While last year's virtual NFL Draft was wildly different, teams faced a bigger fallout from the pandemic when evaluating the 2021 class, with fewer players than normal available and fewer opportunities to evaluate because of limited access to offseason events and campuses. Former NFL scout Dan Hatman, who heads The Scouting Academy, joined the Access Vikings podcast to discuss. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Without as much college football, the opt outs for the guys who did play, the lack of practice and medical access, what are NFL teams potentially missing?
Hatman: The nice part is we still had games. There's still film. There are still things to evaluate. Now, how much we had with players who opted out – there's less exposures. The leagues that didn't play as much, like the Big Ten, there's less exposure. Generally speaking, less football. We had some testing – pro days, not as standardized, but there's a level of testing.
You as a team have less touch points on a player and what makes them tick, what it takes to drive them, because you didn't have people on campus from July, August, all the way through November. You didn't have these opportunities like a combine. You didn't have private workouts. You don't have the 30 [pre-draft] visits. There are some touch points, but instead of having 10, 12 with a player, you may only have four or five. Are you getting the same information out of 40% of a usual year? Are you going to have the same accuracy on who they are and are they a fit for us? I have a hard time believing we're going to have the same hit rate.
It's going to be a really unique opportunity for teams that have scouting staffs with really robust relationships in their area, where they got creative this year in how to acquire information. I do think this is a measure of whether you built scouts or whether you built information gatherers. What I mean is, did you just have a person going in and getting a box checked because they had a [NFL] logo on your shirt? Or did you really hire somebody and train somebody to teach them how to go in and extract [information]?
Q: What do you think is missed most?
Hatman: The medical's tough, because you're going to have players fall through the cracks. We take from a 350-player pool [at the combine] to a 150-player pool [at April's medical-only combine], there's 200 players we didn't get medical checks on. Somewhere in there where a player might be flagged for something, we don't have the opportunity now. We don't know what we missed until we miss it. That's definitely up there. And being able to be the fly on the wall. Bigger schools have [NFL] scouts every day, there's always someone there. Not like smaller schools where, hey, the scout comes, and that might be the news all day long, and you might get the player's best. You go to some big schools, they have scouts every day and it's standard operating procedure. To be a fly on the wall at a place like that, where people may let their guard down a bit because there's always someone there, you get to observe things. It seems cliché, but what does a player do in drills? Are they lagging behind and trying to miss reps? Are they pushing to get better? There's ways to avoid coach's eye. You start to learn about their work habits.
You talk about missing. I've yet to be around the person who says, 'Oh, we thought he was a blue-chip athlete and he really wasn't.' We don't miss on the movement patterns. We miss on the person.
Q: What are your expectations for how predictable this draft, outside the top 10, is this year?
Hatman: It seems like the opt-outs that got advice of where they were projected to go and then chose to sit out, that's going to hold. We're still talking about [Oregon tackle] Penei Sewell and [Northwestern tackle] Rashawn Slater and [LSU receiver] Ja'Marr Chase as top picks. They were given information ahead of time, and it seems credible because it doesn't seem to be manifesting in a material drop. You're going to have way more volatility in that 50-125 [player range] in terms of risk aversion. You're going to see teams that feel like they've got a real good track record, good relationship with ownership, that they might go ahead and take some more shots because things are going to fall. I think other teams are going to be really risk averse, teams swinging for doubles and not the fences. Usually red on the [player evaluation] scale means solid. I think teams will aim to get red players; let's just be solid, make sure our roster is functional. This might not be a blue-chip year. If that happens and other players fall, then teams may be in a position to say, let's take some risk on real difference makers.
Then the quarterback factor, in a heavily weighted position where names will move up, the second round will have a whole bunch of trades. Do you like [Stanford's] Davis Mills? Do you like [Texas A&M's] Kellen Mond? [Florida's] Kyle Trask? Teams are going to go get those guys, and teams that don't need a quarterback are going to be catching players.
Q: Generalizing, are there positions where the 2020 scouting reports are affected more than others?
Hatman: The ones where mental acuity is a little higher. Not to say other positions don't process things, but when you talk about – it's like baseball, right down the middle of the field. Quarterback, center, middle linebacker, safety; these are heavy processing, heavy communication. There's more options, more bodies, faster things moving.
Q: What changes in the draft process could be here to stay?
Hatman: The scouting calendar, up until the pandemic, was still built around when you had to carry your projector into the college to get access to borrow their film on a 35mm reel. There was literally no other way to get it. We never left that calendar. Well, the film is digital, we can get it quickly, we can process years of film before going to campus. Smart teams will adjust schedule, to a point.
And while there are physical trackers, the RFID chips, in the pads, the ball, etc. … Where that all washes out is in computer vision. What I've been exposed to with those technologies, the accuracy rates are increasing. They're doing a much better job tracking, so you can get how fast players move on film in pads. I'm optimistic that in short order there would be no need for a pro day. Other than to see actual drill work, you'll have no questions about how a player moves in relation to stimuli.
Listen to the whole interview here: