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Eric Sugarman didn't have time to relax in the hours leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft.

The Vikings Vice President of Sports Medicine and Head Athletic Trainer was busy trying to update final medical information on certain prospects as late as 5 p.m. (CT) on the evening of April 29, just two hours before the first round began.

And it wasn't just Day 3 prospects that needed more data. Due to the unusual process that NFL teams endured this offseason in regards to gathering medical information, Sugarman said there were more than a few opening-night prospects in flux as Minnesota's staff worked from the Thomson Reuters Vikings Draft Room at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.

"They were all over the board … the guys that we're talking about. Anywhere you point," Sugarman said. "But we have a very effective system since we do the medical portion of the draft in collaboration with [Vikings General Manager] Rick [Spielman] and our team physicians. We're all very comfortable with how that works.

"I just shared the information as it came. If it affected the guy's status on the draft board, we made that change," Sugarman continued. "Without getting into the specifics, there were guys that were affected by last-minute information … some favorable, and some not favorable.

"Maybe you got an MRI on a guy on Thursday that you liked but you weren't willing to draft until you saw that MRI? Maybe it helped upgrade a player and vice-versa?" Sugarman added. "There were a couple guys where we were waiting on some cardiac MRIs that we got at the last minute, so it might have affected their status or it stayed the same."

Spielman provided a peek behind the scenes in those final hours.

"[Information] trickled in slowly, so as we're going through the week — now it's Thursday at 5 p.m. and the draft starts at 7 p.m. — we still had medical information coming in," Spielman said. "We were adjusting our board accordingly to how 'Shug' either felt, 'Yeah this guy we can take,' or, 'No, we should probably let this guy go.'

“The great thing is that with the technology in our draft room and with the board we use, we’re able to make those adjustments quickly. It was just the click of a button moving a player from this spot in the draft to that spot. It was a very easy and smooth transition.” - Rick Spielman

'The most critical piece may be the medical'

The annual NFL Draft has turned into a made-for-TV spectacle over the years, one of the league's marquee events that can be a life-changing experience for many.

NFL teams have an eye on the draft year-round, even when their seasons are in full swing. Find a franchise-altering player in the draft, and your organization is seemingly set at that position for the next decade-plus. But miss out on a top prospect or hidden gem, and teams can feel the ramifications of that whiff for years.

And as the draft has grown in scope to become a league-wide phenomenon, the medical component of player evaluations has climbed to the top of the list in terms of being the most important trait of a prospect.

Sure, coaches can put their necks out for a player they like and scouts can give a detailed report on the ins and outs of a player. And the analytics team can help factor in data to try and project a player's success.

But Spielman, who is entering his 10th season as the Vikings general manager, made it quite clear where a prospect's health ranks among those categories.

"Medical is one of the critical pieces that we weigh. When we develop our draft board, we work with the coaches, the psychologists, the intelligence people, the scouts and the analytics," Spielman said. "But when we're putting all of the pieces together, the most critical piece may be the medical.

“You don’t want a player everyone loves — from how the analytics see him, how our coaches rave about them, what the scouts see on film — but if he’s not going to pass a physical for us, he’s not going to be a Minnesota Viking." - Rick Spielman

Sugarman added with a smile: "You're asking the athletic trainer … so of course it's the most important [component]."

By the time the 2021 NFL Draft came to a close, the Vikings landed an impressive 11-man draft class that has drawn rave reviews from across the football world.

Minnesota obviously felt comfortable enough with those 11 players to draft them. The same goes for the 31 additional NFL teams that selected the other 248 players in the draft. Add in hundreds of undrafted free agents that recently joined NFL teams, and there are suddenly nearly 600 fresh faces in the league.

The Vikings believe they vastly improved their roster in that three-day span.

But getting there meant navigating a challenging, yet collaborative, process and embarking on a journey unlike anything many across the league had ever seen.

Who's coming to Indianapolis?

In a normal year, Sugarman and other NFL athletic trainers are usually among the first NFL personnel to arrive in Indianapolis for the league's annual Scouting Combine. After all, gaining standardized medical information was the impetus for founding the combine in the first place.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic still hovering over the country after the 2020 regular season, league-wide conversations soon began as to what the 2021 version of the combine would look like.

