This is the second consecutive draft impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and teams have had little face-to-face time, scarce medical information, fewer games to review and just as many questions to answer as usual. In the months leading up to the draft, which begins April 29, there have been pro days and … a whole lot of hoping for the best with virtual meetings with prospects.
With the bulk of those on-campus workouts now wrapped up, we scoured the results and found takeaways from the athletic testing numbers, quarterback throwing sessions, surprises and moments that wowed social media. Here’s everything you need to know from the 2021 pro days:
How less medical information has changed the process
The biggest loss for every team this year is what they covet most from the combine: the results of prospects’ medical exams. In most years, 330-plus players would receive one of the most extensive medical exams of their lives at the combine as medical staffs from each team have access to their medical records and can examine each in person.
The prospects who are flagged are sent for more tests before they leave the combine. And those with the biggest injury questions are brought back to Indianapolis in the weeks before the draft for another exam.
This year, teams have tried to gather most of the medical information in virtual meetings with the prospects. And about 150 — those projected to be selected over the first two days of the draft — will be brought to Indianapolis in the coming days for an evaluation by a limited number of team doctors or trainers (two representatives per team).
As a result, teams could have far less information on roughly 55% of the prospects who would have been invited to the combine in previous years. Some of the middle- to late-round players with injury questions who don’t make that top 150 could be impacted.
Even a high-profile prospect such as Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley, who recently had surgery on his back — an outpatient microdiscectomy, according to several teams — could see his draft status differ from projections if teams don’t find a comfort level with his recovery.
Vanderbilt’s Dayo Odeyingbo, an intriguing, versatile pass-rusher who suffered a torn Achilles in January, could be impacted as well, with the worst-case scenario a fall into Day 3 for an injury he would have had examined multiple times in previous years.
Another example is Duke cornerback Mark Gilbert, whose last full season on the field was 2017, when he led the ACC in passes defensed. He missed most of 2018 and all of 2019 due to hip surgery and then played in just two games last season (114 snaps in all) before he had right foot surgery. There are more wild cards than usual this year.
Why the QB class is so coveted this year
The quarterback math has always been difficult to wrestle with through the years.
Most personnel executives will only, begrudgingly, concede during a season there might five or six “great” quarterbacks in the league at that particular moment. And then those same personnel executives act like there are that many future great quarterbacks in every draft.
That’s in a normal year. The frenzy is in overdrive this year, as quarterbacks could be selected with each of the first four picks for the first time in history. One general manager contacted in recent weeks had predicted “the quarterback pro days will be more out there than usual.” Meaning any and all reactions to one throw here, one throw there, against air, may appear to have more meaning after several trips through the social media cycle than usual. It’s all aligned for history to be made.
Six quarterbacks were selected in the first round of the 1983 draft, with the first (John Elway), the third (Jim Kelly) and the last (Dan Marino) picks fitted for gold jackets when their careers were over. The last time quarterbacks went 1-2-3 in the draft? It was 1999, when Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith were picked.
Justin Fields rolls to his left and heaves a deep dime that leaves his teammates and NFL personnel impressed.
In 2018, four quarterbacks — Baker Mayfield (No. 1), Sam Darnold (No. 3), Josh Allen (No. 7) and Josh Rosen (No. 10) — were selected among the top 10 for the first time in seven decades. And last year, three went in the top 10: Joe Burrow (No. 1), Tua Tagovailoa (No. 4) and Justin Herbert (No. 5).
One of the most glaring indicators that the struggle continues to be real at the top of the board is that quarterbacks went 1-2 in both 2015 and 2016 (Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota in ’15, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz in ’16) and none of the four is still with his original team.
With so much uncertainty this year, there’s a feeling in the league that the teams at the top of the board believe the time, environment and the prospects available create the perfect storm to roll the dice on a quarterback. So much so that if you averaged many of the actual grades on the top quarterbacks in this draft, they might fall something like this:
Late first to mid-second round
Quarterbacks have always been selected well above their actual grades because, well, they’re quarterbacks. There is also the residual impact of the Bills trading up to No. 7 to select Allen in 2018, the year after the Chiefs had moved to No. 10 to select Patrick Mahomes. Those two teams made big trades and got their guys, and every other team has been watching closely.
