What we learned from NFL pro days: A coveted QB class, opt-out riddles and which prospects are rising

  • Covered Broncos for nine years for Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News
  • Previously covered Steelers, Bills and Titans
  • Member of Pro Football Hall of Fame Board
    of Selectors since 1999

No scouting combine. No in-person visits from prospects. No business as usual for those involved in the 2021 NFL draft.

This is the second consecutive draft impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and teams have had little face-to-face time, scarce medical information, fewer games to review and just as many questions to answer as usual. In the months leading up to the draft, which begins April 29, there have been pro days and … a whole lot of hoping for the best with virtual meetings with prospects.

With the bulk of those on-campus workouts now wrapped up, we scoured the results and found takeaways from the athletic testing numbers, quarterback throwing sessions, surprises and moments that wowed social media. Here’s everything you need to know from the 2021 pro days:

How less medical information has changed the process

The biggest loss for every team this year is what they covet most from the combine: the results of prospects’ medical exams. In most years, 330-plus players would receive one of the most extensive medical exams of their lives at the combine as medical staffs from each team have access to their medical records and can examine each in person.

The prospects who are flagged are sent for more tests before they leave the combine. And those with the biggest injury questions are brought back to Indianapolis in the weeks before the draft for another exam.

This year, teams have tried to gather most of the medical information in virtual meetings with the prospects. And about 150 — those projected to be selected over the first two days of the draft — will be brought to Indianapolis in the coming days for an evaluation by a limited number of team doctors or trainers (two representatives per team).

As a result, teams could have far less information on roughly 55% of the prospects who would have been invited to the combine in previous years. Some of the middle- to late-round players with injury questions who don’t make that top 150 could be impacted.

Even a high-profile prospect such as Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley, who recently had surgery on his back — an outpatient microdiscectomy, according to several teams — could see his draft status differ from projections if teams don’t find a comfort level with his recovery.

Vanderbilt’s Dayo Odeyingbo, an intriguing, versatile pass-rusher who suffered a torn Achilles in January, could be impacted as well, with the worst-case scenario a fall into Day 3 for an injury he would have had examined multiple times in previous years.

Another example is Duke cornerback Mark Gilbert, whose last full season on the field was 2017, when he led the ACC in passes defensed. He missed most of 2018 and all of 2019 due to hip surgery and then played in just two games last season (114 snaps in all) before he had right foot surgery. There are more wild cards than usual this year.

Why the QB class is so coveted this year

The quarterback math has always been difficult to wrestle with through the years.

Most personnel executives will only, begrudgingly, concede during a season there might five or six “great” quarterbacks in the league at that particular moment. And then those same personnel executives act like there are that many future great quarterbacks in every draft.

That’s in a normal year. The frenzy is in overdrive this year, as quarterbacks could be selected with each of the first four picks for the first time in history. One general manager contacted in recent weeks had predicted “the quarterback pro days will be more out there than usual.” Meaning any and all reactions to one throw here, one throw there, against air, may appear to have more meaning after several trips through the social media cycle than usual. It’s all aligned for history to be made.

Six quarterbacks were selected in the first round of the 1983 draft, with the first (John Elway), the third (Jim Kelly) and the last (Dan Marino) picks fitted for gold jackets when their careers were over. The last time quarterbacks went 1-2-3 in the draft? It was 1999, when Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith were picked.

In 2018, four quarterbacks — Baker Mayfield (No. 1), Sam Darnold (No. 3), Josh Allen (No. 7) and Josh Rosen (No. 10) — were selected among the top 10 for the first time in seven decades. And last year, three went in the top 10: Joe Burrow (No. 1), Tua Tagovailoa (No. 4) and Justin Herbert (No. 5).

One of the most glaring indicators that the struggle continues to be real at the top of the board is that quarterbacks went 1-2 in both 2015 and 2016 (Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota in ’15, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz in ’16) and none of the four is still with his original team.

With so much uncertainty this year, there’s a feeling in the league that the teams at the top of the board believe the time, environment and the prospects available create the perfect storm to roll the dice on a quarterback. So much so that if you averaged many of the actual grades on the top quarterbacks in this draft, they might fall something like this:

First round

  • Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

  • Justin Fields, Ohio State

Late first to mid-second round

  • Trey Lance, North Dakota State

  • Zach Wilson, BYU

  • Mac Jones, Alabama

Third round

  • Kyle Trask, Florida

Quarterbacks have always been selected well above their actual grades because, well, they’re quarterbacks. There is also the residual impact of the Bills trading up to No. 7 to select Allen in 2018, the year after the Chiefs had moved to No. 10 to select Patrick Mahomes. Those two teams made big trades and got their guys, and every other team has been watching closely.

I reached out to roughly two dozen scouts and personnel executives in recent weeks for an unscientific poll to try to get a snapshot of how Round 1 will really go. These are the results, with quarterbacks listed in no specific order within each tier (there were a handful of those surveyed who said they would flip Lance and Jones, but agreed with the rest):

Top 10 picks

  • Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

  • Justin Fields, Ohio State

  • Trey Lance, North Dakota State

  • Zach Wilson, BYU

Just outside the top 10

  • Mac Jones, Alabama

Bottom of Round 1 or top of Round 2

  • Kyle Trask, Florida

Biggest range of opinions (bottom of Round 1 to deep into Day 2)

  • Davis Mills, Stanford

So with only a few weeks to go until the draft begins, expect quarterbacks to remain the biggest talking point.

Hand-timed glory: Not every time is created equal

The 40-yard dash times at the combine normally offer some consistency in that every prospect runs on the same surface. And given it has been roughly four decades since there hasn’t been a combine, this year is a throwback. While indoor facilities are far better now than decades ago, the only 40 times teams have are from prospects running at different places.