The usual display — complete with in-person interviews between teams and prospects, on-field workouts and a media carwash — would not be possible.

Yet with such an emphasis on medical information, especially because some college players opted out of the 2020 season, it was determined there would be a medical-only combine in early April in Indianapolis.

But which players — and how many — would make the cut for such valuable data? And how would that group be determined?

“The planning of the medical combine was quite complicated. There’s 32 clubs, a hundred team physicians, 150 athletic trainers … everyone has their own opinion on how it was going to work. But we had to streamline it to make it work the best it could for everyone with the circumstances we were dealt.” - Eric Sugarman

In a normal year, around 330 players are invited to Indianapolis. Less than half that number ended up making the trip this year.

"It went from to 50 players to 100 players, and it finally shook out at 150 players," Sugarman said. "But then we had to decide which 150 players were going to come to Indianapolis."

Roughly 100 players — those considered likely to go on Day 1 or 2 of the draft — made the list. So, too, did about 50 players deemed as requiring full medical profiles.

Unsurprisingly, opinions differed between general managers and medical personnel.

"We came up with a compromise," Sugarman said. "The GM committee had a very strong opinion on making sure they had information on the top-rated players.

"The medical people had a very strong opinion on making sure they had information on the most-injured players or complicated cases," Sugarman added. "Together, it was a very collaborative effort at the end of the day to get to the draft and make sure everyone had the information they needed to make very good and educated decisions."

For many around the league, the medical-only combine was seen as a win-win and the best-case scenario given all of the unusualness and adapting that NFL teams endured over the past 14 months.

But there were more layers to the crucial medical evaluations than just determining which players would be in Indianapolis.

What about the other 180 or so prospects who would usually be there?

Who would compile their information? And how would they get it?

'I was making sure ours were the best'

Now that the NFL had planned out what the medical-only combine would look like — or at least who would be there — the next conversation turned to how teams would be able to receive vital and essential medical data for other draft-eligible players.

Again, teams usually gather that information from prospects at a normal-looking combine.

But with 32 teams looking for the same information — a prospect's accurate and detailed medical history — the league effectively used its knowledge and manpower to do so in a process highlighted by collaboration and ultimate trust.

With roughly 330 players in the limelight, Sugarman explained, each NFL team was assigned a group of roughly 10 players. It was a leaguewide effort in every sense.

Each team's group of 10 players was divided into a certain region of the country so that communication between teams and those players' athletic trainers could be streamlined.

The result was perhaps unlike anything the league had ever attempted.


"Each team had about 10 players that they were responsible for, so 320 total players," Sugarman said. "And when I say we were responsible for them, we had a several-step process for each of these players."

Step 1: A general Zoom call with a prospect and an NFL athletic trainer of the team assigned to him.

"It's 1-on-1 with me and the athlete," Sugarman said. "I talked to the athlete about his medical history and took notes, listened to what he said. I had a certain list of questions I asked the guy about timing of surgery, stuff like that."

Step 2: Sugarman would then call the athletic trainers at the players' schools to get clearer pictures on prospects.

"I took that information, and once I had the proper authorization and permission, I called the athletic trainer of that athlete," Sugarman said. "I discussed the athlete with the athletic trainer, who has the medical file — again, with the athlete's permission.

"It's different because the athlete tends to forget some things that happen," Sugarman added. "You blend those, and now I have a very good picture of the history."

Step 3: Another Zoom call with Sugarman and the prospect, but this time they are joined by a pair of Vikings team physicians — an orthopedic surgeon and a Vikings primary care physician.

"We did a virtual health physical with the athlete and decided if they needed MRIs or an X-ray, and then we could order those," Sugarman said. "If they were coming to Indy, they did it there.

"If they were not selected to come to Indy, Jeff Foster and Audrey Schafer of the National Invitational Camp organized appointments in the area where they lived. They all were scheduled for EKGs and lab studies to be done at a location in their hometown," Sugarman added. "It was very complicated, but very well-done and very structured. At the end of the day, we were very happy with how it turned out."

The detailed reports from Sugarman and Minnesota's staff were then uploaded to a website where it was accessible to all 32 teams.

But what if the Vikings wanted extra information on a player who was assigned to, say, the Packers? Could Minnesota sidestep Green Bay and contact said player?


