CHARLOTTE — As much as football coaches want this to be about football and football only, it's never that easy, and especially not now.
They're still ultimately choosing players based on skill and athletic traits. But NFL teams are also entering into complex multi-year work relationships with players by choosing them, and they're doing it without the benefits of actually meeting most of them.
Drafting in a time of pandemic has been complicated, to say the least. But perhaps no part of the evaluation is more challenging than trying to get a read on the people you're casting your lot with based on Zoom meetings, when blind dates become arranged marriages.
This is all new for Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer. He's a creature of the road, an old scout with a gross national product worth of Marriott points, and the ability to fall asleep on planes, because you take rest where you can get it. All that travel is for one reason — to lay eyes on prospects, to see them in their environments, to understand how they act when no one is looking, and when everyone is looking.
"Just trying to figure out who the person is," Fitterer said of the challenge. "That's the most important evaluation tool we have is getting in front of the person, talking to them, finding out what motivates them. If they look you in the eye, if you feel them as a person.
"I love being in front of the guys. And it's made it difficult this year. And that's why we do the zoom calls, why we make the phone calls, why we make the calls to equipment managers, to coaches, whoever knows these players. We just put the picture together the best we can."
It's at best an incomplete picture this year, or an out-of-focus one.
Most of the opportunities for in-person contact were canceled this offseason because of the pandemic. The Panthers and Dolphins are luckier than most, because they got to coach some actual people at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. in January; masked and socially distant but actually on a field with ball players.
Otherwise, there was no Scouting Combine, no top 30 visits to team facilities, and limited exposure at pro days, with just three representatives per team allowed at each of the scripted workouts. That's it. And that's why teams are grabbing onto every shred of information they can find, however they can find it.
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule once crossed a guy off the draft board after a ride in an elevator, so human impressions matter to him, whether he can actually have them now or not. He laughed when asked about Eagles coach Nick Sirianni playing rock-paper-scissors with players during Zoom interviews, hoping to glean some insight from a child's game.
"I just talk to them," Rhule said with a laugh. "I saw that's what Nick said, it's interesting, I haven't done anything like that. To me, the tape drives who they are, their measurables and traits drive who they are, but what people say about them is really key.
"When you treat people well, people are excited talk about you."
Rhule will ask players who their favorite players are growing up, or which musical artist they might listen to if stuck on a desert island. He's not looking for recommendations (though perhaps he could use some, since he chose the Dave Matthews Band for eternity alone); he's looking for clues about how they think or what they value.
Of course, in discussing that, he also slipped back into coach-mode, saying: "At the end of the day, what they put on tape in college is most important to me, in terms of the way they play the game."
The players involved would likely love it to be that easy as well.
For guys used to operating in meeting rooms and huddles, the virtual getting-to-know-you stuff is hard, so they try to latch onto the familiar.
Recalling one of his favorite Zoom meetings, Alabama quarterback Mac Jones said: "That was a really great meeting. You know, we just talked football for like an hour straight. That's the best type of meeting for me is just talking ball."
For others, it's a chance to present their case. North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance had a limited sample of games to show coaches (he's only played one game in the last year, since FCS teams pushed their seasons back because of COVID-19), so he tried to use his interviews as a chance to prove he belonged at this level.
"The biggest challenge was the Combine being canceled," Lance said. "Not having that opportunity, that's something you dream of.
"Not being able to meet teams face to face (was challenging). Zoom meetings are, they're good. But not being able to shake hands and meet with them and get up on the board a couple of feet away from you would've been really cool, and an awesome experience."
Other top prospects try to keep the meetings simple, because when your film is very good, you have less to worry about.
"It's not nothing that you really have to worry about," Alabama wide receiver and Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith said. "You just go in and be yourself. At the end of the day, you're talking football. That's what I do. So it just feels like another day in the meeting room at Alabama."
Of course, it's not just another meeting.
For first-round prospects like Jones, Lance, and Smith, it's a job interview for a position that comes with at least a four-year contract worth many millions. That kind of investment is hard to feel comfortable about, when you can't even gauge a player by the firmness of his handshake or whether he makes eye contact.
And that's just one of the complications in a year full of them. For any college player with an injury in his background, there's another layer of mystery. Generally, the top 250 or so prospects end up in Indianapolis at the Combine, where the centralized medical checks make it easy for teams to uncover issues. This year, they did take 150 players to Indy for medical checks, but teams don't have complete files on all players, or the kind of hands-on knowledge from their own doctors looking at players. While those 30 in-house visits teams used to get are often for the first-rounders, most teams also use a number of those slots to firm up medical reports, letting their team doctors inspect players themselves before they have to make a decision.
So today, when Fitterer goes through the final pre-draft medical meeting — the last chance for doctors to red-flag or clear a prospect with injury concerns — he'll be working with less than a full record for some of the players he's considering.
Again, everything about this scouting process has been hard, since the pandemic kept scouts off college campuses for most of the year.
But by this time, the board is stacked, the evaluations have been made, and teams can only hope the human intelligence they've gathered without human interaction is sufficient and correct.
"You have to look for different ways," Fitterer said. "Good scouts will find a different way to do it. They're not going to follow the path of everybody else. They'll make their calls, they have their connections, that's what they rely on. That's what a good scout does."
This year, it's more important than ever.
Look back on some of the productive draft picks the Panthers made in the second and third rounds of the NFL Draft all the way back to 1995.