Play speed still rules for most in the league, as it should, and the GPS metrics used now give evaluators a much more powerful measurement tool than the 40. But any confirmation is good confirmation, and the 40 provides teams with comps for players that go back decades, especially teams with some continuity among their area scouts who have timed all those runs.

Still, any 40 times at pro days that were under 4.30 are almost certainly questioned by teams. Prospects can be extremely fast, but they’re unlikely to be that fast. Four examples, which circulated last month:

  • Anthony Schwartz, WR, Auburn: 4.26

  • Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue: 4.29

  • Eric Stokes, CB, Georgia: 4.29

  • Shi Smith, WR, South Carolina: 4.29

Even a 4.55 40 for Miami defensive end Jaelan Phillips, a phenomenal prospect who has struggled with injuries — he has had multiple concussions, along with ankle and wrist issues — will cause teams to pause because that’s rare speed for a 260-pound edge rusher.

There’s no question these guys are fast. And you can get deep in the weeds with metrics, running surfaces, reaction times, shoes worn, splits and the fact that elite 100-meter sprinters are still building speed at the halfway point of the race. But even Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt was estimated to run a 4.20 over the first 40 yards in the 9.58 electronically timed 100-meter record he set in 2009.

Given that prospects have almost always run faster in pro days than at the combine through the years, they might not actually move the needle much when the picks get made.

Opt-out riddles: Another wrinkle in a strange year

The prospects who opted out of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic have teams relying on methods they’ve used in the past for prospects who missed the season before they entered the draft. Rob Gronkowski, who did not play his final season at Arizona due to a back injury, was a tidy 270-pound Super Bowl reminder that body of work is important in this process. He was the No. 42 overall pick in 2010.

Evaluators have tried to make the best of what they saw at the Senior Bowl in January and the pro days of some of the opt-out players. Stanford’s Paulson Adebo, for example, is still a tough call for some as the two-time All-Pac 12 pick had an injury end his 2019 season nine starts in and he opted out in 2020.

Overall, there will be some fluctuations between how the opt-out season impacts a variety of prospects, with each team having its own criteria for how those players are graded. From my discussions with scouts and personnel executives, here are a few who could be placed in two categories:

Opt-out prospects teams still love:

  • Rashawn Slater, OT, Northwestern

  • Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon

  • Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU

  • Gregory Rousseau, DE, Miami

  • Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina (played until November before opting out)

Opt-out players who have spurred debate and could drop:

  • Paulson Adebo, CB, Stanford

  • Levi Onwuzurike, DT, Washington

  • Jamie Newman, QB, Georgia

  • Sage Surratt, WR, Wake Forest

Prospects who wowed at pro days

Pro days are just one piece of the puzzle, and when scouts criticize the media for their evaluations of prospects, they will often say too much emphasis was placed on a pro day or combine workout and that one play made in a noncompetitive situation should not get as much love as it does.

Here are a few of the non-quarterbacks who made the most of the showcase in recent weeks:

  • Many people in the league came away from Northwestern’s pro day raving about how offensive tackle Rashawn Slater looked after missing a season. They got the confirmation they needed to make him a top-15 pick.

  • Wisconsin-Whitewater lineman Quinn Meinerz didn’t get to play a game in 2020 because his team’s season was canceled. But he made the most of his Senior Bowl week, especially in the one-on-ones, and he followed that up with a top-shelf pro day on March 9, including a reliably timed sub-4.9 40-yard dash at 320 pounds and top times in shuttle drills.

  • The game video showed Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey didn’t surrender a sack in 2020, and his pro day was stellar for his position, including shuttle drill times similar to those for a skill position player.

  • Penn State edge rusher Jayson Oweh had a pro day one scout called “high-end ridiculous” as the 6-foot-5, 257-pounder had double-take numbers such as a 39½-inch vertical and a 40 time in the 4.3s. He is one of the biggest pro day/game tape question marks of this class because he finished last season without a sack.

  • BYU wide receiver Micah Simon, a former prep quarterback, went undrafted in 2020 after COVID-19 forced his pro day to be canceled. He caught passes from Zach Wilson at BYU’s pro day this year and dropped a 4.3 40 on those in attendance. He was signed by the Panthers last week.

Prospects who still have questions after pro days

  • Pitt safety Paris Ford was a productive player who consistently showed a good understanding of what offenses wanted to do, but his pro day 40s were in the 4.8s, and his times in the agility drills were not nearly what many scouts were hoping to see.

  • Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade has seen his stock fall in recent months — he was viewed as a potential first-round pick last summer — and he did not work out at the Buckeyes’ pro day because of a turf toe injury. He has told teams he will work out April 14, and he’ll need to provide something to counter his shaky play this past season.

  • Scouts had already said that Florida State defensive tackle Marvin Wilson didn’t have the best week at the Senior Bowl and his pro day performance was just OK. Many came away hoping for more from the former five-star prospect.

Moments that popped on social media

Here are five moments that had people buzzing:

  • Zach Wilson’s deep throw on the move as his workout drew to a close.

  • Justin Fields’ 4.44 40-yard dash, along with a spectacular throw of his own.

  • Illinois wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe’s 46.5-inch vertical jump, which would have been a combine record; Gerald Sensabaugh set the record in 2005 at 46 inches.

  • Alabama center Landon Dickerson doing cartwheels as quarterback Mac Jones was being interviewed after his workout.

  • Florida tight end Kyle Pitts. That’s it. Anything and everything he did at his pro day was awesome.

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