"We shared and collaborated on all of that information this year … all 32 clubs working in lock-step to get this medical information to help each other," Sugarman said.

“When it comes to the medical [aspect of the draft], you have trade secrets of the way you do your business in your building. But when it comes to doing a physical exam, I felt like when I did my reports for my 10 guys that the 31 other teams were depending on, I was making sure ours were the best." - Eric Sugarman

"You want to be proud of your work," Sugarman added. "If I turned in something that was shabby and had bad information, I'm affecting 31 other club athletic trainers and team physicians that are colleagues of mine and that I respect. I wouldn't want them to do anything different."

Spielman praised Sugarman's guidance during a demanding and chaotic stretch that sometimes spun heads inside Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.

"It was very challenging," Spielman said. "But thanks to the leadership of Eric Sugarman and all of our team docs over at Twin Cities Orthopedics … we really had to put all these pieces together to try and come up with the best physical information from a medical standpoint as possible."

The end result was a potpourri of medical evaluations from across the country, each compiled to help a bitter rival, conference foe or rarer interconference competitor.

And even though that information kept trickling in to teams leading up to the draft, there was no time for Sugarman to rest.

It was time for the trip to Indianapolis.

A hands-off, medical-only combine

The 2021 NFL season will be Sugarman's 25th in the league and 16th with the Minnesota.

He knows the process for a normal combine experience like the back of his hand. Stay for a week, with four days focused on medical exams for the 300-something players in attendance.

But this year? It was an unprecedented experience, with just two days of hands-off evaluations of roughly 70 players each day.

And while teams usually gather in seven separate rooms, there were only two in 2021.

"You're with the same teams every year, so I'm usually in Room 1 with Indianapolis, the Ravens, the Rams, the Browns and the Patriots. We're in there together every year, year after year, so everyone kind of knows how everyone operates," Sugarman said of usual combine experiences. "They bring an athlete in the room and present him, then Dr. Chris Larson [of the Vikings] will go check his knee if he had an ACL [injury]. There's communication that goes on."

This year, the NFC and AFC each had its own room, with just one athletic trainer and one team physician allowed per club at a large, socially distant table.

"They brought the athlete onto a stage that had a riser and presented the athlete to us, basically went through their medical history, talked about their imaging," Sugarman said. "We were able to pull up their MRIs they had the day before right on our computer so docs could review the MRIs in live time and ask questions.

"The difference is that Dr. Larson didn't touch any athlete, whereas he's usually hands-on," Sugarman added. "And we have other orthopedic surgeons that are actually doing the exams. It was just way different."

Even though he had an altered role, Sugarman had high praise for Larson, who has been a key figure for the Vikings for over a decade.

"He's a very valuable asset to this organization," Sugarman said.

And while Sugarman perhaps endured some restless nights in the weeks leading up to Indianapolis while trying to gather accurate medical info, he did praise the process and dissemination of the reports on 300-plus players.

“One of the biggest benefits I found this year is that when Christian Darrisaw walked into the room [in Indianapolis] … I already had his medical history in front of me. It was already done by [another] team." - Eric Sugarman

"In previous years, I had some information. But this year I had really good information on each guy and felt really comfortable with them as they walked into the room," Sugarman said. "It made the system work so much more seamlessly."

By this point, NFL teams had rock-solid information on roughly 150 prospects. (The actual number of players that made it to the medical combine was around 140 due to various circumstances for individual players).

But with the 2021 NFL Draft just weeks away, time was crucial for Sugarman and his staff to dissect and analyze the information to help Spielman and Co. finalize the Vikings draft board.

'MRI pending …'

Soon after Sugarman returned from Indianapolis, he was back inside Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.

The Vikings had concrete data on the majority of the 330 or so prospects that would have been invited to the combine.

But Vikings staff who weren't at the medical combine with Sugarman soon found out that there would be a bit of a waiting game in the final homestretch.

"When we had our initial meeting [with Sugarman after he returned], we had 70-plus MRIs still pending," Spielman said.

Most of those players were likely Day 3 players, or those who could potentially be targets in undrafted free agency. Even still, Sugarman and others in the Vikings organization kept grinding away to make sure Minnesota's front office had a complete medical picture of any draft-eligible player.

