Why NFL scouts fear they’ll miss the next Joe Burrow

Detroit Free Press

As summer turns to fall, the files Jim Nagy compiles on the most promising upperclassmen in college football begin to thicken. There are more games to watch and additional film to pore over as he cobbles together the list of players he plans to invite to the Senior Bowl — the annual showcase event for top NFL prospects that kicks the league’s pre-draft process into high gear.

Entering any given season, Nagy  estimates there are anywhere from 20 to 30 roster spots up for grabs as he begins assembling the two teams for the annual winter exhibition game he runs as executive director. These openings are often filled by late bloomers, first-year starters and players at smaller schools shrouded in obscurity.

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Every year, somebody emerges from the fringes and catches Nagy’s eye.

But 2020 will be different. With conferences at all levels of the sport, including the Big Ten and Pac-12, postponing their fall season because of the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a good chance a player with latent talent will remain undiscovered.

“It’s not ideal,” Nagy, a former scout and Michigan alumnus, told the Free Press. “There are going to be kids hurt by it. There are guys every year who make big jumps as seniors and they’re not going to have that chance now. That’s unfortunate. When it comes to the game, we can only go off the information that we have.”

And those who make their living evaluating college prospects want as much intel as they can gather. Scouting is an inexact science, after all. Assessing elite athletes and projecting their performance has always involved a bit of guesswork.

But there has always been up-to-the-date game film available that would provide necessary clues to make reasonable conclusions.

Now, that won’t be the case in pockets of the country as football has suddenly receded into a dark age, where the unknown predominates, knowledge is hard to come by and diamonds in the rough could be stuck between a rock and a hard place.

“But if they are good enough,” one NFC personnel executive told the Free Press, “we will just have to deal with the conditions.”

An AFC scout wasn’t as nonchalant about the challenges that lie ahead, saying the effect the novel coronavirus has had on his industry is seismic. Taken off the road in March due to NFL policies and now limited to holding fact-finding Zoom calls with individual college programs, he has rarely seen his job change so drastically. There was, of course, the time when individual schools began imposing visiting restrictions that prevented him from dropping in to see a player at any time. That became an exercise in planning, he acknowledged.

He also recalled how he and his colleagues had to adjust to creating computer evaluations instead of submitting a collection of handwritten notes. That wasn’t a smooth transition, he confessed.

And who could forget the major shift that occurred when teams across the league began assessing the value of every draft-eligible player, instead of seniors and top juniors exclusively? That created more work, he quickly noted.

“There hasn’t been anything this significant since then,” he said.

He now plans to adjust his approach and take a deeper look at prospects who won’t play this fall by reviewing game film from the past he has yet to see. But as he conforms to a new reality, he worries that there will be a lost generation of prospects — a cast of players left behind because they didn’t receive a fair shot to prove their worth. The seeds for that unlucky lot have already been sown in the NFL, where the elimination of preseason games could scuttle the careers of newcomers who were drafted in the late rounds and signed as priority free agents.

“The NFL is all about right place, right time, right opportunity,” Nagy said. “There are definitely guys that in a different time they would have made it and now they might not have that opportunity. Corona is unfortunate for a lot of reasons, but from a football perspective it affects a lot of these guys.”

At Michigan, several key contributors could be impacted.

According to preliminary grades compiled by National Football Scouting, a service used by 21 NFL clubs, running back Chris Evans, defensive end Kwity Paye and defensive back Ambry Thomas are in position to be Day 2 picks.

Could they have moved into the first round had they played this fall?

Conversely, could the absence of a season potentially benefit them as they won’t face the possibility of falling in the same way Michigan State’s Kenny Willekes did over the course of the 2019 season?

Last summer, the Spartans’ star defensive end was projected as a potential second- or third-round choice by one scouting service. He then fell near the bottom of the draft before he was snatched up by the Minnesota Vikings with the 225th overall pick.

“You do your solid work and by the next spring a lot of it is upside down,” the AFC scout said. “It really is, and it works both ways. Guys that you think have high grades end up tanking a little bit, and guys that you didn’t think much of end up playing better.”

Look no further than the last three No. 1 picks — quarterbacks Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Joe Burrow. Each soared to the top spot after excelling in their final season, catching the eyes of evaluators who suddenly zeroed in on their potential.

Now, some in the scouting world wonder if the next Mayfield, Murray or Burrow won’t have the chance to experience the same kind of meteoric rise. Worse yet is the thought of a player out there slipping  through the cracks and being bypassed like some hidden treasure buried deep in the sand.

“Theoretically, all of these kids should have gotten bigger, faster, stronger in the last 12 months,” Nagy said. “And the unfortunate part is not all of them are going to get the chance to get on the field and show that. 

“You just know that you’re going to miss out on those guys.”

Contact Rainer Sabin at rsabin@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Big Ten newsletter. 

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