NFL Combine Football

LSU tight end Stephen Sullivan runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

This week, Las Vegas was supposed to be a convenient place for sports agent Cameron Weiss to call home.

The NFL draft was supposed to unfold there, starting Thursday. Boats were supposed to carry players across the Bellagio Hotel fountain, parading them to the stage. Weiss, who represents LSU tight end Stephen Sullivan, was supposed to host clients for the glitz and fanfare, easily commuting to the celebration on the Strip.

Those plans were swallowed up by a global pandemic, the spread of the deadly coronavirus, a sickness that has infected more than 605,000 people in the United States, killing more than 24,000.

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Instead, the NFL canceled the draft's enormous event and salvaged its purpose: Teams will still pick players virtually, adhering to federal, state and local social distancing measures.

NFL executives and coaches will make decisions based on limited evaluations.

Scheduled in-person interviews were cut short, replaced by video teleconferences. Official college pro days were canceled, and NFL franchises view the makeshift workouts that filled the void with widespread skepticism. The entire league has figuratively jumped through hoops while wearing handcuffs, attempting to ensure every prospect's draft grade is as accurate as possible.

"It's been interesting," said sports agent Marlon Moore, who represents LSU tackle Saahdiq Charles, emphasizing a simple word that so accurately describes a scenario that's been anything but simple.

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This week was supposed to be a platform for one of the most talented LSU draft classes in history, a championship-winning group that is expected to produce at least four first-round selections and the draft's No. 1 overall pick in quarterback Joe Burrow.

Burrow expressed his disappointment that LSU's April 3 pro day was canceled. An event-high 16 LSU players were invited to the NFL scouting combine in March, but five players, including All-American safety Grant Delpit, didn't participate and expected to showcase their skills in Baton Rouge.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said among LSU players, Delpit's draft stock was affected the most by its pro day cancellation. Once thought to be a surefire top 15 pick, Delpit is now a projected second-rounder because NFL teams still have unanswered questions about Delpit's nagging ankle injury, which hindered his performance in 2019.

And beyond LSU's stars, there was a long list of lesser-known Tigers who were hoping to show NFL scouts what they could do.

"I feel for those guys, man," Sullivan said.

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Several Louisiana prospects participated in a makeshift pro day at Parkview Baptist on April 8, organized in part by former LSU safety Ryan Clark, a local partner with Traction Sports Performance.

Moore, who attended the event, said they hired an independent, ex-NFL scout Doug Plummer, to record results and help legitimize the workout.

Because no more than 10 people could be on the field at once, players waited in their cars until it was their turn.

"We had to find some way to get some work in," Charles said.

Some uncanny 40-yard-dash times emerged from the workout, met with public scrutiny when the results were posted on social media. Delpit reportedly ran his in 4.39 seconds, and wide receiver Derrick Dillon was clocked at 4.28 — a blazing time that would have tied for second in the entire NFL combine.

"There is definitely an amount of skepticism associated with some of those (makeshift pro days)," Weiss said. "Let's put it this way: There were a lot of 4.3s and 4.4s this year proportionally to other years that you've got official scouts on hand."

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But that's the conundrum. No one can be on hand. Nearly every state has some sort of stay-at-home order. This has eliminated what Weiss said NFL coaches have wanted the most during this pandemic: the opportunity to visit in-person with a prospect they've only seen on film, to get a feel for the personality and mentality of someone who will impact their locker room.

This doesn't exactly mean it's a disadvantage, said Chafie Fields, who represents former LSU cornerback Kristian Fulton. Fields believes the lack of in-person visits means players only miss out on the opportunity to improve a team's opinion of them. A fringe first-rounder like Fulton loses out on what could be a potential gain — but so does every player.

"He would only be missing out if everybody else was in a different situation," Fields said. "But this situation doesn't just affect Kristian Fulton. It affects everybody else in this draft."

A rare few in-person visits still happened, just before the NFL shut down all pre-draft visits March 13, only because those players were lucky enough to have already been scheduled.

Charles said he met with the Philadelphia Eagles on March 12. As he toured the facility and met with staff members, he noticed everybody was clearing out their offices. The visit was altered, cut short, and Charles flew out of Philadelphia the next day.

"For the most part, I did everything," Charles said. "It was a really good experience. Fortunately the draft is still going on, and that's the only thing that matters."

