April 6 (UPI) -- NFL teams and college prospects have adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic by using new technology, but the 2020 NFL Draft process could still hurt some prospects financially and hinder teams' ability to clearly evaluate players.
Hundreds of former college football stars will be selected in the seven-round 2020 NFL Draft. A public production was planned from April 23 to 25 in Las Vegas, but has been changed to a closed event. All 32 NFL teams will select their players remotely and away from their facilities while practicing social distancing.
The off-season draft process began with the Scouting Combine. Nearly 340 players were measured, timed, mentally tested and medically examined in typical fashion at the event in Indianapolis from the Feb. 26 to March 4.
Additional prospects were set to work out during pro days after the combine -- before the pandemic canceled those sessions.
The NFL has closed all team facilities, meaning the teams can't conduct in-house evaluations of prospects. The league also canceled NFL-related physicals.
"The off-season, relative to the [prospects], it's completely changed," Saints coach Sean Payton told reporters last week.
The Saints -- like other teams -- are organizing their draft board, a system used by teams to rank which college prospects they like the best. Payton said health checks are "much more difficult" to perform because of logistical limitations caused by the pandemic.
"We went from going to pro days to three hours later I was getting all my scouts off the road and trying to figure out how I was going to get back home. And it just kept changing," Bills general manager Brandon Beane told reporters Thursday.
"I know everybody's ready to get back to normal, but this is bigger than sports, and we've all got to do the right thing -- social distance and flatten the curve and all the things that everybody's saying to do and as hard as it is."
Agents, players and teams are now communicating via video conferencing software such as FaceTime and Zoom. The calls are not allowed to last more than an hour, can't interfere with school schedules or occur between the same team and player more than three times weekly. The calls must be reported to the NFL.
Former Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is one player drawing a lot of attention this off-season. The likely first-round pick is recovering from a season-ending hip injury, but was cleared for all football activities March 9.
Tagovailoa has been posting videos of his progress to social media and sending videos to teams, as he is not allowed to work out at team facilities and did not work out at the combine.
"We are working with each team to meet all of the medical, football and character evaluation needs that are typically conducted in person," said Tagovailoa's agency, Steinberg Sports & Entertainment.
The earlier a player is picked in the draft, the more money he will receive for his four-year rookie contract. Players in the first round will all receive multimillion-dollar pacts, but a substantial pay difference exists between the first pick and players selected outside the top five.
This could be the case for Tagovailoa, if teams opt to be conservative and select players who did not sustain serious injuries during the final collegiate seasons instead of the former Alabama star.
Kyler Murray, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, received $10 million more than No. 6 pick Daniel Jones. Dwayne Haskins -- the No. 15 overall pick -- received $20 million less than Murray.
Former Missouri star Drew Lock was selected in the second round in 2020 and received a contract $30 million less valuable than Murray's. Baker Mayfield, the top pick in 2018, earned $20 million more than No. 32 pick Lamar Jackson.
On-field production is on film for all NFL teams after prospects complete collegiate careers. Teams use the combine, pro days, personal workouts and tests to personally grade the prospects.
No facility visits
With no facility visits or pro days allowed, prospects have fewer opportunities to make a positive impact on teams, limiting their ability to change their outlook from a second- or third-round prospect into a first-round prospect.
"I think the big thing is, let's just say it was a health issue and it was a player we were very interested in," Payton said.
"In the normal schedule, you might fly that player in and investigate the data a little bit more, the injury a little bit more, look at it a little bit closer. If it was a character concern, you might bring that player in or go to the school and spend more time," he said.
"The grade and the system and the way it's set up on the [draft] board remains the same. But you may not be able to clarify or clean up some of the question marks you normally would in each year. ... You might be more conservative relative to, aversion to taking a risk if you don't have the information you're looking for."
Agents factor in
NFL teams also consider their relationships with agents who represent the prospects, when evaluating a player's health or character.
"One team told me they are really concerned working with players who have inexperienced or not reputable agents because they can't necessarily trust the health of the player or physical shape of the player," said agent Kenny Zuckerman, president of Priority Sports & Entertainment. "That's where a lot of the relationships we have with teams that have lasted 30 years are really coming into play."
Nicole Lynn, an agent at Young Money APAA Sports, said some prospects are "very disappointed" they won't be able to attend NFL Draft activities in Las Vegas. Young Money represents six prospects for the 2020 NFL Draft, including former Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts and projected first-round pick Jedrick Willis Jr.
About two dozen players -- projected as first-round picks -- typically attend the NFL Draft. Former California linebacker Evan Weaver led the nation in tackles in his final two seasons, but is not expected to be a first-round selection. He said he is depending on what he put on his game tapes when it comes to impressing NFL teams in lieu of the lack of off-season exposure.
"I'm not too worried about it," Weaver said. "I think my film speaks for itself, leading the nation in tackles two years in a row and just playing ball. I'm a football player and I feel like a team is going to get pretty lucky when they draft me."