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It’s going to be a different free agency and draft for the NFL this year

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Things aren’t normal anywhere, including in the NFL.

NFL: APR 25 2019 NFL Draft
The podium may be empty this year.
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Suddenly, the rules have changed. As we all deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many completely unanticipated consequences. While the impact on the NFL is pretty far down the list of priorities, it is nonetheless real. While we focus on the Dallas Cowboys here, these things are universal for the league.

We preface this look at how free agency and the draft will look by noting the NFL could, at any moment, change their schedule and delay the start of the new league year. The optics of moving forward while things are so uncertain in this world might be enough for them to pause it. This article is basically a look at things if they proceed as currently scheduled.

No one can accurately predict how this will all play out and in what timeframe. In the meantime, the NFL is walking the line between changes and conducting business as usual. Unlike the other major sports, they are in the offseason so the crowds situation is mostly not in the picture. And thanks to the digital world we now inhabit, there are mechanisms in place to make different things more feasible.

For now, the two big things to sort out are free agency and the draft. Here is what is happening and how things may change.

Free agency

Currently, free agency is set to start on Wednesday, March 18. There is still a possibility that the league could decide to delay this. There are reports that some owners are questioning the start of the league year.

Multiple team officials are skeptical that the NFL will be able to start its league year next week, expressing doubt to ESPN’s Adam Schefter given the ongoing coronavirus outbreak in the United States and the typical in-person visits, including physicals, that would have to happen as part of free agency.

There is at least a suspicion that they are delaying such an announcement until after the NFLPA completes the vote on the new CBA, which was approved and announced Sunday morning. Things have changed rapidly so far, so be braced for just about anything.

On the surface, it would seem that free agency could be conducted almost exclusively at a distance. There is no absolute need for face-to-face meeting for negotiations, except for medical evaluations/physicals. Everything else can be done by internet, telephone, or even by fax, assuming both parties can access the equipment. It does, of course, make things a bit more difficult. A lot of owners, GMs, coaches, and the players themselves want that face-to-face time during the courting stages. There are unquestionably differing levels of comfort with having to substitute video conferencing around the league. But it could be done.

The real question at this point is, will the teams accept this, or make a collective decision to push things back to go a more familiar route? The situation with the pandemic has been very fast-moving over the past week and the owners may not have fully digested things to come up with a decision.

It should also be noted that more restrictions on travel may be coming for California and the state of Washington. If that happens, and it is total to include private aviation, then it would be expected that free agents throughout the league would not be allowed to do any visits.

The draft

Just like free agency, drafting players does not really require any large gathering or audiences. Those raucous events have become the norm because they are so popular - and one more revenue source. The transformation of the process to a major spectator and media event was the real start of the NFL becoming a true year-round sport, despite having by far the shortest season of any major professional league.

But it can be done. Just have the war rooms call directly to the league rather than to a superfluous person to actually fill out and hand in the card. TV audiences would likely be even larger, since other sports could will be idle, leaving the draft as literally the only game in town.

It should be noted that war rooms themselves may be much more sparse as staffs try to protect their own members.

The impact in this case is significant for the teams and the prospects. And on you, the reader. One of the key indicators for many teams is the 30 pre-draft visits they are allowed. We have been tracking those for years here at Blogging The Boys, actually pioneering the idea of collecting and consolidating the various reports from social media. It all was started because BTB icon One Cool Customer noticed how often actual picks were players who had paid a visit to the team.

Now, that is all gone. The NFL has banned visits and teams are no longer able to go visit players or attend pro days, either. Here, there is no real option. The teams can do video or phone interviews, but that is all they have available to take the measure of the individual. For many teams, this has long been crucial. That includes the Cowboys.

In essence, the teams are mostly down to grinding tape and studying measurables - when they have reliable numbers for the latter. Unless players were among the elite invited to the NFL Combine, that may be a bit sketchy, as many (if not most) colleges are not above fudging things a bit to help their own products. After all, pointing to how many of your players made it to the NFL can be useful in recruiting.

If you think social media Draftniks were irritating and too numerous in the past, imagine how it will be when they realize that they are now operating with almost the same information (namely, video) that the teams have.

At first glance, it would seem to severely hamper the teams to not have the visits, but that assumes that the teams are properly weighting interviews and direct observations. There have been times when teams probably overdrafted someone with less than stellar tape because the prospect just blew them away in an interview. Conversely, an awkward or somewhat withdrawn individual may have slid undeservedly because that was mistakenly assumed to reflect a lack of motivation or desire.

The ones who will suffer the most from this are the players who did not get to make a splash because they were outstanding talents stuck on losing teams or in small schools, and did not get an invite to the Combine. There is only so much time to review college games, and no matter how skilled and dedicated scouts are, they will inevitably miss some good performances. Those pro days were great chances for these overlooked prospects to catch someone’s eye and at least get on a radar or two.

It is a strange time, with no way to know when or truly if things will return to the way they were. We’ll keep you posted as soon as hard information emerges.

In the meantime, listen to the public health experts, take care of yourself, and help protect those who may be more vulnerable than you.