There is likely no organization that has more information about selecting its employees than the National Football League’s collection of 30 teams. They have hours of game tape where they can witness their potential future employees actually perform; a rigorous scouting, observation, and interview process to prioritize their options. Yet, even with almost every built-in advantage, teams miss all the time. QB Tom Brady was passed over several times before being selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft. History is rife of “can’t miss” players drafted in the top 10 picks flaming out.
As of this morning, the Mid American Conference has canceled its fall football season. The Big Ten and Pac-10 are on the verge of canceling theirs as well. The impact on NFL teams is likely to be far reaching. Let’s explore a few:
1. What does a NFL draft look like in 2021?
For most NFL teams, draft picks are like gold. With only 7 rounds, they are, for the most part, scarce items. They represent opportunity: to fill a position of need…as leverage in a trade…to improve the quality of one’s team. First and second round picks are even more valuable as they are one’s you can least afford to gamble on.
There are certainly some players that are locks for the first round regardless of whether the college football season occurs or not. There is enough information available for teams to make a reasonable assessment of their qualities. However, how far into the pool of available players do questions about quality begin to arise? Without a season of play, teams are more likely to whiff on any single pick, and teams may emphasize volume rather than
Confounding matters is the likelihood that many players will retain their eligibility for another year, and choose to stay on campus to improve their stock. Take LSU QB Joe Burrow, for example. He was seen as a late round pick at the beginning of the 2019 season. A National Championship and Heisman Trophy later, Burrow was the #1 pick in the 2020 NFL draft. Meanwhile, Georgia QB Jake Fromm was projected to a 1st round lock heading into last season, and ended up a fifth round pick. How many current college players think they will be the next Joe Burrow by returning to college for another season? And, how many view Fromm as a cautionary tale?
2. Scouting becomes more critical…or does it?
Joel A. Erickson of the Indianapolis Star writes “I’ll tell you this, scouts now become more important,” Indianapolis general manager Chris Ballard said. “Let’s say the disaster happens, and we’re evaluating all of last year’s tape. It’s going to take real work and real skill to get that done.”
“This is where your connections as a scout become very important, because if you can’t get on the road, you have to have enough connections where you are able to pick up the phone and really dig and call, and people have to trust you to really give you the accurate information,” Ballard said.
However, Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com finds this won’t be easy:
Even if NCAA teams were only going to practice and not play games until the spring, the front office people I have been talked to figured that sending scouts on campus to try to talk to these players and see them up close would be a moot point. It’s always looked like diminishing returns to them, and rethinking how they evaluate players has long been in order.
“These campuses are going to be closed to outsiders for the most part and some won’t even really be open at all,” said one NFC personnel exec. “And we’re going to have guys going all over the country watching them up close and talking to them and watching film in their facilities? I can’t see it. We aren’t planning on it. I just don’t see that happening.”
3. “Buy or Make?”
Companies often have to decide whether to choose workers who already have the skills necessary to be competent immediately or invest in developing lesser-skilled employees. With so many unknowns in the draft, does this give leverage to upcoming free agents in improving the team.
One also has to consider the ripple effect of no season. Not only is the college season possibly being canceled (or delayed until spring), but many high school sports have been put on the backburner as well. How much development is going to occur during this lost season? Will there be a log jam at many colleges as players return, particularly with scholarship limitations; there is only so much room at the inn.
The Green Bay Packers were much maligned for moving up in the draft to select QB Jordan Love, when All-Pro Aaron Rodgers still may have several productive seasons remaining. Instead, the Packers staff may have been prescient in seeing an unpredictable QB market over the next several years due to the market and wanted a more known commodity.
4. People analytics has its time to shine
With reduced game tape, and scouting possibly being limited, using data may be the best way for organizations to find inefficiencies in the market for players. People analytics will become that much more critical for NFL teams to find that diamond in the rough, or to avoid taking on a player who is on the decline.