In the past, there always was a danger of a team's performance in a particular NFL Draft being negatively impacted by TMI that led to paralysis by analysis. But this particular go-round, the decision-makers actually are faced with the opposite situation.
The NFL Draft will begin in around 72 hours, which means General Manager Kevin Colbert and Coach Mike Tomlin typically would have logged thousands of air miles crisscrossing the country attending Pro Days and supplemented that with a lot of hours hosting/grilling/entertaining the 30-odd prospects who would've been at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex during the pre-draft visit period.
But there is and has been nothing typical about a pre-draft process conducted in the midst of a global pandemic, and rather than too much information, there actually are some information gaps.
"It will be a little bit different," said Colbert about this year's process, "because our totals indicate we have 74 players for whom we will not have a 40-yard dash times. We have 76 players who will have incomplete physicals because they were not able to go back for the makeup physicals that would (normally) happen coming out of the Combine if they still had some injuries healing. Coach Tomlin and I have interviewed 125 players, either at the Senior Bowl, at the Combine, or through FaceTime calls, which I think we ended up doing about 37 of those over the last three weeks.
"We still think the depth of this draft is good. We think we're going to get all six of our players from (a group of) 140. We're going to get some who will start, some who will compete to start, some who will back up, and some who will compete with our backups."
Shortly after completing this annual pre-draft media session, Colbert and Tomlin participated in what could be called a draft walk-through with the NFL, during which a bunch of the unique logistical issues were to be introduced and gone over, and if necessary, any potential bugs worked out. All of that was done on a league-wide basis, but Colbert explained how the Steelers have made preparations for all of this on an in-house basis, with one of the significant takeaways being that this year NFL teams' IT departments can be as important as their football operations departments.
"(Steelers Vice President of Technology) Scott Phelps and his group have done a lot to help us be able to manage this," said Colbert. "Coach Tomlin and myself and Art Rooney II and Omar Khan will be visible to each other, because Omar will be involved. Basically what we have available to us is the same as if we were sitting in a room together, all the coaches and scouts will have access to every conversation going on via different lines. Coach and myself and Art and Omar will get into trade talks, and we can share a conversation as if we are sitting (together). So we have it set up internally. We each have a draft room set up in our homes, and we'll work from that."
What Tomlin has been working from more than in past years during draft preparation is watching video of prospects participating in games during their college seasons. Instead of having to self-edit because of time constraints, instead of being exposed to little more than highlights videos on certain prospects, Tomlin said he has been watching a lot of video. And on those occasions when he otherwise might have been finished, or forced by time to move onto a different task, he has been sitting down and watching more video.
"You know, I don't know that I have more exposure to more players," said Tomlin. "I think I have just watched more tape on the same number of players than I usually watch. Because we're quarantined and so forth, I've had opportunities to come back and take a look at another game or two on a guy we're discussing. You know, the video is just at our fingertips, and the isolation just provided a lot of opportunities to take a deeper dive, and so there's additional comfort from that perspective."
Another change for the Steelers comes from the increased availability of Colbert and Tomlin. Because there has been no time spent on airplanes and no time spent watching players go through drills at their school's Pro Day, as Colbert explained it, "We're on every call and (a part of) every meeting more so than we've been in the past with the lower-round guys, and personally I feel better knowing more about the later picks and the free agent types than I did. And of course we all feel comfortable with what we know about the higher-rated guys."
As Colbert had explained, there is a decent-sized group of players who will enter this draft with incomplete resumes, whether the missing information is a 40-time or a past injury or additional details on a previous medical procedure.
"Look, all teams are in the same boat," said Colbert. "None of us have that information because players didn't have Pro Days so we couldn't get (all of the) 40-times. Nobody got the extra information of the re-checks on the physicals because the physicals had to be postponed. Although we're relying on what we see on film as to what we think a player can run, we do more background and talk to the strength coaches.
"There have been several videos sent out by agents throughout the spring, and we assigned our scouts to watch those videos, but you're not going to time anybody off a video because you don't know what the surface is; what the wind is; how much the player weighs. But what we do say, if we think a player is a 4.5 (in the 40) and we watched (game) video and it looks like he's running 4.65, make that note. If he's supposed to be a 4.5, and it looks like he's running 4.4, make that note. (Head Athletic Trainer) John Norwig and our team doctors, Dr. Jim Bradley and Dr. Tony Yates, they have been awesome in following up with phone calls and verifying as much medical information as they can by talking to the player, talking to the doctor who did the surgeries, by talking to trainers, just making decisions as best we can with the information we've got. As we said from the beginning of this whole process, we are no different than the other 31 teams, so we've just got to make the most of it."
Over the three days of this draft, they'll be making their six picks – one in Round 2, one in Round 3, two in Round 4, one in Round 6, and one in Round 7 – and Tomlin emphasized that is simply the start, not the end.
"The Draft is just the beginning of the process," said Tomlin. "How we develop these men, not only as players, but into our team and this community is something we take personal pride in and work very hard at … But that's a few days away. We have to draft them and acquire them first, and I'm comfortable with the direction we are headed in terms of that."