COVID-19 wrecked Pro Days, so NFL draft hopefuls turned to 10-hour drives, bags of ice and vegetables

Once the internet router was gone — and the refrigerator, washer and dryer — Brendon Hayes needed to be out the door as well.

The University of Central Florida defensive end had stayed in Orlando past his roommates and their communal amenities. His master’s classes had all moved online due to the COVID-19 outbreak, his Pro Day canceled. Hayes wondered how he could prove to NFL evaluators he’d fully recovered from December rotator-cuff surgery. His doctor’s office closed, he had no equipment to practice defensive-line drills and nowhere in Orlando could he record a credible 40-yard dash.

“Take it from this point of view,” Hayes told USA TODAY Sports by phone last week. “You’ve been training for three months for a Pro Day to exhibit your talents that you basically developed over the span of your lifetime. And then, weeks prior to it, you’re told you won’t be able to exhibit it. There’s a letdown.”.

So Hayes rented a U-Haul earlier this month, packed up his clothes and bed and minifridge, and drove 10 hours across four states to reach home in New Orleans. Reunited with his trainer’s resources, he at last filmed Pro Day drills to send NFL teams Saturday.

Hayes is one of hundreds of NFL hopefuls jumping through hoops to catch teams’ attention ahead of Thursday’s draft. But players who weren’t invited to all-star games or the 2020 scouting combine in February face an unexpected disadvantage. On-campus Pro Days and team visits are often fringe prospects’ only opportunities to recruit in person. COVID-19 eliminated those.

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“It’s going to really impact the non-combine players,” NFL Network draft expert Daniel Jeremiah said. “Where you didn’t get a chance to get medical (records), where you didn’t get a chance to visit with them. It’s going to penalize them.”.

So fringe NFL prospects are improvising.

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Do-it-yourself Pro Days

Chase Fourcade wanted to convince NFL teams he’s not too small to succeed as a pro. Nicholls State (Thibodaux, Louisiana) listed its quarterback at 6-0, 200 pounds on the 2019 roster. But NFL evaluators want proof.

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So Fourcade’s trainer, Derrick Joseph, and agent Carlos Hornbook designed a socially distant but credible way to illustrate measurements. A meetup with fewer than 10 people at a local indoor facility followed.

Fourcade cycled through 16 minutes of scripted throws that ranged from a deep curl to a pivot, from a 9-yard stop vs. Press to a “deep dig 17 to 20 yards out.” He also sent teams a 130-second video during which a scale confirms he’s 197.2 pounds and a ruler overlaying an 8-by-11-inch piece of paper contextualizes his 9.6-inch hands. The video pictures Fourcade, standing socks-only against a wall, just above a tape measure’s 5-foot-11 mark. Footage wraps after two 40-yard dashes, short shuttles, broad jumps and L drills.

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“One thing that’s nice is to at least size guy up,” one AFC assistant coach told USA TODAY Sports. The coach spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t publicly authorized to comment on his team’s draft process. “Arm length, hands — you can’t cheat on that. Vertical jump, can’t cheat. Broad jump — can’t cheat on that.

“I’ve found a couple guys (from self-made combine film). … It’s going to be watched.”.

In the weeks prior, open-field throwing sessions and at-home resistance workouts needed to suffice after COVID-19 shuttered the gyms, indoor fields and yoga studio where Fourcade trained. He learned new stretches to keep his shoulder loose, resistance-band exercises to strengthen his back. Fourcade’s newest job–after COVID-19 eliminated his valet gig at a New Orleans theater — helps, too. Across eight-hour work shifts at Pelican Ice Company, Fourcade lifts 10- and 20-pound bags of ice from forklift to automatic raft.

“I kind of treat it like football,” Fourcade said of the $10-an-hour position that, paired with modified workouts, fills 16 hours of his quarantine days. “Doing reps and reps and reps, over and over and over again.”.

