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Preparing for 2021 draft has required more ‘digging, grinding’ for Chris Ballard, Colts’ scouts

INDIANAPOLIS – In normal times – you remember those, right? – evaluating collegiate talent whose potential resides somewhere in the future is dicey.

“This is not an exact science,’’ Chris Ballard said. “Let’s be real here. I think we’re pretty good at what we do, but there needs to be a little luck involved, and the more picks you have, the more chances of luck are going to show up.’’

The topic of discussion was this week’s NFL Draft – round 1 is Thursday, rounds 2-3 Friday and rounds 4-7 Saturday – and the Indianapolis Colts general manager spent 30 minutes last week bouncing from his team’s need for a left tackle to adding a pass-rush threat to not forcing a selection, especially early in the process.

But Ballard also emphasized how these are not normal times. The 2020 NFL Scouting Combine went off without a hitch, but shortly thereafter the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world. Everything NFL-related was held remotely until training camps opened in late July, and those were truncated and the preseason schedule was eliminated.

On-going restrictions have resulted in drastic changes to player evaluation. The NFL Scouting Combine was cancelled, and the importance of the January Senior Bowl and on-campus Pro Days were magnified. Face-to-face meetings with players on campus or at a team’s facility were replaced by Zoom calls or telephone hookups. Medical evaluations lacked the normal, exhaustive and invaluable hands-on approach.

Ballard singled out the efforts of head trainer Dave Hammer and his staff for dealing with the “different circumstances . . . not having the Combine, only being able to bring in the 144 players that were brought in to Indianapolis.

“So they’ve had to dig and do extra work to try and get the information.’’

Hardly normal.

“It’s a little unusual,’’ Ballard said. “Not the same amount of information, but all 31 other teams are dealing with the same circumstances we’re dealing with.

“We are grinding away.’’

That’s the case every year. No sooner does one draft run its course than Ballard’s scouting staff is back at it, looking for that next Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard or just as important, those lower-profile prospects such as Marlon Mack, Anthony Walker or Grover Stewart.

But never has the task been more daunting for Morocco Brown, the Colts’ director of college scouting, and his eight scouts. Often, a scout gets the best feel for a prospect by watching how he approaches practice and interacts with his teammates.

Jamie Moore has been a part of the Colts’ scouting staff since 2006 and handled the Southeast region the past 12 years. In 2018, a player’s pre-practice routine caught his attention.

Moore was at South Carolina State to get a close look at an ultra-productive linebacker. Practice began at 5:30 in the morning, and it wasn’t a quiet start to the day.

“You walk up there, and you hear this guy hooting and hollering and bringing all this energy,’’ Moore said at the time. “I ask, ‘Where is Darius Leonard?’’’

He was informed that was the guy hooting and hollering and bringing the energy.

Moore’s response: “All right, all right. I can get with this.’’

The on-campus, at-practice experience reinforced Moore’s conviction with Leonard, who would be taken in the second round of the draft and quickly evolve into a defensive cornerstone and All-Pro linebacker.

“He has that juice and energy level, which Chris has preached since he got here,’’ Moore said.

Ballard places a premium on how a player handles practice and interacts with his teammates.

“That’s a big part of the evaluation process,’’ he said. “Go watch practice and watch their tempo in practice, their urgency in practice, how they move.

“Just not being able to do those things, that’s affected some of the evaluation.’’

They’ve compensated by relying more on video. Assistant GM Ed Dobbs estimated the scouting staff has put roughly “1,400 hours on our machine here in the last month and a half, two months,’’ Ballard said. “We’re just trying to grind away as much tape as we can of whatever we have of the player.

“In terms of the character and the medical, we have just had to dig. Not being able to put your hands on them for the medical, that’s an issue. We’re all finding ways to make sure we get everything we need to make as accurate a decision as we can.’’

Further complicating the process: players opting out of last season due to COVID-19 concerns.

Among those sitting out 2020 were LSU wideout Ja’Marr Chase, offensive tackles Penei Sewell of Oregon and Rashawn Slater of Northwestern, Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley, Minnesota wideout Rashod Bateman and defensive ends Greg Rousseau of Miami and Joe Tryon of Washington.

Purdue’s Rondale Moore initially opted out of 2020, but returned after missing the Boilermakers’ first three games. Quarterback Trey Lance didn’t opt out, but North Dakota State’s COVID-19-impacted season consisted of one game.

It doesn’t appear the one-year hiatus had much of an impact. Chase, Sewell and Slater are consensus top-10 picks. It’s likely Lance goes among the top eight picks. Parsons, Farley and Bateman are first-rounders in most mock drafts.

“We’re going to have several opt-out guys go in the top-10,’’ said draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah. “When you look at Ja’Marr Chase and the two tackles, those guys are all going. I haven’t heard anybody that’s really been overly punished for that in draft meetings.

“It’s a unique situation. I don’t think it has any impact. I think the majority of them showed up at their Pro Days and worked out extremely well, so yeah, teams that I’ve talked to have been very comfortable with the opt-out situations.’’

Ballard and his staff are as comfortable as possible heading into the draft because of how they’ve adapted to the unique pre-draft process. Ideally, he noted, scouts have had a much fuller dossier on prospects.

“You want to see a player progress through his career,’’ he said. “That has been a little more difficult to do this year because of all the uncertainty around what was going on around the world with the virus.

“It’s just been a little more difficult. We’ve had to go back and dig. I mean we are going back and watching 2018, 2019, 2020 tape on guys trying to get them right. So there is a little more uncertainty, but you just keep watching, digging and projecting what these players can be.’’

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You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.