The 2020 NFL Draft will be like none before it. When commissioner Roger Goodell announces the Cincinnati Bengals are on the clock Thursday night, he will do so from his basement in New York and not, as was planned, in front of thousands of fans in Las Vegas. Later in the night, when Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst makes his first selection, he’ll do it from his home and not from inside Lambeau Field. Both situations are the result of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic forcing the NFL into its first ever fully virtual draft.
“For me personally, not being in our draft room with our guys together is just disappointing,” Gutekunst told reporters Monday afternoon. “I think we work really well together. It’s an exciting time. There’s a lot of juice. Not having those guys around, it won’t be the same. But at the same time, I think we’re very well prepared to attack this thing and accomplish what we need to accomplish.”
What comes with drafting from home — outside of kids running around and perhaps trying to give their opinion on who a team should take — are challenges, especially of the communication variety. Gutekunst wouldn’t describe the exact method of how he plans to speak with his staff — be it by phone or video conference or something else — but he doesn’t believe they’ll be caught off guard.
“I feel good about having not only the main way we’re going to talk to our guys, but then also some backup plans as well in case anything were to go awry,” Gutekunst said.
Gutekunst, who will be overseeing his third draft since taking over for Ted Thompson in 2018, admitted there is one scenario that has him a little concerned.
“I think one thing, as we’ve gone through this, once (the clock) starts to get to a certain time, you just worry if all of a sudden there’s going to be some kind of communication breakdown that might get in the way,” Gutekunst said. “I think the league is going to give you a little leeway if you’re in the middle of a trade or something like that the way they described it. Again, I’ve got a lot of experienced guys on staff, so I feel pretty good that we’re going to be OK to operate pretty close to normal.”
If it were a truly normal year, Gutekunst would be at the head of a table in the draft room with his staff right in front of him. He could talk to them as a group or individually and there has always been a lot of non-verbal communication. That last part is something very valuable when it comes to doing trades, a significant part of Gutekunst’s first two drafts. This time around will be different.
“I’ll just hear their voices. I won’t be able to see their facial expressions,” Gutekunst said. “For me sometimes, just hearing their phones ringing and them picking it up, knowing that, hey, there’s something there, it’s helpful. Not really being able to see that is really the only difference. I’ll have to wait for them to say, ‘Hey, by the way, we got this out there, we got this out there,’ instead of just being able to see the phone ring, see them pick it up and knowing something is going on on the other end of the line. So, from an instinctual way that I’ve worked in the past, that’ll be a difference. But other than that, I’ll still be in constant communication with those guys.”
In each of his first two drafts at the head of the table Gutekunst has made moves in the first round. He traded back in 2018 with the New Orleans Saints to acquire another first-round pick in 2019, but still managed to move back into position to grab cornerback Jaire Alexander with the 18th overall selection. Then he used that extra pick from the Saints in 2019 (No. 30 overall) to move up in the first round to select safety Darnell Savage with the 21st pick. Both were immediate contributors as rookies and figure to play important roles for years to come. So, with the 30th overall pick and nine other selections in this draft to work with, could Gutekunst be on the move again?
“Really, obviously, it always comes down to the player and what kind of player is required as far as whether we’re going to try to make a move to go up, Gutekunst said. “But I’d like to move around. I think it’s a very good draft and I’d like to move around if we can get to the areas that I think are strong. But, again, it takes two.
“I do like picking towards the back of the draft than up front there. Obviously, that means we had a pretty good team last year, but at the same time, that’s a long wait to see a lot of really good players come off the board. We’ll be prepared to move up if we need to be and we’ll be prepared to move back if that’s what’s best for us.”
Because this is the first time the league is doing the event fully virtual, they held a mock draft on Monday with all 32 teams. Outside of an initial issue with the first pick, most felt good about how the rest of it played out, including Gutekunst.
“I thought it went pretty smooth. I think a lot of it was just getting comfortable in how I was going to communicate not only with the league and other teams but also just with the guys,” Gutekunst said. “I think we got a lot of answers. That was the big thing. Kind of get through this and find out the answers of exactly how we want to do this.”
The league is also allowing each general manager to have one security employee and one information technology employee on-site at their homes in case something goes wrong, while also allowing teams to designate two other people that could make the pick if the general manager can’t.
“If something were to go down here, and I couldn’t get the pick in one way or the other, I would be able to contact whoever outside of here and they could put the pick in,” Gutekunst said. “It’s really procedural more than anything else.”
It’s not just how they’ll make the pick that’s different about this year’s draft. The lead up to it has been far from normal. NFL teams got to scout players during the college season last fall, in the all-star games in January and then at the NFL combine in late February and early March. But soon after that, the world, or at a minimum the sports world, came to a screeching halt due to the pandemic.
While the NBA and NHL suspended its season, the NCAA shut down March Madness and MLB postponed the start of its season, the in-person scouting process also was nixed. Gone were a majority of pro days at colleges, coach visits to work out players and player visits to various cities to workout for teams. Instead, Gutekunst and everyone else had to use FaceTime, Zoom and other means of technology to learn more about guys they plan to gamble on picking.
“I think we had to be more creative in how we acquired that information this time around,” Gutekunst said. “A lot of the opportunities to meet face-to-face with players with our scouts at pro days and then also the players we’re able to bring into Green Bay (didn’t happen) … We had to be creative in how we went about that. I think there were a number of ways that our guys did that. I’m excited with the efforts they put in to do that.”