MIAMI, Jan. 22 (UPI) -- NFL talent evaluators may have a tougher time judging prospects ahead of the league's draft because February's annual scouting combine, in its typical format, has been canceled due to COVID-19.
The league this week issued a memo to its 32 teams to announce the cancellation of the in-person components of the event. More than 300 college players usually travel to Indianapolis for a series of mental and physical tests before NFL team decision-makers.
The combine had occurred in the city every winter since 1987.
Without the combine, prospects will have to track bench press repetitions, run speed drills and participate in other workouts measured at colleges and alternate locations around the United States.
The NFL said prospects will perform some of those same combine exercises at college pro day workouts -- events held each year for schools to showcase their best players.
That will make it harder for teams to compare prospects and current NFL players due to different equipment used and different environments in which the players work out.
"We will work with the schools to encourage consistency in testing and drills across pro days and ensure that all clubs have access to video from those workouts, irrespective of whether the club is represented at a particular workout," the NFL said in its memo to teams.
Rules governing timing and testing of draft-eligible players and club personnel attendance at pro days will be sent separately, the league said.
A representative of the NFL players union said "everything is still being figured out," when asked if the league or combine organizers plan to send combine representatives to schools to improve quality of the testing.
Prospects also could work out and record measurables at private sessions, like the one agent Leigh Steinberg held for Tua Tagovailoa before the Miami Dolphins selected him as the No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Last off-season, Tagovailoa could not participate in Alabama's pro day because it was canceled. He also did not throw for scouts at the combine in Indianapolis. Steinberg later sent footage of Tagovailoa's tailored workouts to NFL teams.
"What's happening now is virtually every draftee is off at some training facility, training for those drills," Steinberg said.
"It's uncertain what the state of COVID-19 infections and transmissibility will be as we go through the spring," he said. "That's why none of this is crystal clear. But we are prepared to test our own players and find a way to make that official if need be."
Five tests are most significant -- the 40-yard dash, 225-pound bench press, vertical leap, broad jump and three-cone lateral drill. Millions of dollars are at stake in each rookie contract based largely on performance in these tests.
Due to a lack of combine testing, teams will rely more on tape of game performance. Players with more exposure and more time as starters often could be selected earlier in the draft.
Young Money APAA Sports agent Nicole Lynn took to Twitter on Monday to request that more prominent college programs allow agents and smaller-school prospects attend their pro days. A greater number of NFL scouts attend workouts at the larger schools because more draftable prospects are there.
"Coordinate with other schools on pro day dates so these prospects don't miss out on being evaluated in person," Lynn tweeted.
Some elite prospects will have more chances to showcase their talents this off-season when invited to All-Star games like the Hula Bowl and Senior Bowl.
The events are annual components of the pre-draft process, which has become much more extensive since Steinberg's first draft as an agent in 1975. The combine wasn't created until 1982.
Steinberg thinks the draft still will produce another elite crop of players -- as it did last year when schools canceled pro days due to the pandemic -- because of an increased menu of events available for talent evaluators.
Agent Kenny Zuckerman, of Priority Sports & Entertainment, said prospects from certain positions could have an edge to be selected earlier based on their positions requiring less measurable attributes, like speed.
"Speaking to teams, they say big men [offensive and defensive linemen] are the safest way to go," Zuckerman said.
"Teams are taking out risk [of a draft-day mistake] by taking out the testing component and watching the film. [Linemen's] 40-yard and shuttle times aren't as critical as a measuring stick to how they are perceived as players. Film is critical."
Zuckerman has 13 prospects as clients ahead of the draft, which is planned for April 29. A dozen of them are training in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
He said several team officials told him the combine most likely would shift to pro days before the NFL made an official decision. That inside knowledge has allowed agents and prospects to prepare for the likelihood of the combine's absence.
Steinberg and Zuckerman -- both based in the Los Angeles area -- agree that teams will favor players with a lot of game film when making decisions on who to pick in this year's draft.
Most uncertainty creeps into the evaluation process for players drafted after the second round. Zuckerman said NFL teams likely to take fewer risks when they make those selections due to the lack of data.
"Will we see a guy who would normally be undrafted who goes to the combine and runs a 4.4-second 40-yard dash and goes in fifth round from a [small school]? That pick is going to be hard to make," he said.