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Stephenson Explains Changes in Approach by Vikings Scouts

In a normal offseason, most teams' football-side employees would have converged in Indianapolis this week for the 2021 NFL Scouting Combine.

The league managed to squeak in last year's event right before the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically altered operations. And even though the league was able to play its entire season, including Super Bowl LV earlier this month, the decision was made to not hold the traditional combine this year. 

Rather than eyeballing more than 300 players running the same 40 yards of turf at Lucas Oil Stadium, Vikings Director of College Scouting Jamaal Stephenson joined #VikingsatHome to update VEN's Gabe Henderson on the different ways the department is having to operate this year.

The famed 40-yard dash is just part of the combine experience that includes less-promoted timing and testing drills, on-field skills displays, formal interviews with teams and medical examinations, which actually are the reason the combine was created in the first place.

View throwback photos of Vikings players from their performances at the NFL Scouting Combine over the years.

The medical component will still occur, and we're likely to hear more from Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman about it next week.

In the meantime, here's how Stephenson and the Vikings scouting department have been working to get to "a place now where we'd normally be" despite the absence or reduction of games last fall and doing without the in-person visits with players on campuses from coast to coast.

"It was completely different, and the main reason why is there was no in-person college visits. That's a big part of what we do in the fall," Stephenson said. "We get our list of schools that we need to go to and check out the prospects there. We talk to strength coaches, trainers, all of our sources that we need to interact with. We're [normally] able to do that on the campus and weren't able to do that this year.

"Thankfully with technology — Zooms and Microsoft Teams — basically we were able to get all of the information that we needed virtually, so it worked out well," Stephenson said. "We're at a place now where we'd normally be. We just didn't have the in-person visits this year."

The Vikings anticipated that some players would opt out of whatever became of 2020 seasons for teams and started film review last summer.

"[We] basically gave each scout a list of schools that they were responsible for, what we call 'A schools' or 'B schools,' so basically all of the guys we considered draftable players, we had 2019 film on those guys done in the summer," Stephenson said. "We weren't just sitting around waiting for the season to be played. We actually had our scouts working, so myself and Rick had a good idea of who we wanted to focus our energies on this summer before a game had been played in 2020."

While there may have been a little less legwork on prospects with regard to effort in the weight room or biographical backgrounds, the game tape is still "going to tell you a ton about the player anyway."

"I think there's just more ways to gather information now. This year was really different, an anomaly for sure. ... I wouldn't say a ton has changed as far as the actual draft process and what you need to do to feel comfortable with the guys you draft, but the technology has changed the game for sure, and analytics is a huge part, as well," Stephenson said.

The Vikings were quite comfortable with selecting Justin Jefferson when he was still on the board at No. 22 last season. Jefferson made good on that with a Vikings rookie record of 88 receptions and an NFL rookie record of 1,400 receiving yards.

"As good as we thought Justin Jefferson was, he still exceeded expectations with the phenomenal year he had, breaking the rookie receiving record," Stephenson said. "We all thought he was a really good player. That's why we took him, and were so excited that he fell to us, but he even exceeded our expectations."

Jefferson, Thielen & McCardell Roundtable

Thursday's episode of #VikingsatHome also included a breakdown of film by Vikings analyst Pete Bercich to explain what made Jefferson and Adam Thielen such a great tandem in 2020 and a roundtable discussion with the receivers and their new coach, Keenan McCardell.

McCardell was hired earlier this month after coaching in Jacksonville — one of the teams he shined for during his 17-season career as a player — and said he is excited about coaching the likes of Jefferson and Thielen.

"It means a lot to me because all I want to do is give back to the game and give back to these guys," McCardell said. "I was fortunate enough to be on a team (Tampa Bay) that went way into the playoffs and won a Super Bowl, and I was fortunate also to play with another partner on the other side of me (Jimmy Smith in Jacksonville), that we made up a pretty good duo like these two guys do.

"I want to show them how to continue to play together and don't let all the outside chatter of, 'He's the one, he's the one,' or 'he's the two, he's the two.' Stay together and continue to play together because they can have so much fun together," McCardell added. "I tell people this all of the time, me and Jimmy Smith had so much fun playing together. I already heard that Adam is one of the best trash talkers in the league that people don't know about. I like that because that's kind of how I was, and Jimmy never said anything. We always had fun every time we got out on the field, and we did not let the secondary get by on any of the Sundays. We made sure they respected us and respected our play. When they knew we were coming in the stadium, it wasn't about all of the trash talking. It was about their business, so I want those guys to have that type of respect around the league. They already have it, and I think they'll continue to have it."

View the best photos of Vikings rookie WR Justin Jefferson from the 2020 season.

Jefferson, 21, and Thielen, 30, explained they are excited to learn under McCardell.

"He has a lot of experience, a lot of information he can give me," Jefferson said. "I only have one year in the league, so one year versus 17, it's a lot of information he can give me and things he can show me to make my game better."

Added Thielen: "The fact that he's done it before, just the little intricacies of the game, how he can help me there, and then from a longevity standpoint with him playing 17 years, these young guys think that I'm old and deep in my career, but I'm only going on Year 8, so I've got a long way to go to catch up with Coach."

View the best photos of Vikings WR Adam Thielen from the 2020 season.

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