"Without having the preseason games, I know the players and coaches and everybody are ready to go out and play a game," said Harbaugh.
The Ravens will kick off their 2020 season Sunday against the Cleveland Browns in pursuit of the franchise’s third championship, but another vital season will also be underway.
While the Ravens and the NFL have settled many worries about playing amid the coronavirus pandemic, the scouting landscape might look dramatically different as several college football conferences are punting on the fall season.
After a multitude of concerns raised, closed meetings with university dignitaries and a few schedule modifications, the Atlantic Coastal Conference and Big 12 will began their seasons this weekend. The Southeastern Conference will join in two weeks.
But the remaining two leagues in the Power 5, the Big Ten and Pac-12, won’t as they voted to postpone their fall sports seasons to the spring, as did several other Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision leagues.
The decision leaves dozens of 2021 draft prospects in limbo and NFL scouts changing plans as they wait to see if the two leagues can salvage a football season.
Several of the country’s top college players have opted out of the season to prepare for the upcoming draft and COVID-19 precautions have already forced a host of players out of practices and games because of contact tracing.
With a multitude of schools still banning any on-campus visits, much of the normal scouting period has taken on a virtual format.
Towson football coach Rob Ambrose said he was recently on a call with scouts from all 32 teams to speak about players that are viewed as prospects. The Colonial Athletic Association, of which Towson is a member, voted in July to postpone the fall sports season to the spring.
“First time I’ve ever done it like that,” Ambrose said of the call. “It was different, it was definitely very different.”
At Maryland, Kevin Glover, who works as director of player development but also doubles as an NFL liaison, takes calls “daily” with scouts, said Mike Locksley, Terps football coach.
Locksley said Glover’s work has been “business as usual,” but it marks a different realm for area scouts who are used to being on the road throughout the fall.
The season for a scout typically might start around the time NFL teams gather for training camp in late July, which overlaps with summer practices for college programs, said NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah.
After a few weeks of speaking with officials and evaluating the team’s roster, the scouts will then travel to the region they’ve been assigned. The later part of the summer will be spent attending summer practices and scouts will visit as many programs as they can, leading up to the start of the season.
It’s an arduous journey, driving and flying to see as many practices and games at as many schools as possible within a given week. Live game evaluation and conversations with campus sources are all used to compile a report of prospects.
As the college football regular season comes to a close in early December, teams will hold their first draft meetings to discuss initial rankings. The various all-star games, such as the Senior Bowl and the East-West Shrine Game, serve as further tools to evaluate players.
Scouting teams will come together again before the NFL Combine, typically held in late February through early March, to start setting their draft board. Pro days and prospect visits in the following weeks serve as one last opportunity to fine-tune rankings.
With countless schools not playing, scouting departments will have to get creative and shift their resources to remain efficient. For example, Jeremiah suggested a Midwest area scout who doesn’t have a slate of Big Ten games to watch this fall might be reassigned to a region where more games are being played, such as the south to monitor the SEC. It also gives the scout more time to watch tape from the 2019 season in its entirety.
But therein lies one of the difficulties that scouting departments will face. Ambrose noted that many players make a leap in their third to the fourth year playing. A lack of film makes it harder for a team to extrapolate where the player’s progression would have taken him.
Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert told The Ringer that if his scouting department was faced with deciding between a player who played in 2020 over one who didn’t, it would favor the one who had recently played.
Jeremiah said new technological advances and metrics can help bridge the gap and give scouting departments accurate historical comparisons to NFL players.
For the Ravens, the draft has served as the building blocks of a franchise that has won two Super Bowl titles as it enters its 25th season. Since 1996, the team has drafted an NFL-best 15 players who went on to earn Associated Press first-team All-Pro honors (16 if you count kicker Justin Tucker, who was signed as an undrafted free agent).
Of the 255 players selected in the 2020 draft, the SEC (63), Big Ten (48) and Pac-12 (32) accounted for over 50% of selections. In the last three drafts, 16 of the Ravens' 30 picks have come from these three leagues and eight of the 16 from the Big Ten and Pac-12, who are waiting to see if their seasons will unfold.
The Ravens declined to comment for this story but in a May conference call with season-ticket holders, general manager Eric DeCosta was asked how scouting might be affected.
“I think there are some opportunities for us in terms of analytics,” DeCosta said. "I think there’s going to be some opportunities for us in terms of our scouts, techniques that they use, relationships that we’ve built, things like that.
“The climate is definitely going to be different. It’s going to be different and challenging but [threre are] also opportunities for us. We will look at that when we’re trying to exploit opportunities. I think we were able to do that a little bit this year leading up to the draft in some ways. … We’ll be ready, we’ll have a plan.”
Jeremiah, who worked as an area scout for the Ravens for two years, said the Ravens have separated their department through their training of scouts, easing them into assignments to the point where they felt confident in pinpointing the type of players the organization is seeking.
“The first year, you sit in there and you learned all the way at the top, at the time which was [former general manager] Ozzie Newsome and [former director of player personnel] Phil Savage and Eric DeCosta,” Jeremiah said. "You get to be around them on a daily basis, you watch the Ravens games with them every Monday and it’s an open discussion when you’re in there watching the tape.
“A lot of teams just hire scouts and give them a laptop and throw them out on the road and say, ‘Go get them.’ The Ravens have done a really good job of training their guys to know what a Raven player looks like and what you’re after.”
Charley Casserly, an NFL Network analyst and former general manager, said that with the potential handicaps of scouting, the 2021 draft will be “wide open.” The Ravens typically get ahead by scouting players in spring football, Casserly said, but the coronavirus outbreak forced many schools to cancel practices, along with pro days and visits to team facilities.
Jeremiah predicted the 2021 combine will be “the most important combine that we’ve ever had.”
“That’s going to be the first time in a calendar year you will have seen some of these players who have not played in the fall,” Jeremiah said. “It’s never been done before where we’re going to have this many players that are going to be drafted that you haven’t seen play in over a calendar year.”
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At Michigan, one of the multiple programs applying pressure to force the Big Ten to reverse course and play this fall, coach Jim Harbaugh, brother of Ravens coach John Harbaugh, said he intends to hold an on-campus combine for his players and welcome scouts. It’s just another wrinkle to an uncertain landscape that scouts will have to maneuver over the next few months.
“It’s a mess in so many different ways right now,” Ambrose said, “and I think it’s going to take about a year, year and a half before the hamster wheel actually spins the way it’s supposed to and it all gets back to regular.”