Micah Parsons relaxed his 246-pound body as he decelerated from running the 40-yard dash in front of NFL scouts at a predraft showcase hosted by his college, Penn State, in late March.
When Parsons, a linebacker projected to be one of the first defensive players selected in the 2021 NFL draft, learned he clocked in at 4.39 seconds — a time comparable to receivers and running backs — he pounded his chest and pointed upward.
"It's like a weight lifted off my shoulders," he said afterward. "Now I can finally relax."
Parsons, 21, is one of over 100 Division I players who opted out of the 2020 college football season because of coronavirus concerns, leaving NFL talent evaluators precious little current information to go on in a year further hindered by the absence of a traditional scouting combine. Parsons knew that his data offered his strongest argument for why a franchise should still draft him a year after his last in-game action.
Prospects and NFL teams are adapting to having to rely on university-hosted workouts, teleconference interviews and video analysis, data that isn't standardized and, in most cases, wasn't collected in person, to make their draft cases.
College-hosted workouts, or pro days, took on added importance after the NFL canceled the in-person workout portion of its draft scouting combine, typically hosted in Indianapolis every spring. That decision meant players would conduct their 40-yard dashes, bench presses and vertical jumps — among other physical tests that can sway draft slotting drastically — at their college facilities, rather than at a neutral site with standardized measures.
Many players who had opted out spent the college football season and beyond prepping specifically for that testing, as many draft eligible players do each spring. Without a college season, they had longer than usual to train. Parsons signed with an agency, Athletes First, and moved to Santa Ana, Calif., in September to train full time and focus on how he would perform in front of scouts in March.
Along with some other star players who opted out, such as Louisiana State receiver Ja'Marr Chase and Oregon offensive lineman Penei Sewell, Parsons is among the potential first-round picks who are trying to remind NFL teams of the promise and acumen they haven't been able to display publicly in over a year.
Chase, who in 2019 set Southeastern Conference records with 1,780 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns on the way to a national championship and undefeated season, enrolled with Exos, a company that trains professional athletes, in October and temporarily relocated to Texas. There, his packed days mimicked his collegiate peers'. Starting at 8 a.m., he rotated through positional workouts, speed drills, weight training and physical therapy until around 3:30 p.m., six days a week.
"We wanted him to be in a predictable situation," said Brent Callaway, the company's director of sport performance. "We wanted to put him in the best situation possible to be able to maximize his strength and change direction with speed whenever the stopwatches came out."
Still, being at his best for LSU's pro day on March 31 meant timing his gains to the testing. Chase entered Exos at 207 pounds and swelled to 213 pounds, so Callaway pulled him off upper-body lifts ahead of the pro day. Chase weighed 201 pounds by his workout, where he ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash, faster, by nearly three-tenths of a second, than when he first got to Exos in October. Chase's 41-inch vertical jump was an increase of seven inches.
"I would say I kind of surprised myself," Chase told reporters.
As important as pro days have been to this year's scouting process, those involved acknowledged that the circumstances were less than ideal. Prospects at one school may work out or test on grass while others run on FieldTurf or another surface, creating an unequal comparison.
"I think also we're trying to compensate for what we see on tape and matching what we see in the player," said Howie Roseman, the Philadelphia Eagles' general manager.
With pro days scattered across the country and COVID-19 protocols still in effect for team staffs, scouting departments had to choose which workouts, if any, to attend in person. The Los Angeles Rams, who hold six total picks in this year's draft, none in the first round, sent scouts to about a dozen pro day workouts, J.W. Jordan, the team's director of draft management, said. Because of coronavirus concerns, the team instructed scouts to travel only by car and prohibited overnight stays, which limited them to regional workouts.
"From a scouting perspective, it's getting less and less necessary for you to go in person," Jordan said. "Everything you're trying to accomplish they already give it to you."
Rams staff relied mostly on videos and data of pro days provided to them by the league. To verify prospects' times that seemed a tad fast, Jordan said their scouts would watch the drill onscreen and clock it themselves.
This year's limits on draft evaluations have also meant changes to the more subjective parts of the scouting process. Players recovering from injuries, like Syracuse's Andre Cisco, whose knee injury early last season prompted him to opt out, got a chance to reassure NFL teams of their health with in-person examinations in Indianapolis conducted by team doctors in April. While the top 100 athletes, plus 44 others who had an eligible medical history, received an additional physical checkup in Indianapolis, all of the draft prospects were given checkups by their local doctors, either virtually or in over-the-phone visits, which were then shared with teams that couldn't evaluate those players in person.
For players who opted out of playing the 2020 college season, prepping for video interviews with potential employers has been as important as training for drills.
Parsons had 109 tackles and was an all-American as a sophomore in 2019, so he trusted that film of his game performance would show him as an elite competitor. But he said he faced questions about why he opted out last August as well as lingering character concerns stemming from a 2018 hazing accusation against him and other Penn State players made by a former teammate. Parsons's accuser filed a lawsuit against Coach James Franklin and the university, claiming the coach ignored the claims. The university investigated the claims and took them to the Centre County, Pa., district attorney, who declined to bring charges. Penn State has filed for the suit to be dismissed.
In his video interviews with teams, Parsons sometimes talked with just one person and at other times with a team's entire defensive unit. He told evaluators that the health of his 2-year-old son, Malcolm, was his biggest concern in opting out, a response he said some teams easily accepted, while others pushed harder.
Parsons said he had been more adamant, though, in addressing concerns over his character, emphasizing that once a team drafts him and interacts with him in person daily those concerns will be resolved.
"It made me want to show how much of a hard worker I am and how good of a father I am," said Parsons, who will attend the draft in Cleveland on April 29 with Malcolm in tow. "I'm going to make sure I never put myself in a situation that is going to dictate my future or put the team in jeopardy."