Lions don't shy away from small-school prospects, but lack of pro days will hurt players in 2020

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — How many NFL players do you think you could name? 50? 200? 

Even the most passionate fans would struggle to identify the 53rd man on their favorite team's roster, let alone the starting right guard or nose tackle for the Houston Texans, Arizona Cardinals or New York Jets. 

During the offseason, teams are actually permitted to employ 90 players and those rosters will soon be fleshed out with rookies, many of them undrafted. Some of those players will come from big schools, such as Georgia or Ohio State, while others will have you scrambling to Wikipedia to figure out where Franklin College or the University of the Incarnate Word are located. 

Kristian Wilkerson

The Detroit Lions have rostered players from both of those schools in recent years, by the way. 

For those small-school NFL hopefuls, March is typically an important time. Outside of a tiny percentage, where their physical gifts and film are enough to earn a combine invite — think safety Kyle Duggar out of Lenoir-Rhyne — most count of their pro day to give scouts and NFL decision-makers one last chance to go back look at their film.

Most won't get that opportunity this year. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone, in different ways. For these NFL hopefuls, it has wiped out the majority of pro days as college campuses have shut down, NFL teams have shut down employee travel and a national recommendation remains in place to limit gatherings to 10 or fewer people. 

More: A dozen free agents who could still help the Detroit Lions

The lost opportunity might be enough to kill the already tenuous dream of playing professional football for a living.  

"Pro days are really important to these guys especially, who might not have had the combine invite or being very visible on television week in and week out," NFL agent Greg Linton said. "The scouts that actually go to their games can tell a lot from the film, but the questions they might have had about speed or agility, those are questions that will be left unanswered."

Linton's agency, HOF Player Representatives, has more than a dozen prospects for the upcoming draft. The majority of them you've never heard about because they exist on the fringes. A couple have a shot to be drafted in the later rounds, but most are hoping to work their way onto an offseason roster where they at least get a chance to impress on the field. 

Like most everyone else, Linton is confined to home. His state isn't currently under a shelter in place order, but there's no point hitting the road like he normally would this time of year. Plus, he has two young children at home he needs to care for during the day while his wife continues to go into work. 

Khalil Brooks

Despite the unique circumstances, Linton continues to work on alternative opportunities for his clients to showcase their speed, strength and agility, as they would have in a pro day environment. 

"It's terrible," Linton said. "It's the coordinating of the times, but no training facility is doing this for one person. If they train 10 guys, they're trying to get as many of those guys there as they can. You work on that schedule, then you work with the video people getting it cut up, then you have to get it sent out to each team. I'm pretty sure every scout is getting inundated with hundred of emails right now. Are they going to be able to look at your guy?"

The answer is probably not. One AFC scout said he's actually not receiving an abundance of videos via his email inbox, but even if he was, he wouldn't be be looking at them. 

The scout is confident in the work he and has team have done throughout the season. And since the majority of the work on players has already been before pro days, he believes they're prepared to draft and draft well with pro day data. 

"What it seems like many (teams) are doing is looking at guys they were already interested in," Linton said. "It's terrible because if you have a guy that might not be able to be seen, but you know scouts will be at his pro day looking at another guy, he's missing a chance to open up some eyes."

It's definitely a unique environment. NFL Network reporter Tom Pelissero, after talking to multiple NFL executives, said teams will enter the draft without verifiable measurements for 30-40 percent of their draft board and no medical grade on 15-20 percent of prospects. 

While every team is scrounging for every bit of available data for the players at the top of their draft board, Linton is pushing to get NFL teams information about his clients, including Southeast Missouri State receiver Kristian Wilkerson, Tarleton State cornerback and return man Prince Robinson, and Middle Tennessee State linebacker Khalil Brooks.

Wilkerson is among Linton's clients with draftable potential. Listed at 6-foot-1, 204 pounds, he caught 71 passes last season, for 1,350 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, earning some FCS All-American honors. And according to Linton, Wilkerson has pro-caliber speed, running the 40 in the 4.4s. But he's not likely going to get an opportunity to prove that in an official capacity before the draft.

Austin Ekeler

In a year where the receiver class is as deep as ever, that's a lost opportunity for Wilkerson. Fortunately, he has good enough film that he's still garnering attention. Linton said 17 teams have shown interest. 

But for some of his other clients, they won't get a chance to be one of the handful of guys each year that alter perceptions through the pro day process — players like current Chargers running back Austin Ekeler, who did just that in 2017. 

A 5-foot-10 running back for Western Colorado, Ekeler had a vertical of 40.5 inches and ran a 4.43 40 at Colorado's pro day. Those verifiable measureables likely earned him a shot as an undrafted free agent that year. And after 1,550 yards from scrimmage last season, he earned a four-year, $24.5 million extension from the Chargers. 

The bottom line is many fans are missing sports right now, the games that filled evenings and weekends. It's just one part of our daily life that's been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The good thing is we know sports will come back, eventually. But for the small school football player, who has exhausted his college eligibility, this might be the end of the line, the end of their dream. It's unfortunate, but this situation has robbed them of a last lifeline that could have kept it afloat.