The entourage for the Vikings — and all teams not coaching in this year's Reese's Senior Bowl — shrunk considerably this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman is in Mobile, Alabama, this week, but scouting more than 130 players who were invited is only one of the things on his to-do list.
Spielman is moving the front office forward after former Assistant General Manager George Paton was hired to become GM of the Denver Broncos, and he's also keeping tabs on changes to the Vikings coaching staff (no announcements of hires have been made by the team).
"We're going through staff changes and coaching interviews right now. We lost a critical part of our staff when George Paton got the opportunity to go out and run the Denver Broncos as their GM. It was a great opportunity for him," Spielman told SiriusXM NFL Radio this week. "When you're sitting down here at the Senior Bowl, you're doing lots of different things besides practice and interviews at night. Trying to help Coach Zimmer and the coaching interviews and trying to get background. I think for most of the front-office people, this is the time of the year — right after the season — where it just ramps up that much more."
Preparing for his 31st season in the NFL, 16th with the Vikings and 10th as the team's GM, Spielman described the Vikings status, commented on changes implemented at this year's Senior Bowl and offered a limited look-ahead at the NFL Scouting Combine, which will be dramatically altered in 2021.
The elimination of on-field timing and testing and positional football drills at the combine, as well as in-person interviews with more than 300 prospects, has boosted the importance of the Senior Bowl, which is viewed as the most prestigious of the college all-star games (the other games were canceled this year).
Spielman is involved on NFL committees that are navigating this offseason. Much of last year's operations that have become such a normal routine were able to occur just before the pandemic shutdown in-season sports leagues. Colleges are still intending to hold pro days, but plans have not been finalized.
"I know there won't be any drill work [at the combine], and we're currently working on a medical-only type combine. Still working through a lot of the details on that," Spielman said.
Spielman credited the NFL and team officials beyond the personnel side for the operations of the 2020 NFL Draft, which was held virtually with GMs and coaches working from their homes.
"It just goes to show you that when you've been in this business as long as I have … it's become such a part of your routine that you're, I don't want to say 'callous' to it, but 'just tell us what to do, and we'll figure out how to adjust,' " Spielman said. "Because there's a lot of smart people in this business, not only on the football side but other people that are involved – the IT side and how we ended up doing all the actual meetings."
Spielman credited Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy for making modifications to this year's event that are intended to maximize the impact of in-person interaction but limit possible exposure to the virus.
In addition to the three days of practices, which wrapped up Thursday, Nagy modified the weigh-in so that official measurements could be gathered. He also added more formal times for interviews and built socially distant booths with protective plexiglass dividers.
"This game has such a major influence because this is the only time this offseason we're going to see these football players doing what we're watching right now, individual drills … and the other big thing I think people do not realize is that we're doing in-person interviews," Spielman said. "And how Jim Nagy set that up over there, where we have plexiglass between us, everybody has their mask on, and we're going to be able to interview every single player down here. So it's four days of interviews from 7 to 11:15 at night, but that's the only chance you're going to do it in-person. Because everything from this event going forward is going to be virtual. So, it was a big point of emphasis for us to make sure we do everything we can to get the work done we need to get done down here."
Teams will be able to conduct video interviews with draft-eligible prospects in the coming weeks, adding to the work that their scouting departments were able to accomplish in a college season that included cancelations, opt-outs and reschedules. Spielman said the Vikings and other teams must figure out how to evaluate players in spite of the gap years that occurred.
"That's going to probably be the most difficult part. We're looking at kids who played in '19, they decided to opt out this year, a couple of them did decide to play in the Senior Bowl, so you're going to get a glimpse of where they're at," Spielman said. "Others are not going to play in the Senior Bowl, so it's going to be a little more challenging as far as getting a true evaluation and a true big picture of how he's progressed through his career because, all of a sudden, you have a year missed. We're pretty big from an analytics standpoint in a lot of different things we do in an analytics standpoint to try to predict where these guys are potentially going to be as pros, but it is definitely a challenge this year, especially the guys that are not going to be able to play in the Senior Bowl."
The 72nd Reese's Senior Bowl is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. (CT) Saturday on NFL Network.