry that they aren’t able to attend the draft, and for the prospects who are stuck inside as their lifelong dream comes true. For those same fans and players, I believe that a little bit more of them will be able to celebrate at a later time, possibly in Canton.