With only three days to go until the NFL’s 2021 draft, uncertainty remains the name of the game around the league. This uncertainty extends beyond this week’s pre-draft speculation and questions about who will pick whom, though: it has been a part of the process going back all the way to the 2020 college season.
As was the case at the pro level, college football also was uniquely impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic — something pointed out by New England Patriots head coach/general manager Bill Belichick during a press conference earlier this month. When asked about the challenges of evaluating 2020 film compared to normal years, Belichick acknowledged that NFL teams are in a tougher spot than they normally would be.
“I think it depends on the team that you’re talking about and the circumstances they played in. It could also be the individual player that you’re evaluating, so I think that question has some twists and turns to it,” Belichick said.
New England’s head coach went on to say that circumstances surrounding team or player certainly play a role in the evaluation process, and that in some areas the 2019 film might be better suited to compare players with one another. Then again, players at the college level can make massive jumps from one season to the next meaning that the 2020 film obviously is still important as well.
“It made the evaluation a little bit different and you just have to figure out what a player will be able to do for your team, what his role will be and what the rate of development or the process will be when you get him on your team,” Belichick continued. “It’s maybe a little bit less information than we normally have, but all teams are working with the same general information. Each team is going to have to make its own decision on that but the evaluation’s definitely different.”
While Belichick did not go too much into detail about the differences in evaluation, we know that one big part of this process is medicals. With the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis getting canceled, teams have to work with a somewhat limited data set as ESPN’s Adam Schefter pointed out on Monday:
Teams struggling to get accurate medical information on prospects due to absence of this year‘s combine. Even though there were medical exams in Indy this month given to 150 players, teams not pleased. There’ll be last-minute decisions based off medical info still trickling in.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) April 26, 2021
While the on-field workouts taking place at the Combine lure in the viewers, the medical evaluations going on behind the scenes are probably the most important part of the event for clubs. Without them taking place in their usual format, the teams will now have to rely on different information and thus build their evaluation on a possibly less-stable foundation.
This just adds to the uncertainty aspect of this draft as one former general manger pointed out as well.
Thomas Dimitroff, who worked as the Atlanta Falcons’ GM for 13 seasons and before that served as New England’s director of college scouting, recently appeared on NBC Sports’ Patriots Talk podcast to speak about the challenges of the 2021 pre-draft process.
“I look across the draft board and I’ve been amazed at some of the very talented players out there who are projected very high who have gaps in their background, gaps in play time because they opted out or had injuries,” Dimitroff said.
“When you’re a GM or coach and your world is relying on all the information on the field and what your scouts get traveling around, you are going into this draft with a lot of questions. I’m not saying you can’t pull it off. You can. Everyone’s in the same world. But I will tell you as a team builder ... you have to hope your scouts did everything they can to make sure they were crossing their Ts and dotting their Is. But under the table you are crossing your fingers and squeezing your hands hoping it works out.”
Given all this uncertainty the 2021 draft will be one of the hardest to project in recent memory. While the number one pick is set in stone — the Jacksonville Jaguars will go with Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence — the rest of the draft, including how teams evaluate players compared to the public consensus, will be fascinating to watch.
The Patriots, who currently own the 15th overall selection, are also part of this. After an aggressive free agency period they could be prime candidates to trade up for a new franchise quarterback. Of course, it all depends on their evaluation and how confident they feel based on the limited information available.