By Michael Burgess II
The Crimson Tide was beating its conference rival, the Mississippi State Bulldogs, 35-7 with 3:10 left in the second quarter at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field.
Alabama star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa motioned the running back to his right and clapped his hands. The center snapped the ball and the Bulldogs sent a blitz, rushing Tagovailoa with two extra players, forcing him to throw the ball out of bounds. As Tagovailoa threw the ball, two Bulldogs tackled him, landing on top of him. Next, Tagovailoa was seen on his hands and knees, in pain, with his helmet lying on its side a few yards away. Tagovailoa was carted off the field under the gaze of his teammates, his opponents and the over 57,000 in attendance, and would not return to the game, which Alabama won, 38-7.
He was diagnosed with a dislocated hip and a posterior wall fracture, injuries more associated with car crashes than regular football action. Injuries that required surgery. Injuries that ended his season and his career as an Alabama quarterback. Due to the severity of his injuries, Tagovailoa was unable to participate in the 2020 NFL Combine, which was held from Feb. 27 to March 1, but he was planning to be back to full strength for his own pro day, which was planned for April 9.
However, on March 12, the NFL cancelled Alabama’s pro day, along with all other remaining pro days nationwide, in the wake of COVID-19. This stripped Tagovailoa of his chance to prove his toughness and skill to NFL teams and created a lot of speculation about his potential draft position in this year’s NFL Draft, set for April 23-25. The NFL decided not to cancel or even push back the draft, choosing instead to go virtual. While some outlets have the Alabama quarterback going as early as third overall, other outlets have Tagovailoa sliding all the way to ninth, which may not seem like a big difference, but the third overall pick in last year’s draft signed a rookie contract projected to be worth almost $13 million more than the ninth overall pick.
Advertised as an attempted return to normalcy, the decision to not postpone the NFL Draft could have a negative impact on athletes who were injured or didn’t receive an invite to the combine and were planning on showcasing their skills at their school’s pro day. It also creates additional stresses for teams who want to do a complete evaluation of an athlete’s capabilities.
D. Orlando Ledbetter, an Atlanta Falcons beat writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said that there will not be any “diamonds in the rough” this year as some players will fall through the cracks and teams are unable to get updated medical profiles, causing more athletes to be missed this year than in years past.
However, Ledbetter noted that “scouts have already been scouting these athletes for two years.” Having done “90% of their work,” most teams already have a general idea of whom they want to draft and where.
First-Ever HBCU Combine Was to Showcase Smaller Schools
While that may be true, what about the athletes who weren’t being scouted by NFL teams? The MEAC, SWAC, CIAA and SIAC, all athletic conferences that contain historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), along with Hampton (who moved to the Big South in 2018) and Tennessee State (a member of the Ohio Valley Conference since 1986) were planning to answer that question with the inaugural HBCU Combine, which was to be March 27-28. The event was billed as a chance for athletes to sit down and talk with scouts and executives from different NFL teams and work out in front of them–a chance not often afforded to players from smaller schools.
However, on that fateful March 12 that Tagovailoa’s pro day was cancelled, the HBCU Combine was also cancelled, forcing 51 HBCU football athletes to find alternate ways to showcase their talents. Kyle Anthony, a senior wide receiver at Howard University, was one of the athletes invited to the HBCU Combine. He said the purpose of the combine was to “provide HBCU athletes with an opportunity to showcase their talents and hard work on a national platform. This would in turn increase their exposure and further the opportunities for other HBCU athletes down the line.” When asked about the next steps following the combine’s cancellation, Anthony said that his trainer introduced the idea of a virtual pro day.
Pro days essentially are job fairs to NFL prospects. The event is intended to generate better performances from athletes by having them work out with or among familiar faces in a familiar environment, typically on their school’s campus. The virtual pro day is an attempt to replicate this experience by recording an athlete completing typical pro day workouts with their trainer, then sending the video off to NFL front offices.
Most Who Get Drafted Took Part in NFL Combine, Study Finds
Pro days have gifted the NFL with some of its greatest gems, like three-time champion and Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman, and Tyreek Hill, a wide receiver from Division II West Alabama who ranked fourth in the NFL in receiving yards in 2018. Neither of them attended the NFL Combine. However, they had in-person pro days, and still, their experience is not the usual outcome.
According to a study done by Alex Kozora of Steelers Depot, over 80% of athletes drafted to the NFL from 2007 to 2015 participated in the NFL Combine, and that does not include the combine invitees who could not participate due to injury. During that time period, only 27 athletes, or less than 1.2%, attended HBCUs and all of them attended either a pro day or the NFL Combine. By comparison, Alabama had 27 athletes drafted from 2007 to 2012.
At the start of the 2019-2020 NFL regular season, there were only 32 former HBCU athletes on NFL rosters, out of more than 1,600 players.
With the NFL not postponing the draft and universities closed except for online learning, it puts the responsibility for the pro day on the athletes instead of their schools. Not all athletes have the resources to create the virtual pro days that have now become the primary way for lesser-known players to put their names on the draft boards of NFL teams. Stories like that of University of Central Florida’s Brendin Hayes, who drove 10 hours to reunite with his trainer to film his pro day, may seem out of the ordinary. But in this current NFL draft situation, they are becoming more common.
The NFL decision to proceed with the draft on its original date despite the Coronavirus pandemic forces athletes from smaller schools to jump through more hoops to put their skills in front of NFL front offices, and may lead NFL teams to make incomplete analysis of those athletes. Now all the athletes can do is hope they did enough to hear their name called at this weekend’s NFL Draft.