Zaire Franklin stood on the field at Ensley Athletic Center following his pro day, drenched in sweat while catching his breath, as representatives from the Indianapolis Colts approached him.
The then-Syracuse linebacker, who had just posted a 38-inched vertical jump and an impressive 4.58-second 40-yard dash, didn’t know it at the time, but that meeting with the Colts on March 19, 2018, would change his life forever.
Franklin, who is now a member of the Colts’ defense, believes that back-and-forth on Syracuse’s campus is what probably got him drafted in the seventh round two years ago.
“Without that conversation, who knows where I would be,” Franklin told NJ Advance Media.
The Philadelphia native got the opportunity that most draft prospects won’t receive this offseason due to the coronavirus pandemic. The NFL has canceled scouting opportunities for its clubs and barred teams from hosting individual workouts.
Like the majority of this year’s draft-eligible players, Franklin wasn’t invited to the NFL Scouting Combine or any all-star games. Most pundits projected him to be an undrafted free agent. That’s why his pro day was so crucial. It was his opportunity to meet with teams and show off his athleticism in front of decision-makers. That face time was essential in building up Franklin’s draft stock.
“They want to see you the person,” Franklin said. “They want to shake your hand and look you in the eye.”
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has brought everyday life to a standstill, for many draft prospects, that handshake will never take place. There won’t be in-person eye contact for the next several weeks, as teams have resorted to Skype calls and phone conversations with the young men that they could be paying millions of dollars to over the next four years.
That outlook has dealt teams, agents and prospects an unprecedented situation, one that could have a long-lasting impact on the NFL for years to come.
NFL scouts spend the fall months searching for clues on impending draft prospects.
Whether they’re studying film or speaking with program sources for information on injuries or character concerns, the scouts are building a case on each prospect in their region.
The entire scouting community’s detective skills will be placed under an even wider microscope with the coronavirus pandemic restrictions.
“You really need to rely on your scouting staff,” an AFC personnel executive told NJ Advance Media. “They put in their work during the fall this past year to … paint enough of a picture to draft those guys.”
The lack of information has put pressure on scouts, who were planning to have spring pro days to further evaluate talent. The lack of pro days and visits essentially wiped out the scouts’ ability to follow up with talent they’ve spent months observing from afar.
“You really can’t quantitate how big a loss this is,” an AFC South scout told NJ Advance Media.
Scouts are working the phones to make up for the lack of in-person interviews, but it’s still not the same. A player can handle a phone call or video chat differently than an in-person discussion, and that can be dangerous for a scout looking to pound the table for a prospect.
“Pro days are very, very valuable,” the scout said. “You can spend time with players during their pro day and really get a vibe of a kid.”
Not being able to get updated medical histories from players is also an issue for not only the scouting staffs but the top decision-makers as well.
“You’re going to probably have to work off a smaller board unless you feel comfortable rolling the dice and picking a player that you don’t have a physical on,” the personnel executive said.
The lack of workouts is also a barrier for coaches to overcome. While a coaching staff needs to trust its scouting staff’s information, a position coach may need to see a prospect work out before feeling comfortable with him in their system.
“Coaches need (workouts) to be able to put a plan together,” former Browns defensive backs coach DeWayne Walker told NJ Advance Media. “Having a chance to do scheme work is beneficial.”
While the lack of data is detrimental to the process, decision-makers understand that the entire league is dealing with the same circumstances.
Despite that even ground, some teams will be at a major disadvantage if their scouting staffs are incapable of overcoming the hand the league has dealt its clubs by keeping the NFL Draft on-schedule for April 23.
Said Roseman: “I think you’re going to have to balance the risk/reward in the draft process.”
In an unprecedented situation for the modern-day scouting community, Nagy believes teams are going to be missing out on a sizable chunk of information when they hand their draft cards in next month.
He says the lack of information will hurt a particular group the most: small-school prospects.
Players at smaller programs don’t get the attention in the fall that prospects from top-tier conferences receive. The background work during the college football season is scarce at the lower levels, and teams will have even less data without the benefit of workouts.
Players with questionable backgrounds and medical concerns, who didn’t get invited to all-star games or the combine, are also going to be at a disadvantage.
“It’s uncharted water for everybody,” Nagy told NJ Advance Media.
Nagy says every year there are players who earn their way onto draft boards during the spring months. That isn’t likely to happen this offseason with scouts staying at home.
“There’s probably 20 guys that get drafted every year just based off what they do at pro day, who won’t get that chance this year,” Nagy said.
Steve Caric, a Las Vegas-based agent who represents players like Eagles tight end Zach Ertz and Browns tight end Austin Hooper, says the lack of in-person scouting is going to push a lot of prospects off boards. The workouts can typically make the difference for a fringe player, especially one who will test well in drills.
“You have a lot of good football players, all over the country, that aren’t lucky enough to be invited to the Combine or to an all-star game, who have been putting in training-camp type work for 2-3 months,” Caric said. “Now they aren’t getting the opportunity to do what they need to do.”
Caric has seen the importance of pro days first-hand with several clients over the years. He says the workouts are “paramount” for the majority of the prospects who are being considered for the later rounds.
Nagy thinks the pause on prospect performance will ultimately lead to a lot of players being overlooked.
“You spend the spring on a fact-finding mission,” Nagy said. “But the way this is unfolding, it leaves a lot of blanks in the report.”
Easop Winston Jr. didn’t get to play in a college all-star game, he wasn’t invited to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in February, and his pro day at Washington State has already been canceled.
The wide receiver is facing a reality that many NFL prospects are dealing with as the clock ticks toward the NFL Draft: unprecedented uncertainty. He’s one of the hundreds of prospects who could fall through the cracks due to a lack of in-person workouts.
After spending 10 weeks working with renowned speed coach Gary Cablayan in Anaheim, Ca., Winston finally returned home to San Francisco last week. He is now social distancing, like millions of others.
While he hasn’t been able to showcase his skills in front of NFL scouts, Winston was able to record a virtual pro day with Cablayan before he left the training facility in Southern California.
Winston caught passes from Cal-Davis quarterback Jake Maier and ran the 40-yard dash during the modified pro day. The Washington State wide receiver said he ran a laser-timed 4.42-second 40-yard dash during the workout.
“The 40 was a big question mark for me,” Winston said. “That was something I really wanted to emphasize.”
While Winston was able to answer the questions about his speed during the filmed drill, he wasn’t able to speak to scouts as he would have at his actual pro day. Instead, Winston, like the rest of the draft pool, has had to rely on phone conversations to streamline the interview process.
The 49ers, Colts, Chargers and Jets have all shown interest in Winston over the past few weeks.
“It’s just them getting to know me,” Winston said. “I hope they hang up knowing that I’m a guy who’s humble and willing to work.”
Winston is considered a borderline draft prospect. If he is selected in April, it’ll probably be within the final two rounds of the draft. That’s why everything matters for him over the next few weeks. Or at least it would have under normal circumstances.
He doesn’t have an injury history or character concerns, but he’s also never met with decision-makers in a face-to-face setting. Phone interviews aren’t the most efficient way to learn about a potential employee, but the circumstances are out of Winston’s control.
“My mom’s a pastor, I’m a big believer in God,” Winston said. “Faith is a big thing for me, so I don’t think I’ve been robbed at all. I think it’s actually happened for me the way it was supposed to.”
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