I reached out to roughly two dozen scouts and personnel executives in recent weeks for an unscientific poll to try to get a snapshot of how Round 1 will really go. These are the results, with quarterbacks listed in no specific order within each tier (there were a handful of those surveyed who said they would flip Lance and Jones, but agreed with the rest):
Top 10 picks
Just outside the top 10
Bottom of Round 1 or top of Round 2
Biggest range of opinions (bottom of Round 1 to deep into Day 2)
So with only a few weeks to go until the draft begins, expect quarterbacks to remain the biggest talking point.
Hand-timed glory: Not every time is created equal
The 40-yard dash times at the combine normally offer some consistency in that every prospect runs on the same surface. And given it has been roughly four decades since there hasn’t been a combine, this year is a throwback. While indoor facilities are far better now than decades ago, the only 40 times teams have are from prospects running at different places.
Play speed still rules for most in the league, as it should, and the GPS metrics used now give evaluators a much more powerful measurement tool than the 40. But any confirmation is good confirmation, and the 40 provides teams with comps for players that go back decades, especially teams with some continuity among their area scouts who have timed all those runs.
Still, any 40 times at pro days that were under 4.30 are almost certainly questioned by teams. Prospects can be extremely fast, but they’re unlikely to be that fast. Four examples, which circulated last month:
Even a 4.55 40 for Miami defensive end Jaelan Phillips, a phenomenal prospect who has struggled with injuries — he has had multiple concussions, along with ankle and wrist issues — will cause teams to pause because that’s rare speed for a 260-pound edge rusher.
There’s no question these guys are fast. And you can get deep in the weeds with metrics, running surfaces, reaction times, shoes worn, splits and the fact that elite 100-meter sprinters are still building speed at the halfway point of the race. But even Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt was estimated to run a 4.20 over the first 40 yards in the 9.58 electronically timed 100-meter record he set in 2009.
Given that prospects have almost always run faster in pro days than at the combine through the years, they might not actually move the needle much when the picks get made.
Opt-out riddles: Another wrinkle in a strange year
The prospects who opted out of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic have teams relying on methods they’ve used in the past for prospects who missed the season before they entered the draft. Rob Gronkowski, who did not play his final season at Arizona due to a back injury, was a tidy 270-pound Super Bowl reminder that body of work is important in this process. He was the No. 42 overall pick in 2010.
Evaluators have tried to make the best of what they saw at the Senior Bowl in January and the pro days of some of the opt-out players. Stanford’s Paulson Adebo, for example, is still a tough call for some as the two-time All-Pac 12 pick had an injury end his 2019 season nine starts in and he opted out in 2020.
Overall, there will be some fluctuations between how the opt-out season impacts a variety of prospects, with each team having its own criteria for how those players are graded. From my discussions with scouts and personnel executives, here are a few who could be placed in two categories:
Opt-out prospects teams still love:
Rashawn Slater, OT, Northwestern
Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
Gregory Rousseau, DE, Miami
Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina (played until November before opting out)
Opt-out players who have spurred debate and could drop:
Prospects who wowed at pro days
Pro days are just one piece of the puzzle, and when scouts criticize the media for their evaluations of prospects, they will often say too much emphasis was placed on a pro day or combine workout and that one play made in a noncompetitive situation should not get as much love as it does.
Here are a few of the non-quarterbacks who made the most of the showcase in recent weeks:
Many people in the league came away from Northwestern’s pro day raving about how offensive tackle Rashawn Slater looked after missing a season. They got the confirmation they needed to make him a top-15 pick.
Wisconsin-Whitewater lineman Quinn Meinerz didn’t get to play a game in 2020 because his team’s season was canceled. But he made the most of his Senior Bowl week, especially in the one-on-ones, and he followed that up with a top-shelf pro day on March 9, including a reliably timed sub-4.9 40-yard dash at 320 pounds and top times in shuttle drills.
The game video showed Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey didn’t surrender a sack in 2020, and his pro day was stellar for his position, including shuttle drill times similar to those for a skill position player.
Penn State edge rusher Jayson Oweh had a pro day one scout called “high-end ridiculous” as the 6-foot-5, 257-pounder had double-take numbers such as a 39½-inch vertical and a 40 time in the 4.3s. He is one of the biggest pro day/game tape question marks of this class because he finished last season without a sack.
BYU wide receiver Micah Simon, a former prep quarterback, went undrafted in 2020 after COVID-19 forced his pro day to be canceled. He caught passes from Zach Wilson at BYU’s pro day this year and dropped a 4.3 40 on those in attendance. He was signed by the Panthers last week.
