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No Scouting Combine is no problem for good NFL teams

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The Denver Broncos, like the rest of the NFL, are going to have to deal with a different Scouting Combine this year leading up to the draft. Earlier in the week, the NFL informed teams that the combine is changing formats. There will be no in-person workouts, and any sort of interviews will be done virtually – including psychological exams.

Even medical exams, the reason the combine came into existence, will be on a limited in-person basis. Needless to say, things are looking different in the pre-draft process.

Broncos head coach Vic Fangio was asked about how draft preparation will look different this year and how their experience from last year will help them this offseason.

“We’re just going to have to do a good job of digging. The coaches are going to have to chip in to dig, the scouts are going to have to dig. We’re going to have to use anything and anybody to help us get the necessary information we need on these players in the draft. In regard to last year, obviously when COVID hit last year and things had to be done virtually, it was new for a lot of us. Now it’s not going to be new. We’re going to be more well versed in it, and it should be more of a smooth process if we have to go that route again. I think we’ll all be better for it,” Fangio said.

There are three things good teams must do with this interesting pre-draft process. Here’s what people around the league are telling me about how to crush this evaluation period.

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Crush the Senior Bowl

While most other All-Star games have been cancelled due to the pandemic, the Senior Bowl is proceeding next week – but there are changes at that game every team (and media) will have to deal with. The practices will go on as per usual, but there are no in-person interview opportunities for the media in attendance. Instead, players will be available via Zoom interviews during the week.

The Senior Bowl is the best All-Star game in the pre-draft process. I have been traveling to Mobile, Alabama to attend the Senior Bowl every year since 2007. During the 15-plus years of going to this game, I’ve seen a ton of big-name players go through the practices during the week. The Broncos have been a team who has plucked talent regularly from that game, including but not limited to Von Miller back in 2011.

It’s an important part of the pre-draft process, and the Senior Bowl practices are ran by NFL teams. You have the nation’s best seniors in attendance, and they are going through individual and team drills to compete with those other players in the draft class. If you can stand out at the Senior Bowl, like Baker Mayfield did a few years ago, then that can catapult your draft stock. The teams who are best at finding talent at this All-Star game, especially small-school players who get to compete against the top seniors, will put their teams ahead of others.

Paton was asked about his plans for the staff and if he himself was going to attend the Senior Bowl next week.

“I’ve already started delegating. We have a great college staff here, and I’m going to start meeting with them tomorrow. In regard to the coaches, they’re going to be involved in the whole (evaluation) process. Typically, they always have been where I’ve been, so they’re going to be involved and we’re going to value their opinion. In regard to the Senior Bowl, I’m still up in the air. I’m just trying to see how I get through this week. I’m going to meet with the college scouting department and the pro scouting department and then make a decision from there,” Paton said.

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Lean on the Film

There is no doubt that film study should make most of a player’s grade. I begin studying film in mid-December as I prepare for draft season each year. It’s a process to watch as much as I want, with time being the biggest thing working against me. NFL teams start working on the next draft class as soon as the draft is done, so they have a bit more time but they are also on the clock with the draft at the end of April.

Film study takes an eye for talent. You must know what you’re seeing and know what you want out of the type of players who will fit in your system – on both sides of the ball. The film never lies, but analysts will lie to themselves if they have preconceived notions about who they’re watching. Scouts must be vigilant when watching film as that should make up 85 percent of the player’s grade.

Interviews and pro day workout numbers are part of the evaluation, but they should have much less weight on a player’s grade. The film tells you what a player did on the field – proven production. The numbers from workouts tell you about measurables and a player’s potential, but that’s it. Film is king, so leaning on the film is what good teams will do this year more than ever.

Paton was asked about his philosophy, and I love how he highlights embracing the grind of evaluation. Film study is fun, but it’s work – lots of work – that most in the media don’t want to do and those in NFL buildings must enjoy to do the right way.

“My philosophy and vision, it starts with the process driven and our scouting department. There’ll be no shortcuts. We’re going to embrace the day to day, we’re going to embrace the grind, and we’re going to do it together. Drafting and developing players will be our foundation. It’s going to be the lifeblood of this football team. We’re going to be aggressive, but we’re not going to be reckless in player acquisition. We’re going to leave no stone unturned. There’s going to be a collaborative, positive and diverse work environment with free-flowing ideas. We’re going to be progressive, we’re going to be innovative, we’re going to be forward thinking and we’re going to use all the information at our disposal to make the best informed decisions. I fully embrace this challenge and this opportunity,” Paton said.

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Better Background

Teams like to get to know the incoming college prospects before the draft. It’s in their best interest to find out everything they can about a player and his background. Players come from all sorts of backgrounds, and teams have to learn if a player is someone they can trust not only as a player but as a person who will represent the organization in the community.

The Broncos have made mistakes in this department before. Former first-round pick Paxton Lynch was known by other teams to be a terrible interview who seemed disinterested in playing quarterback in the NFL. The Broncos did not dig enough on him and were duped into moving up in the 2016 NFL Draft to select him in the first round. Other teams like the Chiefs and the Cowboys liked Lynch as well, but perhaps Denver would have passed on him if they’d done more homework.

Under Paton, the Broncos welcome homework of all kinds. Getting to know these players is more than just talking to a player. Teams must interview coaches, athletic staff and teammates to learn as much as possible. I have no doubt that Paton’s staff will look everywhere for quality information on a player’s background.

Paton doesn’t see many problems with the new combine because every team is going to have to deal with the changes in the process.

“It won’t be much different than last year — last year at least we had the combine. This year obviously we’re not going to have a combine, but the good thing is it’s a level playing field and 31 other teams are going through the same thing. As I talk to our scouts, how are we going to maintain an edge over the rest of the league? We’re going to need better background. How are we going to cover the workouts if they have them? I just think we need to determine how we’re going to separate ourselves from the other 31 teams,” Paton said.

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No combine, no problem – for good teams. Are the Broncos one of those teams under Paton? We’re fixing to find out.