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Charles is trending toward a second- or third-round selection, according to draft projections. He's a 6-foot-4, 321-pound tackle who might have been slotted higher were it not for a three-game suspension in 2018, plus a six-game suspension in 2019.

Among other questions, those missed games leave a wide gap of film, and Charles may have been able to remedy what was missing during pro day and his in-person visits.

Instead, Charles is left with video conference visits, trying to connect with prospective coaches as personally as he can.

Former inside linebacker Jacob Phillips had a number of scheduled visits canceled, his agent Drew Rosenhaus said, including one with the Baltimore Ravens.

However, Phillips was a two-year starter on a team that won a Fiesta Bowl in 2018 and a national championship in 2019. He, like most of LSU's draft-eligible players, have more film available and have been spotlit more brightly than nearly every other team.

"These teams scout LSU so closely and so vociferously that they have the book on all these guys," Rosenhaus said. "It's not like a small school. So believe me when I tell you, man, they've done a lot of homework on the players that we're talking about at LSU. In this circumstance, it's a big advantage to play for LSU."

Still, that advantage may only go so far for players with limited film.

Sullivan, a 6-5, 248-pounder with a late-round draft grade, switched from wide receiver to tight end frequently in his collegiate career, and he caught 12 passes for 130 yards in 2019.

Sullivan did benefit from extra exposure in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, in January, and he was expecting to expand on potential unknowns during in-person interviews.

He said he participated in video calls with the New York Jets and New England Patriots, and he's had phone calls with the Seattle Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts.

He was scheduled to fly out and visit with the Colts before LSU's pro day. That was canceled, along with his private workout session with the Miami Dolphins and a mini-pro day with the New Orleans Saints.

Sullivan was training in Carlsbad, California, when the sports shutdowns began. One morning, he walked across the street from his hotel for a workout at a training facility run by EXOS. He walked into an empty room.

The workout was canceled.

Sullivan called his agent, who flew him back to Baton Rouge. He expected he'd get to work out at LSU's football facility, but once the university shut down completely, he was left to run the levee along the Mississippi River, do footwork drills in sand pits and work with dumbbells at his apartment.

Sometimes he sees Charles and former LSU center Lloyd Cushenberry also running the levee.

Luckily, a family friend connected Sullivan to a local training facility, and he works out there three times per week, posting videos on Instagram to show NFL scouts he isn't being lazy.

The pandemic surrounds him. He doesn't leave the apartment unless he's going to work out or buy groceries at a store, where he'll stand in line with everyone else, wearing a protective mask.

"The last thing I need right now is to get a virus," Sullivan said. "I don't even want to think about me getting that."

Which brings up another key issue: NFL coaches have been scrounging for medical information on players they didn't get to check out at the scouting combine.

Weiss said "it really has been an initiative and priority" for him to get all his clients to send his office all their medical information electronically. He predicts it will be some of the most influential data NFL teams will be using on draft day.

Moore also represents Louisiana Tech cornerback Amik Robertson, a second-team All-American who got cleared of his sports hernia at the scouting combine — but teams still wanted to do a medical re-check on Robertson's hip flexor issue, which kept him from doing any combine drills.

For now, Moore said, teams are asking him to send videos of Robertson running the drills he would have done in Indianapolis.

"That'll suffice right now for the medical re-checks," Moore said.

As for the days ahead, Charles and Sullivan are among the hundreds of draft-eligible players who are even more uncertain about their future than they'd normally be.

Charles knows one thing: He'll travel back to Jackson, Mississippi, to experience the draft with his family.

Sullivan hasn't yet decided where he'll watch the draft. Of course, he's uncertain just who might pick him. But he also has no idea what would come next. Normally, players fly out and visit the franchise, shake hands with coaches and introduce themselves to staff members.

"I'm curious on what I have to do the next day," Sullivan said. "You know? What do I even do?"

Weiss expects most things will remain virtual until the stay-at-home orders are lifted. There are still many unknowns beyond an NFL draft that people once questioned whether it would happen at all.

You might say it's a first time for everyone. For most people, that would be a cliché figure of speech. But to Moore, a 1989 Lee High graduate and former Southern player, this is actually his first year in the business.

A heck of a time, he admitted, to dive in.

"It has to be easier next year," Moore said.

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Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.