Jonathan Taylor had never heard of Zoom before March 13.
But when the NFL banned in-person visits due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Taylor — like the rest of the country — got a crash course in video chat platforms.
The former Wisconsin running back was already five minutes late to a 2020 NFL draft meeting with a team and thought the link to his first team video interview malfunctioned when he clicked it and was sent to an app download.
Taylor sent a panicked text to the coach who was part of the interview and waited three agonizing minutes, staring at text bubbles, before a reassuring response arrived. It was safe for Taylor to download the app, so he created an account and finally joined his first video meeting.
“I could’ve just downloaded the app as soon as it took me there, but I thought it was the wrong thing,” Taylor said. “I didn’t know what Zoom was. I was expecting we were going to FaceTime.”
Just as the coronavirus forced many Americans to adjust to a new normal that includes working from home and their own video conference calls, draft prospects and teams are also adapting to the technology that allows them to complete pre-draft evaluations in place of in-person team facility visits.
Now, everything is tailored to the virtual experience and making a good impression — even if it’s just through a screen.
There’s locating the strongest WiFi connection in the house, picking out what to wear and finding a place free of kids, pets and other distractions. And then there’s figuring out how to test and translate football IQ through a screen, while still trying to get a real feel for a player in a virtual setting.
“Obviously a lot of the conversation is the same, but we’re trying to prep them more,” said Nicole Lynn, an agent with Young Money APAA Sports. “We’re prepping them on body language, because a lot of times [teams will] have body language experts in the room, so that’s difficult when you’re on a Zoom or FaceTime call. Now we’re prepping these kids for etiquette, but what does it look like, etiquette-wise? What do you wear, still, when you’re in a Zoom interview? Where in your house are you doing these interviews?
“And how can you still show your full personality when you’re still on a screen, because the other aspect of this is to get to know you personally. That’s a huge part of this. To determine who you are as a player and as an individual, a lot of players, will not show that when they’re talking behind a screen.”
Taylor is one of the lucky prospects benefitting from not only a workout at the NFL combine but also face-to-face time with teams at Wisconsin’s pro day.
“A lot of coaches said I was the last pro day they went to because ours was early, a week after the combine, and after that, they started shutting everyone down,” Taylor said of the March 11 pro day.
These video calls can last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour depending on the team. Per league rules, a team can talk with a prospect a maximum of three times per week.
The running back started out taking most of his calls on his back patio at his Arizona home because that’s where his WiFi signal seemed strongest. Recently, though, it has started cutting out.
He hasn’t nailed down a new spot yet, but he has a couple guidelines he follows when thinking about his interview set up.
“You don’t want the bathroom in the background or something like that,” he said. “But make sure everything behind you is set up and people aren’t moving behind you or any kind of loud noises are going on. That’s just courteous things that I think of. I’m pretty sure everybody is pretty lenient given the circumstances.”
Some players like former Temple linebacker Shaun Bradley have taken their Zoom setup to the next level. Like TV reporters with their home studios, Bradley transformed a wall in the spare room in his Philadelphia apartment to a backdrop for his video calls. He makes sure the guys on the other end of the camera can see his Temple helmet, school pamphlets and a Temple sticker.
“I’m ready to go live,” he said with a laugh.
Both Bradley and Taylor received FaceTime calls from the Pittsburgh Steelers in the past month. For Bradley, seeing coach Mike Tomlin’s face on his phone was a little surreal.
“I was shocked,” Bradley said. “I’ve only seen him in video games and TV, and to think I’m actually talking to him, I was in disbelief. It was kind of cool …”
When Tomlin called Taylor, the running back couldn’t help but laugh when he noticed the Steelers’ head coach was outside, enjoying a walk around his Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh.
“It was pretty funny,” Taylor said. “He said in his house there wasn’t a great connection or something was going on. So he was outside on a walk.”
Questions were getting serious with one team, and just as they tried to go even deeper, the connection on Smith-Williams’ phone cut out. “I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m sorry, I know that was really intense, but can you repeat that for me? I missed it,'” he said. “They were like, ‘OK,’ and chuckled and laughed about it. We make do with what we can.”
While calls with head coaches and front-office personnel are short and mostly get-to-you-know talks, calls with position coaches and coordinators tend to last the longest and are filled with film work, regurgitating terminology and memorizing plays.
Prospects have found that teams trying to replicate film evaluation is one of the toughest parts of the virtual interviews. Imagine trying to watch a video on a laptop through the camera lens of a phone. Now, imagine trying to analyze that video in a job interview.
“My phone is only but so big,” Bradley said. “And they put the film up on their screen, you have to squint to see it, you’ve got to zoom in, and then you’re holding up your [work], you have to make sure they can see it on the camera. It’s definitely challenging.”