Zach Wilson rolls to his left and unloads a perfectly thrown deep ball at his BYU pro day.
Prospects who still have questions after pro days
Pitt safety Paris Ford was a productive player who consistently showed a good understanding of what offenses wanted to do, but his pro day 40s were in the 4.8s, and his times in the agility drills were not nearly what many scouts were hoping to see.
Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade has seen his stock fall in recent months — he was viewed as a potential first-round pick last summer — and he did not work out at the Buckeyes’ pro day because of a turf toe injury. He has told teams he will work out April 14, and he’ll need to provide something to counter his shaky play this past season.
Scouts had already said that Florida State defensive tackle Marvin Wilson didn’t have the best week at the Senior Bowl and his pro day performance was just OK. Many came away hoping for more from the former five-star prospect.
Moments that popped on social media
Here are five moments that had people buzzing:
Dallas Cowboys star Dak Prescott leaving Adidas for Jordan Brand, source says
Prescott will be the only Jordan Brand quarterback, the only Cowboys player and the highest-paid NFL player on the Jordan Brand roster, Schefter reports.
Prescott’s deal was negotiated by his marketing agent Peter Miller of JABEZ Marketing Group and the Jordan Brand team, according to Schefter.
The Cowboys and Prescott agreed to a four-year, $160 million contract, including $126 million guaranteed, in March.
Prescott had been with Adidas since his Pro Bowl rookie season with the Cowboys in 2016. Mississippi State, where Prescott played in college, was an Adidas school when he was there.
— Todd Archer (@toddarcher) June 10, 2021
Prescott won’t be the first notable Cowboys player to be linked to the Jordan Brand. Former Dallas star Dez Bryant was associated with the company when he was with the Cowboys at the end of his career.
The news comes after Prescott pronounced himself back from a dislocated and compound fracture of his right ankle that forced him to miss 11 games in 2020.
“I’ve buried the injury,” Prescott said on Wednesday.
ESPN’s Todd Archer contributed to this report.
Minnesota Vikings QB Kirk Cousins spending offseason rewatching whole career
EAGAN, Minn. — Kirk Cousins added a new element to his offseason enrichment program.
Instead of doing the usual unpacking at the end of the Minnesota Vikings‘ 7-9 finish in 2020 by watching all 16 games to evaluate his individual performance, the 32-year-old quarterback did something he had never done before.
“This year, I decided to go back and really watch my whole career, watch a couple other offenses to see what they have been doing, or what they did the year they had a lot of success,” Cousins said. “I do think that time looking at tape through the winter and spring, and even now as I go home through the summer after next week, I do think that it’s helpful now to see what has worked in the past, what I want to make as a staple for myself as I move forward, but then also, where I have improved and where I need to improve.
“That evaluation certainly comes from your coaches, day in and day out, but there’s also got to be an ability to self-evaluate and say, ‘I like what I’m doing there; keep doing that,’ or, ‘That’s not good enough — I want to improve that.'”
Cousins has appeared in 109 games since being drafted by Washington in the fourth round in 2012 and has started 104, including 47 games since signing with the Vikings in 2018. The sheer volume of game film is something he hadn’t had access to until recently, which allowed him to up the ante with his self-scouting.
“I wanted to go back and really just study, create cutups and really build up some volume that I can pull from as we go forward,” he said. “I regret I hadn’t done it earlier in my career but I did get the film set up in my house to basically have access to all of that so that all offseason, even if I’m not in the facility, I’d have access to tape. I do think it’s been a very valuable resource to have and I’m kicking myself I didn’t do it sooner in my career. It was just a piece that hopefully can help me improve this coming year.”
In spite of Minnesota’s 1-5 start, the Vikings boasted a top-10 offense throughout the second half of the 2020 season before missing the playoffs. Cousins’ bounce-back following a Week 7 bye resulted in the QB throwing for 4,265 yards, 35 touchdowns and 13 interceptions while completing 67.6% of his passes. Minnesota’s offense featured a 3,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher (Dalvin Cook) and 1,000-yard receiver (Justin Jefferson) for just the eighth time in franchise history and second season in a row.
Asked about what he has gleaned from his expanded film-watching sessions, Cousins cited a line from ESPN’s 2011 documentary the “Brady 6,” which recapped Tom Brady‘s college career at Michigan and the careers and lives of the six quarterbacks taken before the future Hall of Famer was selected with pick No. 199 in 2000.
