FCS Stars On Uneven Footing With NFL Draft Quickly Approaching

Despite the havoc the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has wreaked on spring football, the NFL Draft will go on as planned next month. 

The NFL’s decision to hold a remote draft, scrapping initial plans for an extravaganza in Las Vegas, carries potentially heavy implications for prospects affected by COVID-19 spring practice closures. 

The shutting down of sporting events across the nation included a number of scheduled pro days. In the Colonial Athletic Association, Villanova completed its pro day on March 6, a little less than a week before stoppages began. 

For the rest of the Colonial, losing the chance to show out for NFL scouts in an intimate environment dramatically changes preparation for the pros. 

The world is in largely unprecedented territory, and this situation has thrown draft dreamers into improvising on the fly – with roughly six weeks to do so. 

“I haven’t really been able to think much about the next steps,” said Richmond defensive end Maurice Jackson the week before the Spiders were scheduled for their pro day. “I hope I still do get an opportunity at some point. At this point I’m just trying to stay ready just in case something changes.”

There’s certainly no shortage of game film on a player like Jackson, a two-time All-CAA selection who flourished at defensive end after moving from linebacker. 

Like Jackson, James Madison’s Ron’Dell Carter has plenty of game tape – and it’s highly impressive. The 2019 CAA Defensive Player of the Year and Buck Buchanan Award finalist was one of the nation’s most dominant forces on a historically stingy defense. 

But even for a player like Carter, coming off a season highlighted with hardware, the up-close opportunities of a pro day are invaluable. 

Pro day fills the void of missing out on the NFL draft combine. Only three representatives of the CAA were chosen for this year’s edition, all from Rhode Island: Isaiah Coulter, Aaron Parker and Kyle Murphy. 

The drills and physical measurables displayed on pro day or at the combine can determine positioning. With Parker, for example, his impressive combine performance drew favorable comparisons to D.K. Metcalf

Metcalf shot up draft boards a season ago, climbing from mid-round projection to the second round. 

In that same vein, these events are the difference in what Towson coach Rob Ambrose called “gray-area” players going undrafted or being called in later rounds. One example is former Tigers quarterback Tom Flacco. 

“Tom was in that gray area: He’s a mobile, athletic quarterback the model seems to be turning toward, and he’s versatile enough to play other positions,” Ambrose said. “And he has the brain to do it. For a gray-area guy, pro day is important for the draft.”

Towson has other prospects in this draft class, like wide receiver Shane Leatherbury and linebacker Robert Brown, who fall into a similar category. 

The lost opportunity forces some creativity, almost like a throwback to the recruiting process out of high school. Take former Richmond wide receiver Dejon Brissett, who battled injuries last season after transferring to Virginia. 

Brissett tweeted out the below package that showcased some of his work in practice. 

James Madison players recently detailed their adjusted approaches, as well: 

And the NFL itself will have to adjust – no matter how reticent the league is collectively in that regard.  

“That game’s worth so much money, and the scouting evaluation of the talent is one of the things they spend the most amount of money,” said Ambrose. “The NFL, it’s a stubborn old beast and they don’t like to change much.”

Of course, a global pandemic is much different than the spread offense. Thus, the NFL has no choice but to change. How it does so is the question that could shape the draft forecasts of a number of CAA prospects, and what that looks like will be fascinating. 

Virtual pro days? Teams individually bringing in prospects for workouts and having a paring down process, not unlike a mini-training camp? 

There are so many variables at play, but only one way to handle them, as Jackson addressed: “It’s very random, but I’m still trying to keep the draft and football in the front of my mind,” he said. 

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