Bucs making the most of a stay-at-home NFL draft

Social distancing has made technology the key to communicating and evaluating players.
The NFL draft will still take place on April 23-25 as planned. It was originally scheduled for a big outdoor production in Las Vegas, but those plans were scrapped because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The NFL draft will still take place on April 23-25 as planned. It was originally scheduled for a big outdoor production in Las Vegas, but those plans were scrapped because of the COVID-19 pandemic. [ IMAGE OF SPORT | ]
Published April 2, 2020|Updated April 2, 2020

TAMPA — Mike Biehl sat in his home office — well, the one on loan from his wife, Kim — and tried to FaceTime another football player.

This is how the Bucs and their college scouting director are preparing for the NFL draft as the team practices social distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Big Ten player Biehl was attempting to reach on this day had left his college campus to return to his parents’ home. But that state went on lockdown and he was stuck there, his iPad still back at his college residence.

The player answered the call, but the house was loud and playful.

“He went out to his truck. He was on an iPhone in his truck," Biehl said. “His nephews were running around, so he talked to us from there. It wasn’t ideal, but ... they’re just like we are. They’re trying to make the most of it, put their best foot forward and do what they can to sell us on them becoming a Buccaneer."

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We are just three weeks from the NFL draft, which still is scheduled to be held at remote locations around the league, from April 23-25. Normally, there would be a flurry of meetings between Biehl, general manager Jason Licht, director of player personnel John Spytek and coach Bruce Arians at the AdventHealth Training Center, which is closed. The quorum would grow to include area scouts until about 20 were involved in analyzing player reports and setting the draft board.

Like the rest of the world, the NFL is working from home, helping children with online learning and trying to stop the spread of coronavirus while also preparing for seven rounds of selections. Draft meetings and player visits are conducted through video conference using FaceTime or Zoom.

Biehl and others are using technology to break down film and set the draft board. Bucs director of football technology Spencer Dille has enabled the Bucs to utilize the same app for all communication while sharing access to the draft board. In fact, player rankings can be changed while all members of the scouting staff watch the changes instantly.

“Just with all the technology now, I can get it on my I-pad and just use the Apple TV on the big screen," Biehl said. “We’re all pulling from the same video.”

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The distancing, however, has created disadvantages for players and the teams that are considering them.

It’s no longer permissible for teams to arrange for 30 pre-draft visits with prospects. For players who chose not to participate in drills at the NFL scouting combine in March, most of their pro days have been cancelled, leaving teams with no reliable way to measure their athleticism, strength and speed outside of the film room.

“We’re still getting some videos from some of those schools and agents, and there are some ex-scouts that are out there and trying to do some of those timing days," Biehl said. “It’s just not being there live and having our people have the stopwatches in their hands and doing the timing."

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Typically, position coaches would have a chance to spend time with players at their pro day, but those interactions have been replaced by Zoom video conferences.

“We’ve been doing quite a bit of those the last two or three weeks and trying to make up for the travel part of it and still have some contact with these players,” Biehl said.

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Licht said he is learning to adapt. If there is an upside, it’s that even with kids in the house, he endures fewer interruptions than if he were in his office.

“We’re all affected by this,” Licht told ESPN from his home office earlier this week. “The norm is no longer the norm. This is the new norm. You try to find some advantages in any situation. I’m working alone here. We’re using a lot of Zoom, a lot of FaceTime, a lot of phone calls back and forth.

“At least for me, I’ve been able to sit and watch a lot of tape, more than I normally would at this time. I’m also able to pick up the phone and call prospects. It seems like I’m a little more in tune to the draft than I ever have been.”

Rules restrict teams to three calls per week, per player. The calls are limited to only one hour apiece. But those calls are a poor substitute for player visits at the team’s facility. For starters, prospects usually are on point when they’re being interviewed over the phone or even with coaches milling about. But the Bucs try to gather information from the interaction players have with other people in their building, from the front lobby receptionist to the people who serve food in the cafeteria.

There’s a good story about Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson from his visit with the Texans a few years ago. He answered all the important questions correctly. But during a lunchroom break, veteran players started gravitating to Watson, which showed coach Bill O’Brien something about his future quarterback.

“When they’re in the building, they come in contact with everybody, the scouting assistants, the lunchroom and all the other people, and we’ll take that information, we’ll talk to everybody once they leave and try to figure out what they’re about," Biehl said. “Because sometimes when they’re not around the scouting assistants, they kind of let their guard down.”

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Super agent Leigh Steinberg, who represents Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes, believes the NFL will actually benefit by focusing more on production on the field than workout numbers.

“I think when all is said and done, the accuracy of the picks and their long-term prospects may end up being better than that in recent years," said Steinberg, whose clients in this year’s draft include Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and receiver Jerry Jeudy.

“I say that, because when I started back in 1975, the draft was in January. The scouting consisted of watching games played during the collegiate season, reviewing the film from that, looking at players from all-star games and then drafting. And the best predictor of future success is past success.”

Today’s reliance on analytics and combine results doesn’t measure a player’s heart, work ethic or ability to play a certain position, Steinberg said.

“Can the players that run a rapid 40 catch the ball?” he asked. “Can a defensive back guard someone? In other words, a quarterback can have a dramatic scripted pro day, but that doesn’t test performance.”

Of course, the danger is that players may slip through the cracks. It won’t hurt the big-name, big-school talent. There’s plenty of tape on them. But for a player who may not have been invited to the NFL combine or an all-star game, this could be detrimental.

If this happened a year earlier, Scotty Miller may not be a Buc.

Miller was coming off a great season at Bowling Green with 1,148 yards and nine touchdowns. But at 5-11 and 166 pounds, he didn’t look the part of an NFL receiver. Consequently, he wasn’t invited to the NFL scouting combine or any all-star games.

The Bucs tried to be stealthy and send Byron Leftwich and receivers coach Kevin Garver to the workout.

“Who’s the player most affected?" Biehl repeated. " ... It’s the guy who didn’t get to go to the combine and didn’t get to have their pro days. And the big part of that is we’re not able to get medical (reports) on them.''

The Bucs are uncertain how they will operate on the night of the draft in three weeks. The league hasn’t determined whether a limited number of people will be allowed to utilize the facility. More likely, they will remain at home, using technology and a video archive to pick the best possible players.

“We’re going to do whatever they tell us to do, and we’re going to make the most of it,” Biehl said. “I feel like we’re going to have to be prepared.”