The NFL’s pre-draft evaluation process was thrown into uncertainty Thursday as the Buffalo Bills and the other 31 teams reacted to the coronavirus.
The Bills were among the many teams that announced they will pull their scouts and coaches off the road as precaution in the wake of rising concerns over the health crisis.
“Due to health concerns of the coronavirus, the Bills have suspended the travel of coaches and scouts,” the team announced.
The move comes just as the NFL’s personnel men were ramping up their travels across the country for the pro-day workouts of the college draft prospects.
Thirty of the 32 NFL teams were represented at Oklahoma's pro day Wednesday, and all 32 teams were present Thursday at the workout in South Carolina for prospects of national runner-up Clemson.
Pro day workouts on college campuses began on March 5 and are scheduled to continue through April 9, when Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is due to hold a private workout.
But it appears Thursday’s on-campus meetings will be the last ones to be well attended by NFL teams. Michigan canceled its pro day, scheduled for Friday. Penn State, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M were among schools that called off or suspended plans for their pro days. The Southeastern Conference canceled all athletic activities at its school through the end of March.
Besides the Bills, other teams to announce that they would restrict travel for coaches and scouts included the Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants and Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Redskins.
NFL agents and media reported that teams also have started canceling the pre-draft visits by prospects to their facilities. Each team is allowed to bring in 30 prospects before the draft, which is scheduled for April 23-25 in Las Vegas.
The NFL also canceled its annual ownership meeting that was scheduled to be held in West Palm Beach, Fla., from March 29 through April 1. That’s not as big a deal, because meetings of owners and league executives can be done remotely. And the NFL has a spring meeting set for May 19-20 in Marina Del Rey, Calif., where rules changes could be voted upon.
An NFL spokesman said it’s a club decision whether or not to bring draft prospects into the team facility.
However, objections to the extra travel the visits would entail continued to be raised by agents on social media.
“As an agent, it’s my strong recommendation that my players don’t travel for any team visits,” agent Mike McCartney tweeted. “With 12 or more games played, an all-star game and combine for most, teams have enough information to make an informed draft decision.”
Others chimed in with the same viewpoint.
“We have 1-4 years of game tape, 300-plus prospects attended the combine, teams were in attendance at all-star practices and games,” said Daniel Jeremiah, the NFL Network analyst and former NFL scout. “That’s a lot of info to properly evaluate this class. Also, every pro day is videoed by the school and distributed to all 32 teams.”
Nevertheless, the restrictions will change the way teams scout for the next six weeks. Bills General Manager Brandon Beane talked last month at the NFL Scouting Combine about how much he values the pro days and the draft visits because the number of formal interview sessions at the combine was cut for each team from 60 to 45.
"So I’ve got to figure out how we can make up for losing these 15 guys," Beane said. "We’ll still get out. I may find myself out on the road even more in March to try to get my hands on as many guys as I can because I really want to get to meet as many as I can before I would turn the card in and say this guy is going to be a Buffalo Bill."
Meanwhile, Washington owner Daniel Snyder said in a statement: “Due to health and travel concerns surrounding COVID-19 we have informed all of our scouts and coaches that they must return to their home bases and travel will be suspended until further notice. The health and safety of our staff and players is our number one priority and we feel that these are the necessary precautions given the current circumstances.”
A number of Bills coaches and scouts, including Beane, spent Thursday morning at Clemson’s pro day, with several Bills assistants running drills.
Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins posted numbers that essentially verify his standing as a prospect in the second half of the first round. He is a popular target among draft analysts for the Bills with the No. 22 overall pick.
Higgins ran the 40-yard dash in a time that most scouts in attendance put in the mid-4.5 range, according to the NFL Network’s Patrick Clayborn.
Higgins is 6 feet, 3 5/8 inches and 216 pounds with an 81-inch wingspan, biggest of any of the top dozen wide receiver prospects and third biggest of the 54 wideouts at the combine. He opted not to run at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
Anything under 4.5 is fast for a receiver, especially a big one. However, 40 times are easy to overrate in evaluating the position. Many of the most productive receivers in the NFL run in the 4.53 to 4.55 range.
Higgins’ vertical jump of 31 inches was not impressive. It was the lowest of any of the roughly top 20-rated wideouts. Higgins’ broad jump of 123 inches was pretty good.
The top two wideouts in the draft are Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb. The 6-foot-1-inch, 193-pound Jeudy ran 4.45 with a 35-inch vertical jump and a 120-inch broad jump. The 6-foot-1-inch, 198-pound Lamb ran 4.50 with a 34.5-inch VJ and a 124-inch broad jump.
Former Bills quarterback J.P. Losman is an offensive assistant coach for Clemson. He was throwing passes to receivers during the pro day.