Bernstein: Higher-Risk NFL Draft Means More Drama

Teams can't conduct the pre-draft work that has become the industry standard.

Dan Bernstein
April 01, 2020 - 2:46 pm

(670 The Score) The annual leap of faith that is the NFL Draft has now become a longer jump, or perhaps it's now just being performed without any kind of net and is instead over a pit of sharpened spikes.

I'm all for it, make no mistake. These front office control freaks have spent years successfully reducing the unknowns to a fraction of what they once were, now employing finely tuned diagnostics and invasive interview practices to limit the exposure to their professional reputations when that name is finally written on the card and handed in.

But we're in vastly different times, ones marked by restrictions on travel and interpersonal interactions that are making it more like it once was, with significantly higher variance in play from the top pick to the last. There could be some wild swings and misses, as well as some unlikely big hits.

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It's not quite like it was at the time of that photo that's making the rounds, the one of commissioner Pete Rozelle scribbling first-rounders' names on a chalkboard in 1967, but the inability to conduct face-to-face interviews, pro days and supplemental workouts means scouts and coaches will rely more than ever on game tape and whatever intelligence they were able to harvest at the recent combine in Indianapolis.

Back in the day, kids from the colleges in close geographic proximity to pro teams often got the bulk of attention for that reason, and some franchises also developed relationships with certain schools due to previous working connections and trust in player assessments that evolved over time. Even still, it wasn't uncommon to have gaps between draft expectation and the harsh light of reality once the class rolled into training camp -- a guy with an unknown proclivity for late nights, perhaps another who hadn't made physical conditioning much of a priority in the intervening time or one who had lost an arm in an accident at the town's paper mill.

Bears fans will remember the Darren Lewis incident of 1991, when they selected Texas A&M running back in the sixth round. Informed shortly thereafter that Lewis had tested positive for cocaine at the combine -- and was, in fact, the only player there with any kind of positive test -- general manager Bill Tobin said he never saw the letter that the league sent to all teams to inform them.

"It was told to me that someone had tested positive," Tobin told the Associated Press. "I marked the wrong player. I made a mistake."

Lewis totaled 431 rushing yards in a 33-game Bears career and is now serving a 27-year sentence in federal prison for a series of armed robberies.

Not that such an oversight can occur in our current environment, but there will be increased risk in every selection when there's an inability to conduct the same kind of due diligence and detective work that had become industry standard, whether in regard to character and personality or injury history and projection of future health. It also may be that the "safer" selections are moved up the board, only to leave some tantalizing possibilities dangling out there later than expected, eventually causing a general manager to feel he just has to think, "Screw it, I can't pass on this guy right here."

That's the fun stuff.

And as defiant or arrogant as the NFL may seem forging ahead with the timeline of its league year, even going so far as to announce its continued expectation of a full slate of games in front of fans in their respective arenas (a cynical pipe dream almost certain to be walked back relatively soon), there are safeguards in place for the draft itself.

Teams will be allowed to have a maximum of 10 people in their draft room, and they must be seated at least six feet from one another, Ian Rapoport of reported. Regardless, it's a win for the scouts to have something more than videoconferencing in real time.

It still won't make it any easier for them to fill in the blank spots of what they don't know about the prospects or don't even know they don't know. This pandemic-created market inefficiency might allow a smarter or better-connected group to take advantage of rivals in a way that an increasingly homogenized system hasn't allowed in many years.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s Bernstein & McKnight Show in midday. You can follow him on Twitter @Dan_Bernstein.