“[Brady] was quoted as saying, ‘I watch myself on film, and to this day, I still don’t feel like I’m that good,'” Cousins recalled. “And I really felt that sentiment. When he said it, I was in college, but I understood what he meant. And now going back and watching my career, I would echo that sentiment. I’ve watched myself in ’12 and ’13-14 and think, ‘Man, I’m such a better quarterback now. I can’t believe that the coaches didn’t just cut me when I did that and made that mistake. I can’t believe they were patient with me.’ Because nowadays looking back, it would just be unacceptable to myself, allowing myself to play that way or make that read or make that throw or that decision.”
Among Cousins’ biggest takeaways from watching the entire catalog of his NFL playing career came from rewatching his years in Washington, where he supplanted Robert Griffin III for the starting job at the end of the 2014 season through 2017.
Being able to revisit the tendencies of his playmakers in Washington and how it affected the way Cousins transitioned to playing with new receivers in Minnesota was an eye-opening moment for the quarterback.
“What just jumps out as the players you play with,” Cousins said. “You realize that the way Pierre Garcon ran a route or Desean Jackson ran a route, that affects you in the way you play and the way you think, and then you come to a new team and you’re trying to tell Adam Thielen to run a route that way, and he’s saying, ‘No, I don’t do it that way.’ So just the process of then learning those players and saying, ‘OK’ and understanding that you always have to be aware of what your teammates do well and try to put them in those positions to be successful.”
Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Tom Brady knew early in 2020 that he’d need knee surgery
“It was an injury I dealt with since last April-May,” said Brady, who had the procedure after leading the Bucs to a Super Bowl title in February. “I knew I would have to have something done at the end of the year. Happy I did it.
“It was probably something that was needed — it certainly needed to be done and there was a great outcome. I feel I’ll be able to do some different things this year that I wasn’t able to do last year.”
Brady declined to give specifics on the injury, saying he’s “a little bit old school” in that regard.
“You deal with [injuries] and make the most of them,” Brady said after his second minicamp practice. “The good part is I’ll be able to commit a lot of time to other parts. I’m sure I’ll be faced with different adversities this year, but I had to spend a lot of time tending to that particular injury, which happens when you have something that you need to ultimately have surgery on to get fixed.”
Brady, who was not on the injury report during the 2020 season, said he had the procedure 15 weeks ago Wednesday. He was cleared to resume throwing three weeks ago, with his only limitation being coach Bruce Arians holding him out of blitz periods in the event an outside linebacker turned the corner too quickly and bumped into him.
Brady has looked strong in minicamp practices. On Wednesday, during a red zone drill, he connected with tight end Cameron Brate on two leaping grabs in the end zone and on a back-shoulder fade, and then on a touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski, who made the catch with a defender draped on him. He also pump-faked a defender to hook up with wide receiver Cyril Grayson — his third read — on a touchdown, and found running back Leonard Fournette in the end zone on a short pass.
But the highlight of Brady’s day was the two-minute drill. After converting a fourth-down pass to Chris Godwin, Brady found receiver Scotty Miller on a 40-yard pass in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown that was reminiscent of last season’s NFC Championship Game.
“Yeah, that was a little déjà vu,” Arians said.
“I feel like I’m there,” Brady said. “From this point to the beginning of training camp, I feel like I can work hard on football improvement as opposed to getting back to a rehab place where you’re more baseline.”
Brady’s only struggles of the day came in red zone 7-on-7s, in which he was intercepted by safety Curtis Riley. Another pass sailed too high and bounced out of receiver Mike Evans‘ hands, while another intended for Godwin was deflected by cornerback Carlton Davis. Brady also was forced to throw the ball away.
“Just continue to see different coverages, different situations,” Arians said when asked what more he wanted to see from his 43-year-old quarterback to close out the Bucs’ three-day minicamp. “That wasn’t his best red zone period. He was pretty solid. But our defense is doing some things that I don’t think anyone else in the league is doing right now, so it’s gonna be good training for us.
“I can hardly get out of bed myself. … I ain’t that much older,” the 68-year-old Arians said jokingly. “But yeah, he’s an amazing guy, the way he takes care of himself and trains and makes sure. He has so much fun out of there. You can trick your brain into feeling good.”
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