Should the NFL postpone its draft?

Earlier this month, the National Football League decided to go ahead with its free agent signing period even though other sports were shutting down due to the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak. Unlike the playing of actual games, free agency required no physical contact. Every part of the the process could be performed remotely except for physical examination of the free agents, and that could be deferred.

Nonetheless, some claimed that going forward with free agency in the midst of a public health crisis would be “a bad look.”

In the end, free agency proceeded as scheduled. Players made money, fans enjoyed following the process, and no one got sick as a result. I call that a good look.

Now, the NFL must decide whether to proceed with its draft of college players. This event, which most fans enjoy even more than free agency, is scheduled to begin four weeks from today.

Like free agency, the draft doesn’t require physical contact. Most of the physical contact that occurs during normal drafts — huge outdoor parties and top players coming together in an academy awards style setting to hear their names called — is just show business. For decades, the draft was held without these bells and whistles.

There are two essential pieces to the draft — scouting and selection. Scouting was nearly complete when the virus hit the U.S. The college football season was over by then, so teams have complete game tape on the players. Post-season all star games and the heavily scouted practices that proceed them had all occurred. So had the NFL combine, a get together of the players most likely to be drafted.

A few colleges had held their “pro days,” during which scouts come to campus to indulge in yet more scouting. Most had not, and their pro days were cancelled.

According to this report, NFL teams rely on pro days mainly to scout back-end-of-the-draft players — those who didn’t play in all star games or attend the combine. Thus, without pro days, the last few rounds of the draft would become a little more of a crap shoot than usual. However, teams still have game tape to consult.

In sum, teams have almost all the information they should need to draft players intelligently. Naturally, general managers would like a few scraps of information more. However, this is equally true throughout the league. No one gains an advantage from the fact that, say, only 95 percent of desired information is available.

As for the actual selection of players, this, I take it, involves rummaging through the scouting reports and film, creating a “draft board,” and conducting the draft itself. Front offices presumably have been working at this for weeks, if not months.

Their efforts require consultation and conferencing, and I understand that the NFL recently shut down team facilities, such that only a few people are now allowed in the building. However, consultation and conferencing can be done remotely. It doesn’t take the physical presence of many people to create or finalize a draft board.

When a draft takes place, teams usually assemble a large “war room.” Football fans have seen them on television. If I recall correctly, there may be as many as two dozen participants.

I suspect that many of them are surplus to requirements. In any event, a war room can be put together remotely. To the extent that a virtual room can’t make decisions as quickly as a real one can, the time teams are allowed to make selections can be enlarged.

Reportedly, NFL general managers are asking the league to push back the date for the draft. It’s natural that they want more time. College students typically would like a little more time to prepare for the big exam. Lawyers often wish they had a few more days to prepare for trial.

Wanting more time isn’t the same thing as needing more time. The NFL should hold its draft as scheduled.

NOTE: The National Hockey League has postponed its draft, which was scheduled for late June.

Unlike the NFL, the NHL hasn’t held its “combine.” Also, the “junior” seasons in which top hockey prospects compete was canceled before completion.

One team, the Boston Bruins, has temporarily laid off 68 full time employees. With the NHL season on hold and no revenue coming in, it’s not clear that all teams can afford to keep their player personnel and scouting departments operating at full steam until late June.

The National Football League doesn’t have that problem.