The most vital aspect of scouting the NFL Draft is to know precisely what to look for. And the NFL evolves faster than any other billion-dollar entity, so knowing what to look for is a moving target.
Each year, it’s important to stand back and examine the latest trends and themes from the previous seasons to see how GMs and coaches will pick, and then how they use their players in new, tweaked roles from even what they were asking of those players a season or two ago.
This article outlines the new-age traits and skills for prospects as they enter the NFL in 2021.
New-age trait: Improvisational expertise
Tom Brady, king of the statuesque quarterbacks, just won his seventh Super Bowl and did so as a 43 year old on a new team. But don’t let that fool you. Brady is the outlier of all anomalies and may have morphed from human to cyborg somewhere in the middle of the Patriots dynasty thanks to a steady two-decade long diet of pink Himalayan salt and avocado ice cream.
The highly athletic, ad-lib master describes the new, young wave at the quarterback position in the NFL. Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Deshaun Watson, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow — all can win from the pocket, but they can also bust big plays when they go off-script and are legitimate multi-dimensional threats. Now, does every single quarterback have to be a phenomenal athletic specimen with street-ball skills outside the confines of the tackle box? No, not necessarily, but what Mahomes, Allen, Watson and Co. have done is raise the bar for playmaking at the position, and if you’re a draft prospect who can only flourish as a stoic pocket passer, you’re going to have to be absolutely surgical in essentially every game to play to their level.
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New-age trait: Legitimate route-running skill
Gone are the days when a big plus to your running back’s game are his abilities to simply catch a screen pass and make things happen after the catch. We’re entering an NFL in which backs are deployed as stand-in slot receivers, and the 2021 draft class will serve as the catalyst to this movement.
Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, Demetric Felton, and Kenny Gainwell can all, quite comfortably, line up in a classic receiver location before the snap, run an intricate route against a linebacker or safety, get open, catch the ball, and then utilize their honed running back skills in space down the field.
Offenses with running backs who have legitimate positional flexibility are ahead of the vast majority of the other attacks that don’t have that luxury, and as the run game is slowly but surely moving the background of offensive philosophies, running backs can maintain value by proving to their coaches they can run sharp, separation-generating routes.
Wide receivers/Tight ends
New-age trait: YAC skills
By now, it’s old analysis to label separation skill as the “new” ability teams covet most from their wide receivers and tight ends. We know this. In some ways, the NFL is going retro — think back to Bill Walsh and the debut of the West Coast Offense in the 1980s. It was predicated on precise rhythm in the offense and mostly, yards after the catch.
Because superfreaks like D.K. Metcalf or Julio Jones don’t enter the league every season, and hyper-quick wideouts like Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs, and Deandre Hopkins are decently rare too — wideouts who aren’t unbelievably athletic or don’t run in the 4.3s can carve a valuable niche for themselves in today’s NFL.
Ask Deebo Samuel, or A.J. Brown, or D.J. Moore.
Now that the league has become obsessed with high completion percentages, the ability to maximize the three-yard pass and morph it into a 12-yard gain has become en vogue once again, just like it was when Walsh had Jerry Rice and John Taylor running away from every corner in the league on drag routes in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
New-age trait: Blitzing/pass-rushing acumen
Linebacker prospects who are legitimately good in coverage are so rare, it’s almost become pointless trying to find them. Relatively soon, I do think we’ll see the safety and linebacker spot essentially meld into one, but as for your “traditional” linebacker who’s playing at the distinct second level of the field, there’s like one or two in each draft class who can actually be impactful in coverage.
Because of his glaring, widespread weakness, coaches in college and the NFL asking their linebackers to affect the passing game in another way if they simply can’t cover anyone or are lost in zone — get after the quarterback.
In 2020, of qualifying linebackers, 30 of them rushed the passer on at least 20% of the passing downs when they were on the field, the most in at least the last 10 years in the NFL. But even if the uptick in linebackers as rushers is minimal year over year, it’s a new philosophy more teams should incorporate into their game plans. It’s better for a young linebacker to beat a running back in pass protection and disrupt the quarterback than he is to adequately cover a pass catcher in space.
While I do value coverage as the most heavily weighted category in my grading system when evaluating linebackers, “pass-rush/blitzing skill” has now entered the system as a new category.
New-age trait: Twitch
In my eyes, gone are the days when you need to be a 6-1, 210-pound cornerback to play in the perimeter in the NFL. In fact, that type of size at the cornerback spot has transformed into a slight concern after spending years as a clear-cut luxury. Why? Because most corners that tall and that thick aren’t the most fleet of foot and don’t have twitched-up athletic traits, and the modern-day star wideout destroys press at the line with agility and can get open routinely with athleticism.
This past season, Julio Jones, Corey Davis, and Kenny Golladay were the only wideouts taller than 6-1 in the top 10 of yards per route run among qualifiers at the receiver position. From 11 through 20 in yards per route run, there were only three more pass catchers taller than 6-1 (Jakobi Meyers, Michael Thomas, and Allen Robinson).
The majority of the elite receivers today are smaller, more sudden, and more explosive than ever before. So cornerbacks entering the NFL who’re confident they can beat up those wideouts at the line of scrimmage and smother them through their routes are almost always sorrily mistaken — especially with the strict defensive holding rules enforced today.
Get me a twitched-up, hyper athlete who can handle burst and routes with abrupt changes in direction, even if that means drafting a 5-10, 185-pounder.
New-age trait: Legitimate versatility
The three safety look started to appear late in the playoffs and it’s the wave of the future defensively in the NFL. And I’m not talking two classic safeties and one hulking Derwin James type. Because, well, Derwin James is a unicorn and oftentimes the 6-3, 220-pound second-level defenders aren’t the most apt in coverage.
Because of the increase in pass-catching targets for quarterbacks, teams are simply going to have to keep more defensive backs on the field, and typically, safeties are better run-support players than cornerbacks when a run does occur. Worth noting here too — for as much as the league is won and lost through the air, the NFL’s run rate was still 43.3% in 2020, so it’s not as if the run game has completely vanished.
Safeties who can cover in man, are instinctive in zone, are comfortable as a deep middle rover, patrol the intermediate levels at time as a robber, blitz in critical situations at get home, and, oh, range across the field to stop a running back dead in his tracks on 3rd and 4 are worth their weight in bitcoin, I mean, gold. Even if they are stellar in any particular area, versatility has become king.
Advanced stats courtesy of TruMedia unless otherwise noted