GREEN BAY – After the NFL went through a virtual offseason program last spring, the success of utilizing Zoom for meetings and film sessions led coaches and players alike to claim some virtual elements of the offseason could be here to stay in a post-pandemic world.
It sounds like similar sentiments are now being shared with regard to this year's pre-draft process.
Due to the ongoing pandemic nixing the scouting combine in Indianapolis and pre-draft facility visits by NFL prospects, interviews and other contact with draft-eligible players has gone virtual as well.
The only exception is at the college pro days, where each NFL team can send up to three representatives, and in-person contact is allowed with masking and social distancing guidelines followed.
But the absence of the traditional whirlwind of Indy interviews, with the bulk of a team's brass meeting a prospect in a hotel room, hasn't been all bad. According to Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst, getting to know future players through a computer screen has perhaps gone better than expected.
"The players of this generation, they're so comfortable in that environment, sometimes way more comfortable than being in a hotel room or a suite in Indy with 15 people staring at them," Gutekunst said in a pre-draft session with the media last week.
"I think they're so much more comfortable with that screen. At times I feel like we're getting a better idea of who the player really is."
Other plusses to the change have emerged, too.
In Indy, a rigid, formal schedule allowed teams to talk with players for only 15 minutes before they were on to their next interview down the hotel hall. It was a rapid-fire meet-and-greet for both the players and teams, with 12-15 interviews over a span of 3-4 hours each night the common routine.
Now, teams can schedule a Zoom with a draft prospect that lasts up to an hour (and they can follow up with other virtual visits later, up to a max of five for any single player).
The NFL scouts and personnel executives on those calls can also take some time to debrief after they hang up with the player, comparing notes and discussing their initial reactions, rather than having to move on to the next player right away.
So, while some valuable and convenient elements of the combine can't effectively be replicated – such as all the physical testing being done on the same days at the same location, and all the NFL team doctors conducting medical checks themselves in a hands-on, efficient manner – the adjusted interview process has had its benefits.
"I do think we'll continue to use this Zoom process long after COVID and we're back to normal, because I think there's a lot of value to it," Gutekunst said. "We expect to talk to quite a lot of players moving forward."
The interviews, testing numbers and other measurables are considered complementary pieces to the game film teams study on players. Almost without fail, game film matters most as teams build their draft boards.
But the other elements are important to round out any scouting profile, and amidst the drawbacks to this year's changes, Gutekunst expressed how thankful he was the annual Senior Bowl could be conducted with COVID protocols in place. He believes players' showings during that week in Mobile, Ala., could have an even greater impact on the draft than usual.
Regarding other pre-draft aspects, there's a league-wide process in conjunction with the colleges to gather and share pertinent medical information.
Gutekunst also said the Packers obviously are putting a greater emphasis than normal on the college pro-day workouts, to maximize the on-site observation and contact that's allowed.
"I don't think there's anything that can replace the in-person looks," Gutekunst said. "So certainly the pro days become very important for our organization and the rest of the league to come to a conclusion about some of these guys."
For his part, Gutekunst always valued the opportunity to see players work out live at the combine, so he'll be spending more time on the road between now and the draft traveling to pro days to fill in his own gaps, so to speak.
He also appreciates the extensive experience his top lieutenants in the personnel department bring to the Packers – a group that includes director of football operations Milt Hendrickson, co-directors of player personnel Jon-Eric Sullivan and John Wojciechowski, director of college scouting Matt Malaspina, and national scout Sam Seale – to help navigate the scouting landscape in this very different year.
"We're fortunate to have some guys that have been in this thing for 15-20-plus years," Gutekunst said. "So I feel really good if I can't make it to some of these (pro days), that the eyes we're going to have on these guys will be able to get us the information we need to make good decisions."