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Loss of pro days makes it harder for NFL teams to find next Austin Ekeler

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Three years ago, Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler was preparing for the jump of his life -- from a Division II college team to the NFL.

He attended Colorado's pro day, trying make an impression on NFL scouts, in March 2017. Each of the 20 Division II players in attendance would get a shot at the vertical jump and 40-yard dash. The best three would continue to work out. The other 17 would be sent home, their NFL dreams likely dashed.

Ekeler, who played at Western State Colorado, was one of the players from smaller schools who waited hours for the Division I players to finish their pro day. A third of the NFL scouts, facing long drives or flights, left. Those who remained were antsy.

Then Ekeler jumped 40.5 inches in the vertical test.

"After that, everyone was like, 'Whoa, wait a minute,'" Ekeler said. "Everyone was writing stuff down like, where did he go to school? I was like, 'Hey, y'all, I'm an actual contender.'"

Then he ran the 40 in 4.48 seconds.

"Before, they were trying to figure out why I'm in Division II, and my coach was like, 'He just slipped through,'" Ekeler said. "They'd tell them my lift numbers and [scouts] were like, 'No way does he lift that.' They didn't believe it. It takes a pro day. It's an opportunity to show scouts, 'Yeah my numbers are legit' and to show them what I have."

That pro day performance made Ekeler a priority free agent pursued by multiple teams, rather than a likely tryout camp invitee. He got his chance with the Chargers and early last month signed a four-year extension worth up to $24.5 million.

"His 40 time set him apart, and the more we saw, the more we wanted to see," said Randy Mueller, the Chargers' senior executive of football operations at the time.

Opening eyes as Ekeler did is a golden opportunity the class of 2020 won't get, because pro days are canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. That has forced agents to be creative and teams to rely on previously gathered information. Players are left to worry about the impact of it all.

Complementing game tape

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One phrase stands out for teams: Trust the tape. However, pro days confirm what scouts have seen on tape -- especially if they're seeing the player perform drills for the first time. The skill-position players need to have a 40 time next to their names in order to help their standing.

"If you've got a wide receiver ... and you have a draftable grade on him and there's a question about his speed and you never see him run? That's not good," said one NFL talent evaluator.

If, for example, a team has four players on its draft board during the middle rounds but three didn't run, the one who did would have an advantage. A team would lean toward the guy with good tape and drill times. The more information, the better.

But sometimes the pro days highlight fool's gold. If a team has a particular player as a priority free agent but shoots him up the draft board based on his pro day -- and not his film -- it could be a mistake.

"You're going to have to balance the risk/reward in the draft process," Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said. "We view it like a seesaw. We like the subjective and the objective to kind of match up, and [then] we feel really good about that decision. And when there's less on one side, then you want to take out some of the risk to the extent that you can."

But, Roseman said: "There will be some effect in terms of the guy who didn't go to a bowl game and never tested. I think that person may be affected in a different way."

The top NFL prospects have game film against high levels of competition and there's more medical information available. But for the other players, the cancellation of pro days means a lost chance to improve their time in the 40-yard dash. Or for low-end prospects -- as Ekeler once was -- the loss of another chance to impress teams.

"[Every prospect] doesn't go to the combine, they bank on those pro days," Mueller said, "especially the small-school kids who don't get a pro day of their own."

Many agents for players who were counting on a pro day this year have worked to find solutions for their clients.

An improved 40 time

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Utah running back Zack Moss is projected as a Day 2 pick in the April 23-25 NFL draft. But questions about his speed intensified after he ran a 4.65 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine on March 2. Moss needed a pro day to prove his combine time was more about an injured hamstring than his speed. An improved 40 time could mean the difference between being drafted early in the second round or perhaps early in the third. His 4,752 yards from scrimmage (and 41 career TDs) helped his status considerably; the 40 time could cement it.

"I knew I could improve it," Moss said. "No panic button ... the fastest guys aren't always the best players. My whole focus was showing coaches how intelligent I am about the game instead of just being a super athlete in shirts and shorts."

