The challenge of no Combine

In 2020, just weeks before the country shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the football world gathered in Indianapolis for the annual NFL Combine.

It's always served as the ultimate job interview for college players, an opportunity for around 300 of them to show off their football skills against the other top players in the game. It's also an opportunity for them to meet face-to-face with NFL owners, general managers and coaches, a get to know you type of meeting that can have an impact on their NFL Draft status.

But in 2021, the NFL Combine fell victim to the pandemic, cancelled as the league continued to put safety at the forefront.

"Not having the combine this year it's not a good thing, that is for sure," said Steelers President Art Rooney II during a call with Steelers Nation Unite members. "We're doing our best to gather the information we normally get on players. It's going to be a little scary this year going into this draft. We won't have the same kind of information we normally have on players. That will probably affect the later rounds more than the earlier rounds because those players are sometimes the ones you don't have as much information on. It's going to be little bit scary going into this draft not having the usual amount of information and not having the contact with the players.

"Our coaches and scouts are out there doing the best they can, but it's definitely very different this year. Hopefully we'll get back to having the combine next year as usual."

The NFL still invited the players who would have attended the combine if it were to have been held, but without it, information that is normally at the fingertips of scouting departments isn't.

"A lot of things you know about players this year you do not know," said ESPN's draft guru Mel Kiper this offseason. "Even accurate measureables. Running 40s on the same surface, that's not going to happen. Medical. Interviews. All the things that would have been done by now are still in the process of getting done. Optouts complicate matters even more.

"Trying to match 40s, compare and contrast, you never had to do that before. Pro days are always a little bit different. There is no combine. It's going to be tricky to try and see if there are reliable 40s, apple to apples situations. That probably won't be the case this year."

For college players who have always had a dream about taking part in the combine, it was a disappointment. Yes, they understood why it happened, but it still stung, as many of them shared in zoom press conferences held by their colleges as a part of their pro day.

"I got the invitation to go to the NFL Combine," said D.J. Daniel, a cornerback from the University of Georgia. "It being cancelled due to COVID, it was one of the biggest dreams I wanted to do. Just competing and doing everything at the combine. Being here made it like a slight little combine. But it would have been a different experience if I was there."

Without the combine, college pro days have taken on even more meaning than ever. While it was a follow-up to the combine for many in the past, in 2021 it became the only avenue for NFL coaches and scouts to see the players take part in combine-like drills.

"It was a dream of mine since I was a little kid to go the combine," said Kansas State tight end Briley Moore. "So, once I had seen a couple on Twitter got the combine invite, I checked my phone, and it wasn't like I had gotten it yet. Checked my spam on one of my old email addresses and it was in there. So, my uncle, his wife, and my fiancée were all out in the living room, and I started screaming. Then I told them I got it. So, that was just absolutely amazing. That was really a dream come true to receive that.

"So, obviously it's not fun not being able to be there and get that experience. But at the end of the day, it's what made today so important, and I believe, like I said, I was able to put up numbers that I can go to sleep comfortably with tonight. Can't affect it. It's not something I could have changed or 300 or so players could have changed. So, it is what it is."

In 2020 the pro days were the ones that fell victim to the pandemic in many cases, but this year coaches and scouts have been able to attend, although the communication with the players has been virtual. It's a step for the players, but nothing will replace the combine experience.

"That is something all of us college football players look forward to," said running back Rhomondre Stevenson from Oklahoma of the combine. "We were watching it since we were little. It was kind of a bummer not being able to do it. I think I had the upper hand going to the Senior Bowl. I had a second chance to do it here at my pro day."