On Jashon Cornell‘s first Skype call, a team wanted to show him slides, but the slides weren’t working on the app. So a coach FaceTimed the former Ohio State defensive tackle separately to show him the presentation through his phone, and Cornell had to balance looking at his phone and talking with the rest of the group on his laptop at the same time.
“Trying to watch film and the connection being good the whole way through and remember different plays, it’s kind of difficult,” Cornell said. “You’ve got to be on your toes and stay focused.”
While some agents have sent their players white boards to keep nearby for diagramming plays, Taylor and Cornell have done most of their work with a pen and paper. Like others working from home these days, Smith-Williams has found it’s not all bad.
Even though he’d rather get the experience of an in-person visit to a team facility, there is some comfort that comes from doing the interviews from home. Smith-Williams takes most of his calls from the window seat in his Raleigh, North Carolina, bedroom.
He also changed his wardrobe. Smith-Williams started out wearing suits and collared shirts, but after a couple of calls, he started dressing down.
“I realized all the coaches were in ball caps and t-shirts, so I just matched what they were wearing,” Smith-Williams said. “I think we all get that it’s a weird time. I don’t think they expect me to take a call in a full suit versus if I came in person and wore it to make a good first impression.
“Even though it’s a very important, serious interview I’m going through, it’s kind of watered down and a lot less pressure because it’s not like I’m in a room with 15-20 people staring at me. They’re watching me over Zoom or over FaceTime. It’s definitely different than a war-room setting.”
Adding to that comfort is his 2-year-old dog, Luna. A couple of times, the black-and-white rescue jumped in his lap and made an appearance on the calls. The coaches loved it.
“Everyone’s laughing, like, ‘Oh, here’s my dog, too,'” Smith-Williams said. “It’s just such a different feel than it would be if it were an in-person interview.”
For projected late-round or undrafted players like Smith-Williams and Cornell, the in-person interviews and pro-day workouts are invaluable. It’s another chance for the teams to get a look at their athleticism and skill set, and it allows them to have medical evaluations done by a team’s in-house physicians. But, the pair admit, the video calls can still be helpful because the calls allow them to talk with more teams than they might’ve interviewed with during top-30 visits. And, it’s another resource teams can use when making decisions on priority free agents.
“It’s a win-lose situation,” Cornell said. “You’re losing the in-person, being able to sit with them, and on the win side, you’re able to talk to multiple teams throughout the week instead of having to go visit teams for two days and then come back and fly to another team.”
It’s not an ideal set up for teams, but it does allow them additional time with prospects outside of the structured availability at offseason events and gives them an opportunity to get to know a player better.
“It’s a fancier phone call, and yet you can actually take a player through a test,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “You can spend time with someone maybe outside of the 10-minute or 12-minute time frame you have formally at the combine when you interview someone. The horn goes off and the interview is over. A lot of times, when we leave the combine, there’s some follow-up work still. … And so it’s just a way to have eye contact with a player, be it through a scout, a position coach, a director. And really it’s just additional time spent.”
Like so many others, Cornell’s pro day was canceled, but he got creative in showing coaches his strength and endurance. He doesn’t have a gym at his home in Minneapolis, so he and his trainer take many of his workouts outside.
One of those workouts went viral when his agent, Mike McCartney, tweeted a video of the nearly 300-pound Cornell running up an incredibly steep hill.
Since the NFL can’t go see the Draft Players train, let’s take some Draft Players to the NFL. I’m going to post some of my Draft Players workouts focusing on the ones with no Pro Day. Here’s Buckeye DT @JayRock_9 running hills last week at 293 pounds. pic.twitter.com/EjgUPa5QRA
— Mike McCartney (@MikeMcCartney7) April 6, 2020
Since the video was tweeted on April 6, the old school workout has come up in many of his team interviews.
“I think this one hill workout going viral just means it’s working,” said Cornell, who added he ran up the hill 13 times on his first day. “Just to show teams that I’m staying in shape and I’m still grinding. I’m not just sitting around not doing anything.”
Even though the format changed dramatically and rapidly, leaving everyone involved scrambling to adapt to the new norm, at their core, the video calls serve the same purpose as the team visits. They’re job interviews — an opportunity for the teams to figure out if a player is the right fit, and for the player to get to know his future employer. Answer their questions, and don’t be afraid to ask plenty of your own. Relax and show them the real you. That’s the message Taylor and Bradley’s agent, Barry Gardner, makes sure his guys remember when they go into these calls.
“Have fun with it,” Gardner tells them. “And if the last thing you can leave a general manager, personnel director, coaches, head coaches with is an opportunity to laugh or smile, the thought of you will be further cemented into their minds and hearts come draft day.”