"We still had a couple other hundred [players] that we needed medical information on, and we’re used to doing that detective work. But we had our medical meeting after I went to Indy — we went over all these players with the scouts and Rick and [Vikings Head] Coach [Mike] Zimmer and everyone — I’d get to a player and I’d say, ‘MRI pending…’" - Eric Sugarman

"It became a joke … Rick would laugh and say, 'MRI pending?' But a lot of things we didn't know because so much was still pending," Sugarman continued. "We had 70 players whose images we still didn't have. There were 52 guys that needed heart echocardiograms that we didn't have.

"Every day I was getting piecemeal information as it was being loaded into the system," Sugarman added. "Then I'd go update Rick with the draft board. It was a day-to-day process, and literally one piece of information at a time."

For Spielman, that meant an exercise in patience in the days and weeks leading up to perhaps his most important time of the year. Usually the medical part is complete by April, a timeline that allows for any re-checks to occur no less than a week before the draft begins.

"Normally at the combine, it's all consistent because every player is going through the same process," Spielman said. "This year … we had to track down lab work on all these other players, trying to get imaging done we needed on potential issues a player may have, whether it may be a knee, an arm, a wrist, an ankle … whatever.

"It was just coming in and piecemealed together," Spielman said.

By the time the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft did roll around and Minnesota was on the clock at No. 14, Spielman put his trusty trading hat on and moved down to the 23rd pick, acquiring a pair of third-round selections along the way.

He then executed one of the most well-received moves of the entire draft, taking Darrisaw roughly 10 spots after the All-American left tackle from Virginia Tech was projected to go.

The move could solidify the Vikings left tackle spot for years to come – and turn out to be one of the best steals in recent draft history.

And, the Vikings made sure they were A-OK with Darrisaw's health, which had added significance because he had surgery in January after his junior season with the Hokies.

"We felt very comfortable taking him where we did," Spielman said.

Added Sugarman: "He's a guy we saw in Indianapolis, so he's easy. We saw him in front of us, saw his imaging, saw the doc examine him. We felt very comfortable about him."

While Darrisaw was among the select group that was invited to the medical-only combine, not all of the 11 players Minnesota drafted were.

But remember those 10 college prospects Sugarman and the Vikings were assigned to in the pre-draft process? Sugarman confirmed that at least one of those players ended up being among Minnesota's 11 draft picks.

"Yes, they were," Sugarman said. "I'm not going to name them, but they were."

He brushed off the notion, though, that the Vikings — or any other team — had an advantage by eventually selecting a player in their 10-prospect pool.

"It was a non-factor. The only difference is that I feel like I have a little better relationship with that athlete walking in the door," Sugarman said. "But at the end of the day, we all had equal information. The only advantage is maybe seeing an athlete's personality because I did have two Zoom calls with that athlete. But the medical information is what it is."

Challenging and rewarding

Roughly 24 hours after the conclusion of the seventh and final round of the 2021 NFL Draft, Sugarman hit the links to play a round of golf with his son, Jake, who just completed his freshman year at Arizona State where he serves a member of the recruiting staff under Herm Edwards.

It was a well-deserved break for the athletic trainer, who along with everyone else involved in Minnesota's draft operation, put in countless hours to make sure the Vikings had every piece of medical data possible for the draft.

“In regards to trying to get medical information for this year’s draft class, it certainly … in my 25-year career … was the most challenging. Very challenging, but it was really rewarding.” - Eric Sugarman

The hope for Spielman and the Vikings is that some members of this 11-man draft class will contribute right away and help Minnesota get back to the playoffs after a disappointing 7-9 season in 2020.

If the Vikings can get there, it will be the byproduct of the draft — and a medical process that will be talked about for years to come.

"Every team grades things differently according to what [its]doctors see, but Eric Sugarman's leadership, along with our doctors, they did an incredible job giving us the information we needed to make the best selection of players that we could," Spielman said.

"Listening to the medical staff and their expertise, if they did not feel as comfortable with a player, we may have passed them by. If they felt more comfortable and gathered more information, they would let me know," Spielman continued. "I relied heavily on their area of expertise. Some guys we may have been a little more conservative on this year, just because of the lack of all the information. But we feel very strongly that the players that we did select, we felt very good about.

"Hopefully next year we'll be back to our normal process," Spielman added, "because the medical piece to the draft is critical for us."

By: Eric Smith

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