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Dougherty: Keeping NFL draft train on schedule creates significant logistical hurdles

Pete Dougherty
Packers News

GREEN BAY - The NFL’s push ahead with the April 23-25 NFL draft isn’t asking any more of its teams than a lot of companies are asking from their workers in these hard times.

Yes, keeping the draft on schedule during the COVID-19 shutdown makes for a less than ideal lead-up to the league’s annual players selection. The logistical hurdles are significant, and many standard practices in draft preparation are out the window this year.

But with life coming close to a standstill, any business that can do its work remotely should, and that very much includes the NFL and its draft. No one knows what the landscape will look like in several weeks let alone a few months. So do on schedule what can be done on schedule, and go from there.

General overall view of the first round of the 2019 NFL draft in downtown Nashville.

No doubt many GMs would prefer more time. Who could blame them?

But scouting staffs have been working on this draft class since last spring, and more recently had the NFL scouting combine as well as all-star bowl games to add to the work put in during the college season. The NFL’s rules for working at home are the same for everybody. So just like the rest of us, it’s adapt and forge on for executives in the league.

As San Francisco 49ers GM John Lynch said late last week in a video made from makeshift draft headquarters in his home, “No excuses, no explanations.”

The league still has a lot to figure out in the next couple weeks. For instance, on draft day will teams be allowed a skeleton crew of officials working out of their offices, or will all draft principals (scouts, coaches, cap experts) have to work from their homes, connected by conference call?

Ideally, a team’s GM, head coach, cap guy and a few top scouts would be joined by an IT expert and work at a safe distance from each other in a war room. That would best foster communication within an organization and with other teams.

But that looks unlikely at this point.  The NFL is ensuring that work rules are the same for all, so if even one team’s state has a stay-at-home order still in place for the draft, then all teams will work from home. Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order, for instance, is scheduled to run through April 24, though Gov. Tony Evers could supersede the order before then.

Teams are working through plenty of other issues in their draft preparation since the league announced last week it’s going ahead with the draft on schedule.

For instance, they’re losing the valuable face-to-face staff meetings to set the final draft board. It’s easier to foster freewheeling discussions among coaches and scouts, and to call up video of players in question, when everyone is in the same room. Now those meetings are being conducted via videoconference.

With the majority of campus workouts canceled, teams also won’t have physical testing results for most of the players who didn’t work out at or attend the scouting combine. Teams also are missing out on the 30 players they could bring to their facilities for interviews and medical checks. The lack of medical checks especially give them less information to work with.

But again, the rules are the same for everybody. Plus, now that they’re not on the road for pro days, scouts and coaches have more time to evaluate players' game video. They all say game video is the most important scouting tool anyway. And teams are allowed to talk to any draft prospect via videoconference calls three times in a week for up to an hour each session.

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When I texted an assistant coach in the league this week asking whether he was getting much work done, he answered quickly, “Yes. Skyping with prospects daily.”

So this is hardly a disaster.

The Packers should be in good shape because their general manager, Brian Gutekunst, spends much of the football season on the road scouting college players, just as Ted Thompson and Ron Wolf did before him. He had a good working knowledge of the draft class even before hitting the offseason.

In fact, I recall talking with high-level Packers scouts in years past who were confident they’d be well prepared for the draft if it were held in mid-March, just a couple weeks after the scouting combine, rather than in late April.

Because let’s face facts: Even though NFL teams spend millions of dollars to find out every last bit of information on prospects, luck remains a big factor in the draft. It’s still as much art as science, no matter how many physical or psychological tests you give them, or what questions you ask in an interview. A scroll through the first round of any draft the last decade shows that.

“People come up with more to do, thinking they’re innovative,” a longtime scout told me last week. “And it doesn’t make your first- or second- or third-round pick any more of a certainty than it was 10 years ago.”

The NFL is right to keep the draft train on schedule. It will take team executives out of their comfort zone, but then, that’s where we all are these days.