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Normally, Indianapolis would be buzzing right now with the NFL world descending upon the city for the annual combine where prospective draftees are quizzed, poked and prodded. With the pandemic, the interviews, tests, medical exams and on-field work for 330 soon-to-be NFL players will be done differently.
Medical examination has always been hailed as the most important part of the gathering, and last year, the NFL completed the combine in normal fashion before the country shut down for coronavirus. What will teams do this year to adapt?
Typically, 330 prospective NFL athletes would be invited to Indy to get examined by all 32 NFL teams’ complete medical staffs in the annual “meat market.” This year, each of the 30 member clubs has been assigned to do virtual exams for about 10 athletes. The telemedicine evaluation will involve a medical interview, obtaining and reviewing imaging studies like X-rays, MRIs, blood tests, EKGs and more. A virtual physical exam will then be conducted with findings forwarded to all the teams.
One big difference from previous years is that only one team medical staff will have indirect access to perform the virtual exam. Previously, every team had a chance to do its own hands-on evaluations.
These new procedures will also impact re-checks. In the past, players coming off surgery or with active medical issues would be invited back to Indianapolis six weeks later, in early April, to have a medical re-check. That number was usually about 50, and only the head team doctor and head athletic trainer attended.
This year, about 150 athletes will be invited during the “re-check” period. The 50 athletes with current medical issues requiring in-person exams plus the projected Day 1 and 2 draft picks. About 100 players projected to be drafted in the first three rounds will join the typical medical re-checks. This way, teams get at least some direct medical evaluation of the players expected to go in the first three rounds.
Another big difference, besides the limited number of players, is the limited number of team medical specialists. Spine, foot/ankle, hand, primary care, cardiac, radiology and other team specialists will not get a chance to do hands-on exams.
Most people assume all doctors give players the same medical grades, but that is not the case. Just as one GM may rate a player at the top of the draft, others may not agree. I have attended about 20 combines and have seen grades shared by some medical staff. They are not always the same.
This year, the draft advantage of an “accurate” medical evaluation is minimized.
One of the best compliments a GM ever gave me was that his peers accused him of repeatedly getting lucky taking chances on drafting injured players. He replied, “It’s not luck,” adding that he trusted our medical exams and would take draft risks based on our opinions.
The “Underwear Olympics” will not be much different on the field, as those workouts will be handled by regional and local pro days. However, the medical part of the process is now markedly different. How teams will adjust remains to be seen.