The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With NFL front offices working from home, the draft process looks a lot different this year

Quarterback Justin Herbert threw at Oregon's pro day March 12, but other schools' sessions have been canceled as NFL scouts have been taken off the road. (Collin Andrew/AP)

NFL coaches and general managers are not exempt from the work-from-home reality now being faced by so many. Some are embracing it. Others? Not so much. But as teams prepare for next month’s NFL draft, those GMs and coaches have no choice but to try to make the best of it.

“You can feel just as prepared,” Los Angeles Rams General Manager Les Snead said. “You’re just going to have to get there a different way.”

Snead’s pragmatism and optimistic outlook are not shared by all. Some in the league wanted the draft to be postponed, and the NFL’s seven-member general managers advisory committee recommended a delay to the league last week. But the NFL declined. Commissioner Roger Goodell, with the support of the owners’ labor committee, informed teams through a memo Thursday that the draft will be held as scheduled April 23-25.

“Everyone recognizes that public health conditions are highly uncertain and there is no assurance that we can select a different date and be confident that conditions will be significantly more favorable than they are today,” Goodell wrote.

Goodell also wrote that “public discussion of issues relating to the Draft serves no useful purpose and is grounds for disciplinary action.” That threatened discipline is likely to have the intended chilling effect on public criticism of the league’s decision to move forward with the draft while the world deals with the novel coronavirus pandemic.

As an executive with one team said after the memo was distributed, “I’ll tell you what I really think if you pay my fine.”

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The NFL acted earlier last week to eliminate a competitive imbalance by ordering all teams to close their facilities. That put all teams in the same situation of having their coaches, scouts and front-office executives working from home.

“Things have changed now to make things equal,” Snead said in a phone interview Thursday, hours before the memo was issued, in which he expressed support for keeping the draft on schedule. “What you have to do to adjust is utilize the technology that most people in this country are using to conduct business.”

Teams got to see the top draft-eligible prospects at the NFL scouting combine in February in Indianapolis. The players there underwent physicals and participated in interviews with teams; most worked out and performed drills.

But as the pandemic worsened, the NFL prohibited teams from traveling to see players at on-campus workouts known as pro days. Players were prohibited from traveling to meet with teams and undergo physicals. Follow-up physicals for players with medical issues at the combine were canceled. Teams still can speak to players, but it must be over the phone or via videoconferencing.

“We’re doing the best we can,” an agent said, adding that his draft-eligible players are participating in phone and video talks with teams as an imperfect but better-than-nothing alternative to in-person pre-draft visits. Each conversation is limited to an hour, and a team cannot be in touch with the same player more than three times in a week.

“At every position except for quarterback, you can probably get enough face time,” Snead said. “There will be a screen between you. But with the vetting that most teams do, you can use the technology to interview and you can use the technology to figure out how well they can adapt to your scheme. If you’re looking for a quarterback, it’s a little different.”

The stakes are raised with quarterbacks, given the importance of the position, and front-office staffers bemoan their current inability to study how the football leaves a quarterback’s hand at a pro-day throwing session, to see body language at an in-person meeting, to stand side by side and draw up plays together. Even so, quarterback-needy teams have no alternative but to make their pick and hope for the best.

Without the pro-day workouts, what teams see from players on their college game video will carry even more weight than usual. Some players have video versions of pro-day workouts to distribute to teams. A personnel executive from one team said he expects those videos “will likely start coming in now that there is zero chance” of any pro days being rescheduled before the draft.

“It’s definitely different,” the executive said, “but doable.”

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For the San Francisco 49ers, their entire football operations staff has been working remotely since the night of March 16. Bay Area counties announced shelter-in-place orders that day. 49ers officials have been communicating by phone and using videoconferencing services. With game video accessible remotely, coaches and personnel staffers have been watching from home.

John Lynch, the 49ers’ general manager, posted a video on Twitter showing him working from an office in his home, surrounded by TV and computer monitors, binders and notebooks.

“This is 49ers Draft Central for the time being,” Lynch said. “We’re all dealing with challenges. But I will tell you in situations like this, I think you count your blessings. What I’m thankful for [is] the terrific work that our entire staff — from our scouts, our coaches, our IT, our video — [is doing] to get ready for this draft. This draft is absolutely huge for us. So there’s no excuses, no explanations. We’ve got to get our work done, albeit from home. … And we will be ready for that draft.”

Evaluating players for the draft has always been an imprecise exercise. Even under comparatively perfect player-evaluation conditions, draft blunders happen every year. The evaluation process could be more imprecise than ever this year.

“We start our draft preparation really early in the process,” Snead said. “We get to March ready to draft, and then we use March and April to fine-tune and corroborate. From the big-picture standpoint, the organizations that handle the stress the best will be the most successful.”

Snead called himself “an introvert by nature.” He said he has had no problem with the quarantine-like work approach and actually finds that less time is wasted this way.

“There are pros and cons,” he said. “You miss the camaraderie. But there’s an efficiency to this, with the technology, that will be useful to use for probably every business in America once we get to the other side of this.”

Indeed, he said he already has issued a playful warning to his Rams co-workers: “I joked with my staff: ‘I’m never coming back in the office. You’ll only see me on a screen.’ ”