While prudent planning by the league, the cancellation of the 2021 NFL combine is a bummer for many. For prospects, their opportunity to showcase how big they hit the genetic lottery in front of national audience, gone. For fans, no widespread introduction to the incoming draft class and five days of appointment television at the outset of the offseason. And for NFL media members, a pristine week-long networking extravaganza with long days and even longer, hazier nights out the window.
Let's pinpoint the four ways the absence of this year's combine will affect this draft class as a whole. And while veteran reporters and analysts will tell you the creation of this event mostly had streamlined medical checks in mind, the combine absolutely carries sizable weight in the pre-draft evaluation of every single prospect.
Pro day numbers get their time in the spotlight
For about two decades now, pro days have been the little brother of the combine, frustratingly parked in its shadow, and while occasionally causing a stir, never really taken seriously or grabbing everyone's undivided attention. Until now.
Without the combine, pro days will be the exclusive holder of prospect's 40-yard dash, and vertical, broad jump, and three-cone times. They'll serve as the one place for teams and draft analysts to get all those figures to be plugged into predictive models and to compare to workouts in the past.
And be ready for some INSANE times and measurements. It's been difficult to trust pro days because of their exaggerating tendencies. This year, they're really all we have (along with any "combines" held by workout facilities). And we all know college programs love pumping out those 4.2 times in the 40 and those lightning-quick three-cone drills. The smart draft fan knows full well to take pro day figures with a grain of salt, but this year, those are the only number prospects will boast for their profiles.
Small-school prospects will have a harder time appearing
The Senior Bowl does a bang-up job bringing diamonds in the rough to the surface every year, and this year was no different, with the likes of Wisconsin-Whitewater blocker Quinn Meinerz, Northern Illinois edge rusher Elerson Smith, North Dakota State tackle Dillon Radunz and a few other small-school prospects excelling in their chance to compete "up" a level of competition.
But the combine always unearths more NFL-caliber talents who played at lower levels in college. Now, it is worth noting that the vast majority of the small-school prospects drafted early are typically Senior Bowl attendees, but the combine invites well over 300 prospects and late-round and undrafted free agent gems who played at the FCS level, in Division II or III, typically hit the field in Indianapolis so everyone can see if they truly have NFL athletic traits.
There won't be a wave of draft-stock fluctuations in early March
As a draft analyst, I don't know how I feel about this. Because, in theory, prospect evaluations shouldn't change after the end of the football season. And many times confirmation bias rears its ugly head -- we think a prospect is really fast on film then give him a draft-stock boost when he, in fact, runs really fast at the combine.
But instances do arise when a prospect tests too poorly to be seriously considered a top-tier prospect or, unfortunately, even an NFL prospect at all. Sometimes, prospects surprise us in a good way at the combine, too. And our eyes can deceive us, especially when a prospect doesn't have a reputation of being fast, or explosive, or bendy, etc.
And, every year, the draft-stock fluctuation boost in every draft class hits like a tidal wave. In the past, many prospects have gone much higher than they would have without the combine. Which leads me to....
More reliance on film than any time in a while
Because of their long-standing reputation, to many, pro day numbers are bound to be cast aside even quicker this draft season, and without universal, electronically timed and measured workouts in the same environment for everyone, film will have another heyday.
For as much as analytics are hip, and, in actuality, immensely helpful, there's an argument, that they can overcomplicate things.
In most cases, watching film, and, not overcomplicating things, works damn well. Is that receiver open all the time? Does that edge rusher get to the quarterback with a lot of pass-rushing moves? Does that cornerback find the football and get his hands on it frequently? Strengths and weaknesses for college prospects typically don't change once those prospects are pros.
And this draft season will remind us of that.