FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- A month before the 2009 NFL draft, the New York Jets conducted a private workout with quarterback Mark Sanchez and capped the day with dinner at a Mexican restaurant near his home in Southern California. Team officials were impressed with his charisma, how he ordered for the table and how, in a playful moment afterward, he hopped on a motorcycle in the parking lot. He pretended it was his, causing their hearts to skip a beat.
The Jets fell in love with Sanchez that day. They traded up 12 spots and drafted him with the No. 5 overall pick. That private time with him -- from football to fajitas -- was instrumental in their decision.
Once again, the Jets appear to be in the market for a potential cornerstone quarterback, except this time they won't be allowed to meet with candidates because of the league's COVID-19 restrictions. No private workouts, no dinners, no classroom time. Interactions are limited to Zoom calls, which means the NFL has entered the world of video dating.
This is a fascinating backdrop for the Jets, who might select a quarterback with the No. 2 overall pick -- an estimated $24 million investment -- without having had the opportunity for a face-to-face conversation. Risky?
"If you were running a business, you wouldn't hire your CEO without meeting him," said ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum, who was the Jets general manager when they drafted Sanchez. "It's really important. It's everything."
Under the current rules, the closest an NFL team can physically get to a prospect is his pro day. The first one on the quarterback calendar occurs Friday at North Dakota State, where Trey Lance -- a potential top-10 pick -- will perform for scouts. Alabama (Mac Jones) is scheduled for March 23, followed by BYU (Zach Wilson) on March 26 and Ohio State (Justin Fields) on March 30.
Ideally, Jets general manager Joe Douglas and coach Robert Saleh would attend all the key pro days, which have increased in importance due to the cancellation of the NFL scouting combine, but that might not happen because of a new, pandemic-related rule. Each team is permitted to have only three representatives at each one. As a result, the Jets will devise a "divide-and-conquer" plan that allows key decision-makers to hit the hot spots, including all the top-quarterback pro days.
"The pro day is extremely important," said Douglas, who will attend Lance's workout. "It's just good to stand next to the quarterback, to see the spin off his hand, to see the ball jump off his hand, to feel his presence. Those are all important things."
For instance: Douglas can re-watch Wilson's college games until his eyes are bloodshot, but he might not gain a true appreciation for his arm talent until he is in Provo, Utah, standing a few yards away from the young quarterback as he slings the ball around the field. In Lance's case, the pro day is critical because he played only one game in the fall due to the pandemic and finished his career with 17 career starts on the FCS level.
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Saleh, too, said there's "tremendous value" in scouting pro days, adding, "Anytime you have an opportunity to gather information -- tape, in person, whatever it may be -- I think all of it holds weight."
Every person in scouting will tell you the best way to grade a prospect is to evaluate the game tape, but teams look to supplement those scouting reports with private workouts in the spring. Douglas acknowledged this year's circumstances are "unique." Teams are prohibited from timing, testing, interviewing in-person and giving medical exams to prospects, according to the NFL. Each team can have a Zoom call with the same player up to five times, no longer than one hour for each session.
The upside is videoconferencing allows a team to interview more prospects than in a normal year. The downside is they all can't be in the same room. There are old-school scouts and coaches who value being able to shake a player's hand and look him in the eye.
Nowadays, they can't shake anything, but they can remind the player to turn off his "mute" button.
Tannenbaum said he always looked for personality tells during face-to-face meetings, even something as nuanced as how a prospect treats the server at dinner. As the Miami Dolphins executive vice president of football operations, he spent a day with Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield in 2018. They met on campus, followed by a get-acquainted dinner.
Joined by Dolphins general manager Chris Grier, coach Adam Gase and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, Tannenbaum came away impressed with how Mayfield -- perceived as brash and polarizing -- interacted with the Oklahoma support staff. Miami did not get a chance to draft Mayfield, but it had no concerns about his character after spending time with him.
There will be none of that this spring.
Oh, yes, there was the Senior Bowl in January, when team reps were allowed to interview prospects through a glass partition. But that didn't provide much help to the quarterback-needy Jets. Of the top-five quarterback prospects, Jones was the only one in attendance.
The new rules also prohibit pre-draft visits to the team facility. If you think those don't matter, you're wrong. Years ago, the Jets hosted a player from a Big Ten school and were disappointed to find him sleeping outside Tannenbaum's office while he waited for his meeting. No, they didn't draft him, but an AFC East rival did in the first round. (He wound up having a mediocre pro career.)
In 2018, the Jets' strong feelings about quarterback Sam Darnold were cemented during his pre-draft visit.
Without direct interaction, teams will rely heavily on their area scouts to cull information on players, using their campus sources to acquire useful intel. Douglas is confident they will adjust to the circumstances, just as they did last year when there was a scouting combine but no pro days.
"This is unique, but we're going to benefit from the pro days at the end of the day," Douglas said. "... We're going to make the most of it. I know our guys are excited to get out and start attacking these pro days."