Jamal Tooson, Moss' agent, worried about perceptions of various college conferences and set up an individual workout.

"For guys out of the Pac-12, [a pro day is] more important than guys out of the SEC," Tooson said. "When you're coming from a program like Alabama, irrespective of how your pro day or combine went, if you played at a high level against pro-level competition, they value film heavier, in my experience.

"[For other prospects] you really have to put both the film and their workouts in front of the decision-maker's face."

Other agents had the same idea for their clients and followed a similar plan. They would set up multiple cameras to shoot their players running a 40-yard dash and send the footage to NFL teams. The shot would be framed wide enough that a scout or general manager could time it while watching.

When Moss ran, there was a camera set up in the bleachers, another on the sideline and one from behind. Tooson provided all those angles to teams. Moss ran the 40 twice -- at 4.52 and 4.54. The clip also showed his splits; the sprints were laser-timed just like at the combine.

"It's definitely weird," Moss said. "This entire time and process is not how I imagined it."

But one issue with this sort of situation: Are all teams receiving the homemade video? Tooson sent the video to every team that had shown "substantial interest" and needed a running back.

"If the rest of the league isn't getting it, that's a competitive advantage," one talent evaluator said, speaking in general about the videos.

Florida Atlantic receiver DeAngelo Antoine had been planning to hold his own pro day, with workouts mirroring those at the combine. His agent, James Paul, had the workout mapped out knowing what it could mean.

Antoine, who had been working out six to seven hours a day at XPE Sports in Boca Raton, Florida, has had to be patient. He attended the College Gridiron Showcase all-star game after the season, but he was limited to practice.

Paul said Antoine's pro day is now scheduled for early April at XPE. Like other agents, he's trying to stay close to the date of the original pro day, knowing trainers worked to have players in peak condition for that timeline. But if XPE remains closed, Paul said, they will have to do a makeshift workout.

"Not having an opportunity to showcase my talents on a pro day, it feels like an opportunity is getting snatched away," Antoine said. "I keep God first and everything happens for a reason. I try not to let it be the end of things. All I need is an opportunity."

Looking for another chance

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A day before he was scheduled to run at the NFL combine, Stanford Samuels was on the treadmill. It was no warm-up. The former Florida State defensive back had to get through an hour-long stress test, taxing his muscles far more than he'd have liked before one of the biggest days of his life.

Still, Samuels wanted to run for scouts, so he agreed to do the 40-yard dash the next day. It was a bad decision. His 4.65 time was a disappointment, far worse than the times he had churned out in training.

No worries, Samuels figured. There was still his pro day at FSU to get things right.

"We're all looking forward to pro day, and when everything starts getting canceled, it throws everybody in the sense of not knowing what's next," Samuels said. "The anticipation factor, it gets so much worse when you don't know what to expect."

Until there was nothing left to anticipate. On March 13, Florida State canceled its March 27 pro day and left Samuels in a difficult spot. His less-than-impressive 40 time at the combine would stand as the sole benchmark for his speed, barring a last-minute solution.

"He didn't necessarily need the [40] time," said Samuels' agent, Ryan Rubin, "but he wanted another chance to showcase himself."

Samuels was training with a couple dozen other prospects in South Florida with Per4orm Sports, which rushed to put together a makeshift pro day for its athletes at a local park. The key, Rubin said, would be getting some NFL buy-in, so a handful of agents shelled out cash to hire a former scout, Richard Shelton, to oversee the workout, then brought in a film crew.

Samuels ran a far more palatable 4.5-second 40-yard dash, followed by a 4.53.

Rubin sent around the tape of the workout to teams. Some have shrugged off the results. It wasn't their scout timing things, so they remain dubious. Others have bought in.

"We've had some teams say, 'Send me more,'" Rubin said, "and if you can change one team's mind, it was all worth it."

Not just about the 40

For offensive linemen, the pro days aren't just about running sprints. Agent James Paul said scouts have told him they want to see how a lineman bends -- with his knees or at the waist. So for client Ryan Roberts, a tackle from Florida State, his workout video focused on short-area drills. Before the video was shot, Paul made sure the drills were identical to those performed at the combine. Everything needed to be exact.

