“May you live in interesting times ...”
March has been a very interesting month on Planet Earth. As the COVID-19 virus spreads across the globe, life as we knew it has ground to a halt. Businesses are shuttered, sports leagues have closed down and most Americans are living under some sort of self-quarantine, if not outright ordered to shelter in place.
The only league trying to forge ahead is the National Football League. Despite concerns that the optics of free agency might not be ideal, the league went ahead with the schedule as planned. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that decision did give fans of the game some much-needed distractions, as we were able to track player movement and start to imagine what the 2020 NFL season might look like for our respective teams.
(Although as a New England Patriots fan, I almost wish the NFL had not gone forward with free agency, but I digress).
Free agency is just the first stop on the commercialized tour of hope that is the NFL off-season. The league does such a great job, from free agency through the schedule release and to the draft, at packaging hope for brighter days among its fans. Every fan right now can believe that with the right moves over the next few weeks, their team will be in position to contend. Yes, even you Cincinnati Bengals fans. Joe Burrow is coming.
With the news that the 2020 NFL Draft is going to proceed as planned, that hope can continue. But as the COVID-19 virus continues to wage its path across the world, and citizens - and leagues - are required to stay locked down, what are the ramifications for the New York Giants from a draft perspective, and for their young starting quarterback?
This week Commissioner Roger Goodell announced, in a letter to all 32 teams, that the NFL draft was going to proceed as scheduled at the end of April:
Commissioner Goodell sent out a memo to NFL teams tonight that the draft will go on April 23-25. pic.twitter.com/tYlHo3fKqC— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 26, 2020
In the letter, Goodell noted that as with free agency, the Draft “...can serve a very positive purpose for our clubs, our fans, and the country at large.” But the Commissioner’s letter also hinted at a larger problem facing all 32 teams. With teams shuttering operations and asking their scouts and coaches to work from home, and shutting their facilities, how can teams properly prepare for the draft. As Goodell notes, “[o]ur staff is certainly mindful of the operational issues this presents, and our top priority is putting in place procedures that allow all clubs to operate on a level playing field so that the Draft is conducted in a way that is competitively fair to all clubs. All clubs should now be doing the necessary planning to conduct Draft operations in a location outside of your facility, with a limited number of people present, and with sufficient technology resources to allow you to communicate internally, with other clubs, and with Draft headquarters.”
Now this is the part of the draft calendar when teams are taking their Top 30 meetings with prospects, scouts are attending Pro Days, and organizations are able to get a final feel for many of the prospects they are considering drafting here in just under a month. However, without that ability - and perhaps most importantly without the ability to have medical examinations conducted on players - how can organizations proceed in this climate?
Players that attended the NFL Scouting Combine might have been able to check off many of the proverbial “boxes” out in Indianapolis, however, players that did not work out due to injuries, or because they were waiting on their Pro Day, might now be behind the eight ball. Teams may be forced to rely more on their film evaluations of prospects - and not Pro Day workouts or interviews - come the Draft.
Draft staying on course means tape will rule, not workouts. Physicals remain a huge issue for many.— Michael Lombardi (@mlombardiNFL) March 27, 2020
The challenge created by elimination of most pro days, workouts, etc., as team executives explain it:— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) March 27, 2020
30-40% of players on a team’s draft board won’t have verified measurements
15-20% won’t have a medical grade
As one exec told me: “Some teams are really gonna f*** this up.” https://t.co/nHuY5EYu25
Teams may feel comfortable at the top of their respective draft boards, as those are players likely to have attended the Combine or one of the post-season games such as the Senior Bowl or the East-West Shrine Game, where measurements can be verified. Those prospects that attended the Combine can have some of the medical boxes checked. But near the end of the draft, players that might get selected on Day 3 might not have those boxes checked.
What could this mean? Teams might be more inclined to trade away picks at the end of the draft for picks in the future, trusting that when things “get back to normal” they can be more confident in those selections. But that would require teams to be willing trading parters, and be comfortable in picking players at the end of the draft.
So ... teams that have done their work can take advantage. Teams that have not, as former general manager Mike Lombardi phrases it, “are really gonna F*** this up.”
Which team are the Giants going to be?
Learning to fly
This strange climate has on-the-field implications as well, perhaps most notable for second-year quarterback Daniel Jones. Over the past few years in the NFL, teams have seen a big sophomore leap from some younger quarterbacks. Jared Goff, for example, took a big leap in his second season, perhaps due to Sean McVay’s influence. Patrick Mahomes might be a completely different player altogether, but his second season saw him tear up the record books (after making just one start as a rookie) and his second season as a starter ended with the Lombardi Trophy.
Jones, however, now faces the prospect of learning a new offense without the benefit of having in-person contact with his teammates or coaches this offseason. This is something former Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning expounded upon recently. As he told Steve Serby with the New York Post, Jones’ second season might be impacted by the layoff:
“It has the potential to be. A couple of things could make it difficult in the fact that it’s gonna be a new offense that he’s gotta learn, and things get pushed back and you’re not there to be around your teammates. It’s not just him learning it, it’s kind of everybody learning it together. Hopefully they can get back soon and he can grow as a leader of the team.”
Jones can certainly start studying the playbook and film of new offensive coordinator Jason Garrett’s offense, but as Manning pointed out, learning the playbook is one thing, installing it is another. Organized Team Activities (OTAs) are when the bulk of the offense is installed, and with the potential for OTAs to be pushed back or even canceled, Jones will miss out on the chance to start installing basic concepts with his teammates and receivers.
Obviously things can change, and if progress is made on both a potential vaccine for COVID-19 and we work to “flatten the curve,” then OTAs and the like can proceed roughly as scheduled. Without them, however, Jones and the Giants’ offense might be limited in what they can install by the time the season kicks off. That, unfortunately, might put the young QB, like the rest of the organization, behind the eight ball once the season begins.
One thing Jones can do? Play Madden. Quarterbacks have been able to use the game to learn a new offense. Teddy Bridgewater did that after his rookie minicamp with the Minnesota Vikings, and as he told GameSpot it helped him learn the playbook. “It helps because you get one more rep than you had in practice, actual practice. Any chance you get to take an extra rep or go the extra step, extra mile, it’s going to be very beneficial transferring it to the field.” Bridgewater is not the only NFL quarterback to use the video game to prepare, as Drew Brees also told ESPN that he used Madden to prepare for the regular season. Jones can hop on the sticks, import one of Garrett’s Dallas Cowboys playbooks (perhaps from the 2007-2008 season when Garrett guided Dallas to the number two offense in the league) and start learning how to run the offense in a virtual setting.
He might not be the only player doing something like that when we are all stuck indoors.