‘It’s complicated’: Packers, rest of NFL face COVID-19 evaluation challenges in making draft decisions

GREEN BAY — When Mel Kiper Jr. — as well as NFL general managers — assesses the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has created for evaluating prospects in the 2021 NFL draft, they all agree: They’re unprecedented. And for Kiper, ESPN’s longtime draft analyst and the original draftnik, that’s really saying something.

“When I started in this business, I had to call every school to get just basic statistical information. I’d spend up to 10 hours a week on the phone with schools. That’s what I did in the late ’70s and ’80s and even the ’90s,” Kiper said during a recent ESPN Wisconsin interview. “You had to work hard back in those days to get any basic, fundamental information on a player.

“I said back in August, this is the most complicated and mysterious draft ever. For me to say that in 43 years, that wasn’t something I was throwing out there lightly. It’s true: It will be the most mysterious and complicated draft ever.”

That’s because there are so many variables to evaluating players — from a disjointed college football season; to some players opting out of playing due to coronavirus concerns; to scouts having their travel curtailed by the pandemic, which prevented them from being able to make their traditional school visits in the fall; to the cancelation of the annual NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February. As a result, preparing your team’s draft board has been an endeavor based on less information than even the most experienced GM has ever had to work with.

“It has to be,” Kiper said. “It was a completely different environment last season. Are you going to hold this year against a player (if he performed poorly)? Are you really not going to factor in a COVID-19 year and what these guys were dealing with? What about opt-outs? How are you going to deal with an opt-out (player) versus a player who played at the same position?

“The (workout) numbers, they tried to make the combine in Indianapolis where it was consistent every year — so you could compare and contrast, from 15 years to now. Pro days are different, from pro day to pro day. This year, the numbers don’t mean a whole heck of a lot. Can you really trust a 40-yard dash time? Can you really compare that to other years? No, you can’t. So you better be evaluating guys on how they perform (on film).

“That’s why it’s complicated.”

No combine

Not having the annual NFL scouting combine might be the greatest challenge. That annual event, which serves as the unofficial kickoff to the new season, was held last February, before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. This year, the event was scrapped — despite its importance to player evaluation — because it hardly made sense to have several hundred prospects and the scouting and coaching staffs of all 32 NFL teams descend on Indianapolis.

Instead, GMs such as the Green Bay Packers’ Brian Gutekunst had to come up with alternative plans for not only amassing testing results and height-weight measurements, but also medical examinations while simultaneously trying to figure out ways to eyeball the players that intrigued them the most. That’s why Gutekunst was spotted at so many on-campus pro days across the United States in recent weeks — even more than Gutekunst, who came up through the ranks as an area scout and college scouting director and is accustomed to life on the road, typically did since becoming the Packers’ GM in 2018.

“Obviously when you have the combine and the ability to see the top 350 or so players in one place and compare them in the same setting, that is obviously very important for us. And then obviously the medical part (is too),” Gutekunst said. “But everybody’s going through it. For me, the ability to see the players live at the combine is something that is very valuable to me, so I think just trying to get out much more than I normally would during the spring is going to be important this go around.”

The annual Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, was held in January with relatively few limitations, so that event was vital to scouts, and teams were able to conduct virtual interviews with players via FaceTime and Zoom, which Gutekunst said many of today’s young players were clearly adept at using.

“Obviously, the Senior Bowl is always a very important event,” Gutekunst said. “It was really helpful to our evaluation process; really thankful that they were able to put in the effort to pull that off. It always impacts the draft and is an important piece — but even more so this year, I think, with the limited opportunities we have to see players. I think it’s going to have a big impact on the draft.”

And the virtual interviews? “While there’s been challenges and certainly we’d rather talk to players face-to-face/in person, I do think that the players of this generation are so much more comfortable in front of a screen at times than in a room,” Gutekunst said. “(Maybe) we’re getting a little bit better sense of who they really are and maybe they’re just more comfortable in the interview process.”

Nothing beats film

Gutekunst’s two biggest mentors in scouting — former Packers general managers Ron Wolf, who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Ted Thompson, whom Gutekunst succeeded as GM — used to freely admit that the testing at the scouting combine and pro days used to skew their evaluations of players during February and March, causing them to move prospects’ names up and down on their draft board because of a fast 40 time or an eye-popping vertical jump number.

Inevitably, though, they would get back to their offices at Lambeau Field, get in a dark film room and go back to watching tape of each prospect in the weeks leading up to the draft. And with rare exceptions, those film sessions would result in those players winding up back where they were before those numbers were recorded.

Gutekunst acknowledged that for players who chose not to play in the fall, or players whose teams lost games to COVID-19 outbreaks, that film evaluation is a bit more difficult and the scouts may lean on game film from earlier in those players’ careers more than they normally would. But as he learned as a young scout, a player’s on-field performance has to be paramount.

“From the time I began scouting here with Ron and back in the late ‘90s, that’s kind of always been what we lean on,” Gutekunst said. “I think we go through the process — and every step in the process is really important — but when things don’t add up, we always go back to the film. And how they played in the past is what we kind of tend to lean on.

“It’s always been the No. 1 thing that goes into our decision-making process, and it’ll certainly be No. 1 with the limited opportunities we have to see guys in person and test and all those kinds of things. The value of what a guy has done in his past on tape couldn’t be more important.”

Photos: Packers’ 2020 season in pictures