"No one believes a 40 time on tape that they can't verify," Paul said. "But the short-area burst, fluidity in hips and knees, those are things they want to see."

Roberts played one year in a Power 5 conference (the ACC) after transferring from Northern Illinois. But he did not attend the combine, and his lone postseason experience was playing in the College Gridiron Showcase. Because of the pandemic, Roberts returned to his parents' home in Scottsdale, Arizona, where they have a home gym. He can lift weights, run on a treadmill and do yoga and Pilates.

"Making sure my body stays healthy and active," he said. "And you can always learn and watch more film. Go back and watch NFL games, watch the line play and watch tackles who dominate."

Therein lies another loss: the chance for Roberts to visit teams and express his thoughts on what he has learned. Lengthy video chats remain an option. Moss had one with the Washington Redskins, for example. During video chats, Tooson said, teams will draw up a play on a white board and ask Moss for his diagnosis.

But for a guy like Roberts, interviews are a chance to reveal his passion and perhaps convince teams he's worth a draft pick.

"I'm a nerd when it comes to football; I want to learn as much as I can," Roberts said. "I study a lot of different guys. ... Joe Thomas was so patient. He's another one I love to study, the way he'd punch and use targets. I listen to his podcast and how he talks about using his hands."

Roberts listed another half a dozen tackles he says he studies.

"That's stuff I can control right now," he said. "Sometimes your body needs a rest ... and when I'm resting my body, I can push my mind."

Making the most of it

Josh Hammond said he has always tried to shrug off the stuff that's out of his control, but it was hard not to be nervous when pro days started getting canceled.

"As all this started coming out, we were in the gym," said Hammond, a former Florida receiver. "Guys had left for their pro days and texted me back saying it was canceled. Once guys started seeing that, we still had hope, but we knew it was probably a matter of time."

Hammond worked out with Samuels at Per4orm, but unlike the FSU star, he didn't get a combine invite. That meant his tape from his time with the Gators was all he would have to show NFL teams.

When Per4orm put its makeshift pro day together, Hammond was grateful, but with little more than a day's notice and plenty of questions on where the event would be held, he had his concerns.

"Once the pro day got thrown at us, everybody was freaking out," Hammond said. "'Why does it have to be tomorrow?' But when you looked back and understood the situation, that was the best thing to do."

The morning was chaos, said Nick Hicks, director of Per4orm. They had been assured use of a nearby park, but when they arrived, the gates were all locked. At another park a few miles away, where another gym was hoping to hold a similar event, they found police escorting everyone out. Finally, they tracked down another spot -- a half-hour's drive away -- and the caravan headed off. Shelton flew in from Jacksonville, Florida, for the day, the group ran through 40s, shuttle drills and position workouts in about three hours, and in the end, Hammond had some numbers -- even if they didn't come in ideal circumstances.

"We had as much fun with it as we could, and put up the best numbers we can," Hammond said. "It wasn't ideal, but we did pretty well. We made the most of it and got it out of the way."

'Cherry on top'

Ekeler, who signed his extension with the Chargers, understands the benefit of that pro day in 2017, even though he also was confident in his film.

"His workout was really impressive," Mueller said. "He ran fast, but he also caught the ball well and showed NFL athleticism, and you don't see these small-school guys show that type of athleticism and skill. I saw it firsthand. Our area scout, Tom McConnaughey, put him on our radar. This workout stamped it."

Mueller said he, McConnaughey and another NFL scout, Travis Lash, kept after Ekeler following his pro day.

"The three of us recruited him for a month to make sure we got him," Mueller said.

Ekeler went undrafted, but Paul said the interest grew from perhaps one team -- the Chargers -- to half a dozen. Ekeler knows why: His athleticism matched what he displayed on film.

"It was like the cherry on top," Ekeler said of his pro day. "It helped solidify, 'This guy is a legit football player.'"

ESPN college football reporter David Hale and Philadelphia Eagles reporter Tim McManus contributed to this report.