GREEN BAY – After a one-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indiana Convention Center has once again opened its doors this week to the annual NFL Scouting Combine.
And count Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst among those grateful for the return to normalcy in the world of prospect evaluation.
"These last few weeks and heading into combine is obviously a favorite time of mine as we build the '22 Packers," said Gutekunst, who's embarking on his fifth season as GM. "The scouts were back in the last few weeks, preparing for that. This is the part of the job I probably love the most."
While the 2020 combine was conducted two weeks before nationwide lockdowns went into effect, the 2021 event was scrapped in the traditional sense due to concerns about COVID-19.
There were no in-person workouts or testing, while all team interviews were conducted over Zoom. A month after when the combine would've been held, the NFL hosted approximately 150 draft prospects in Indianapolis for in-person medical evaluations.
The changes required Gutekunst and his scouting department to get creative with how they went about preparing for the 2021 NFL Draft. College pro days took on even greater importance.
There will still be some enhanced protocols in place this week but they pale in comparison to the restrictions NFL teams have operated under for the past two years.
"It looks like the changes they made a few years ago before the pandemic hit, it's going to be very similar," Gutekunst said. "We're still going to have the interviews like we had, I think we're down to 45 now but that's OK. They're a little longer, which I think everybody appreciates. There will be some in the day and some at night. There are some minor changes but … hopefully we'll be able to get it off without too many interruptions."
Gutekunst also praised the job Jeff Forster, the president and director of the National Invitational Camp, has done guiding the combine through its recent transitions and pandemic obstacles.
The one silver lining to all of it is the adjustments NFL scouts were forced to make, including the use of Zoom as a tool in player evaluation. While in-person interviews are still preferred as a means of communication with players, Gutekunst noted how comfortable prospects appeared in virtual settings.
As the pre-draft process continues, the virtual world likely will still play a role in the formal interviews that teams are allowed to conduct.
"The college generations that are coming up, they're so used to that forum being able to talk online and through that, I think we hadn't used a ton of that in the past," Gutekunst said. "But we'll use it a ton regardless of how the combine is now to get to know these guys."
Based on initial evaluations, Gutekunst sees a deep 2022 draft class, particularly on the offensive line, at the skill positions and edge rusher. One likely reason for that is the number of upperclassmen who opted to stay in school rather than declare for the draft last year during the height of the pandemic.
A total of 324 prospects were invited to the combine, with some testing and workouts taking place at Lucas Oil Stadium.
On-field drills begin with quarterbacks, tight ends and receivers on Thursday; running backs, offensive linemen and special teams on Friday; defensive linemen and linebackers Saturday; and defensive backs wrapping up the event Sunday.
"I love seeing the players in-person compete at the combine," Gutekunst said. "It's very important for us to see not only the results that they get but to see how they compete there. It's a big part of what we do."
Both Gutekunst and Head Coach Matt LaFleur will address the media in Indianapolis. Stay tuned to packers.com for full coverage of this year's event.