NFLPA director DeMaurice Smith: Flexibility, innovation needed as NFL prepares for draft, offseason amid COVID-19 pandemic

As the NFL, its teams and future players gear up for a draft that will unfold in an unprecedented manner, the unknown looms large. But NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith has confidence the league and its teams will wind up pulling off the draft in an efficient manner. 

Flexibility and innovation are key, Smith stressed, both for a successful draft process and for the league as a whole as decision-makers continue to navigate a modified offseason and still face uncertainty regarding the starts of training camps and the regular season.

The absence of pre-draft visits and follow-up physicals because of travel restrictions implemented in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic have left teams with less information on players than they’re accustomed to. Those restrictions have sparked concern and speculation that teams will be less inclined to draft players with prior medical histories, and some within the league have worried that limited information has made it harder to evaluate lesser-known players who will be selected in the middle-to-late rounds. 

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But pointing to the resourcefulness with which he has seen teams operate in the past, Smith said he believes NFL talent evaluators have found a way to gather as much information as possible and that they will still manage to carry out successful drafts this weekend. 

“We clearly are not operating in a setup that resembles last year or the last 10 years, and clearly that has meant teams haven’t seen players work out as much as they have in previous history, and there is medical information that teams do not have that they normally would have in these types of situations,” Smith said on a conference call Wednesday afternoon with a handful of reporters. “But what do they have, though? They have access to prior physicals the players have had done, they’ve got access to physicals that may have been done for those players in college.

"I think we have to embrace a reality that, going forward, at least in the short term, things are going to be different, and teams are going to have less information and not as much information as they have in the past. How will that impact players? I don’t know. But I do know that teams will still have a desire for the best athletes in the world to be a part of their team. Coaches, in my short time in this business, have demonstrated an amazing ability of resolve and adaptation to get information that they think is important and I don’t doubt that that will continue.”

Once the draft concludes, teams will continue with their virtual offseason programs while NFL facilities remain closed. The next big event on the NFL calendar is the release of the regular season schedule, which is expected to take place around May 9.

The NFL faced criticism earlier this offseason when executive vice president and general counsel Jeffrey Pash said that league officials are devoting all of their energies to starting the season on time.

Since then, both the league and players union have begun discussing contingency plans, with both the NFL and NFLPA having formed task forces focused on gathering information about COVID-19 and how it is impacting the country, and how it might do so

Smith and NFLPA medical director Dr. Thom Mayer both refused to go into detail of the discussions because they said it’s too early to know how the NFL and country as a whole will be impacted by the virus months from now.

“Everything is being considered, but nothing has been decided,” Mayer said. “The science is going to guide us. We’ll go anywhere the science takes us but nowhere the science doesn’t take us. … Innovation is critical. We’re going to look at everything as long as it keeps the patient player — all 2,500 and their families — safe.” 

Said Smith, “With respect to training camp, I don’t know. And I think that it is good at times for leaders in difficult situations to say, ‘We don’t know.’ What I do know is football evolves. … This is a game that has evolved over decades, and I’m happy to say that it continues to evolve in relatively short order. We came up with ways for teams to connect with players, we’ve utilized the technology teams didn’t have 10 years ago to better connect with players. …Training camp is different than it was 10 years ago, the workouts are different. It’s healthy for us to think that in the same way workouts changed, we might be in a scenario where the time limit is different, the way in which we go about the business is different, but all of that has to be done in the context of what we think is in the best interest of the health and safety of our players and the health and safety of our community.”

Smith sees no problem with the NFL proceeding business as usual with the release of the regular season schedule. Everyone is operating with the understanding that flexibility may be required in July and August if the country remains under heavy quarantine restrictions. 

“If a schedule is released and we expect and shoot for those dates, I don’t draw a tremendous amount of pause as long as we understand that built into that is what we're hoping for,” Smith said before later expounding, “There are a lot of benchmarks that every medical professional would hope to see, and there are certainly a lot of questions we hope to have answers to. … We want to be in a position to make sure that we are not doing anything for the sake of football that would unnecessarily endanger our greater community and so, having the schedule, I think is fine. I just think frankly that (everyone is) focused on what is the good, right, safe thing to do.” 

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.

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