The most interesting part of this draft, to personnel people, is what will happen when round seven is over. Every year, after the seventh round, scouts and coaches from the 32 NFL teams spend about the next two hours bartering with agents of undrafted players and with the undrafted player, trying to buy them cheap (2019 Pro Bowl running back Austin Ekeler cost $500 to sign as a UDFA in 2018) and do it while competing with 31 other buyers. But usually everyone’s in the same room doing it, or in rooms very close to the draft room so they can report when they land a player—or lose one. By the time the night’s over, more than 500 players will have NFL teams. Think of it: Almost double the number of players will get signed in two hours than get drafted over three long days.
This year? Scouts and coaches on cell-phone and video-conference chats, tethered to the main office by another video-conference feed, mentally sprinting to keep track of players who fly off the board.
“Chaos,” said Rams southeast scout Michael Pierce. “Controlled chaos when you’re in one building together. But this year, set apart, it could be crazier.”
“You hit the real story behind the draft,” Chiefs GM Brett Veach said last week. “The biggest challenge for most staff this year will not be in the draft, but [in undrafted] free agency . . . It’ll certainly be a story for years to come for all draft rooms, how it all went down.”
To see how a team will handle the UDFA planning and madness, look at the Rams. Most Rams scouts are given a college position group to follow each fall, and that scout is paired with the Rams position coach to work the group together. Pierce and Rams running backs coach Thomas Brown take the backs, and they begin to work on a condensed version of the prospect list for backs after the season. Once the draft is winding down, in the sixth and seventh rounds, Pierce and Brown will start calling agents for the best backs on their list who they believe won’t get drafted and try to sell them on signing with the Rams. Maybe there will be four or five prime candidates, and Pierce and Brown will call the players and the agents to give them the recruiting pitch. “As a scout,” said Pierce, “that pursuit is really one of the fun parts of the game.” This year, the Rams, with only one sure-thing back (2019 third-rounder Darrell Henderson) on the roster, could need one of the Pierce/Brown products to make their roster.
Rams GM Les Snead admitted it will be impossible to have the same supervisory capability with scouts and coaches in different places—in this case Pierce in Daphne, Ala., and Brown in Los Angeles, connected by video conference. Said Snead: “You give them ownership to make the call and close the sale.”
“Because of the separation of scouts and teams,” said former NFL GM Scott Pioli, “there’s probably going to be some balls dropped unintentionally this year. The process will naturally take longer.” Pioli says he think the Panthers could have an edge in the UDFA market. “It’s be interesting to see how many players [new Carolina coach and ex-Baylor boss] Matt Rhule gets who he knows . . . because he and the Baylor guys on his staff have recruited some of these guys out of high school. He’ll know some of the moms, I bet. And this very often is a recruiting game.”