Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
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The Minnesota Vikings typically acquire thousands of player reports and conduct hundreds of interviews to prepare for the draft, a harrowing enough task for a scouting department operating without the restrictions of a global pandemic.
The nationwide quarantine surrounding COVID-19 has forced the Vikings to get creative, and fast. The team facility closed on March 13, prospects’ pro days were canceled and medical reports became more difficult to attain for players with injury histories.
Despite the adversity, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman is happy with his staff’s pre-draft preparation in advance of Thursday’s first round; so happy that he said the Vikings might consider making virtual offseason meetings a permanent fixture on their calendar.
It would be a tough draft for Spielman to feel ill-prepared. He and the Vikings have 12 picks and numerous holes to fill.
Spielman said the Vikings finalized their draft board Tuesday night, one day after going through a trial run with the rest of the league to test out this year’s virtual drafting protocol — a true mock draft. The GM has a dozen screens set up in his house to mimic Minnesota’s state of the art draft room at TCO Performance Center.
“We couldn’t do it without the incredible job that our IT department has given us,” Spielman said on a Zoom call with reporters.
GM Rick Spielman’s #VikingsDraft setup is no joke.
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) April 22, 2020
There is still a level of anxiety that comes with change, and Spielman is making sure the Vikings have safeguards in place if communication lines fail during the draft. While the league is reportedly sensitive to this possibility, and reportedly will pause the clock on a pick in case of a communication failure, the Vikings have a failsafe in place where three different people will be able to submit the pick if the first person falters.
Spielman also anticipates teams finalizing draft-night trades more preemptively than usual. The oft-aggressive GM has made 26 trades himself over the last six drafts.
“I think you’re going to see trades probably locked in earlier,” he said, “just because I think everybody’s going to be a little nervous about when they’re on the clock and whether a glitch happens or not. I don’t think it will be as big an issue because we have 10 minutes on Thursday. I know in the second round, we have seven. When it starts to get into the five-minute rounds, those are where it’s going to be a little interesting.”
The chaotic times have oddly opened some unique scouting possibilities. NFL coaches have had more times on their hands during quarantine to expand their film-watching, giving them a chance to circle back to 2018 and evaluate prospects that might’ve performed better two seasons ago than they did last year. (Receiver Jalen Reagor and corner C.J. Henderson would fit that description.)
The Vikings were also able to take advantage of college coaches’ availability while they put recruiting and spring practices on the backburner.
“I know I had numerous calls over the past couple weeks with a lot of head coaches that have the time to sit there and thoroughly go through the guys on their roster,” Spielman said. “Not to get into specifics of who, but I spent probably two hours with one head coach last week talking about his players and some of the questions we had. Even though we weren’t able to meet with them in person, I think we were still able to get the things we needed accomplished through FaceTime, with our coaches and scouts FaceTiming players and even our ability to get a hold of a lot of coaches, and the time we were able to spend with them that we normally wouldn’t have been able to spend if we were in normal circumstances.”
The loss of pro days, however, was a negative for all parties. Teams weren’t able to get up-close evaluations of their preferred prospects, and players with physical question marks weren’t able to prove their fitness. Minnesota’s athletic trainer Eric Sugarman conducted virtual evaluations with players over video chat, Spielman’s analytics staff dug through previous years of data to establish “ghost numbers” for missing parts of players’ analytical profiles, and many prospects submitted virtual workouts that often included a 40-yard dash.
“I said, ‘Just shoot the whole 40 from a wide angle and we’ll try to time it as best we can from watching the YouTube video,’ or whatever the heck we were able to get,” said Spielman. “Our times were a little different than some of the times that were being shown on the YouTube video, but at least you got some kind of sense, some kind of estimate.”
Many of the top prospects were able to appear at the NFL Combine in late February, and those that didn’t may have appeared at one of the college all-star games in January, giving the Vikings some confidence that their evaluations on many of their highest potential draft picks are complete.
“Everybody that’s in an all-star game that we’re at, every player gets interviewed there, and every player gets a height/weight, we get an arm length, we get a hand size, so that’s why part of our process,” Spielman said. “Back then I would have never predicted a pandemic, but we had enough information gathered at those places to feel comfortable with some of these guys that didn’t go to the combine.”