Fourcade’s supervisors at Pelican know they may be down an employee if an NFL team invites Fourcade to join its 90-man roster. He hopes someone will take a chance on the accuracy and ability to escape pressure that powered his 10,707 yards and 70 Nicholls State touchdowns. Fourcade knows he has room to improve reading defenses and protecting the ball. He compares his freshman-year 55.1 percent completion rating to senior-year 67.8 to illustrate that growth.

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“I think I watch more of my mistakes than the ones I made good on and that’s what makes me a better player,” Fourcade said. “I hope somebody catches their eye on me.”.

He’s not the only one hoping that.

‘You have to get more creative’

Tulane defensive lineman Mike Hinton cycled through combine-like drills in the New Orleans area with that same goal: to catch evaluators’ eyes.

Hinton knew his 2019 stats dipped as he transitioned from three years in Columbia’s 4-3 defense to a season in Tulane’s 3-4. The technique was “crazy different,” Hinton injured his groin, and he battled for playing time in a position room he knew would be deep. Hinton tallied 11 tackles (two for loss), a sack and a pass deflection in 2019 after registering 70 tackles (13.5 for loss), three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in 30 Ivy League competitions.

“But I think I proved I could play at this level and overcome adversity,” Hinton told USA TODAY Sports. “This was my biggest year of growth as a football player as far as physicality, getting off the ball, twitch. The little things.”.

All the more reason Hinton was disappointed when his regional Pro Day scheduled to take place at the Saints facility was canceled. Hinton worried: Could he still show teams the skills that made him versatile enough to play from four different defensive-line positions across the two schemes?

“A lot of different aspects of our workouts got cut out,” Hinton said. “So you have to get more creative with your resources.”.

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Teletraining workout plans from Joseph aimed to improve Hinton’s explosiveness via vertical jumps, single-leg jumps and hurdles over cones or towels. Hinton began cooking his own meals (“I started eating vegetables for the first time,” he laughs) to keep his weight up. Simultaneously, he balanced graduate coursework in coding, marketing, strategic consulting and supply-chain operations.

Hinton knew from his analytics master’s degree: Data is important. So even without equipment to show full lineman drills, Hinton was relieved he could send teams film of bench-press reps, footwork drills and a 40-yard dash.

“It’s doable and probably the best thing they can do,” the AFC assistant coach said of YouTube pro-day workouts. “Only one you could fudge on would be the 40. But sometimes a 40, for a down guy, is not what the time is but how you run it.

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“You can see an athletic guy move, you see all the redirection stuff. So No. 1 thing I’d tell those guys is go get a good (workout).”.

‘My hands are tied’

It was that realization that contributed to Hayes scrambling to rent the U-Haul and drive the 10 hours to New Orleans.

Sure, teams already could watch film from Hayes’ 7.5-sack season. They could revisit his sack on a play-action pass Oct. 26 against Temple or his seven-tackle performance against LSU in his last game before the rotator-cuff tears. Hayes even downed the 2020 expected No. 1 draft pick, Joe Burrow, in UCF’s 40-32 loss at the Jan. 1, 2019 Fiesta Bowl. But Hayes worried: Was that enough?

“It’s hard for me to say it — I really don’t want to say it — but I feel like my hands are tied at this point,” Hayes told USA TODAY Sports on April 1. “The margin of the questions they still have that they want answered, and me answering them, is closed right now.”.

Only after he reached New Orleans at 5 a.M. Last Wednesday could Hayes change that. He split time between workouts and homework, submitting a final group project on Friday then filming his Pro Day drills on Saturday — with less than a week to spare.

Hayes’ next hope: Finish his master’s degree, and sign with an NFL team, by month’s end. Friday, the student of urban and regional development will turn in his capstone project that proposes how public-private partnerships can best incentivize affordable housing. He’ll then hope NFL teams call. The draft ends Saturday. Offers to undrafted free agents typically come soon after.

Whenever and wherever that chance comes, Hayes takes solace knowing he gave himself his best shot.

“If I don’t, then who will?” He said. “In life, really, if you don’t take the initiative, nothing’s going to happen.

“I feel better from a peace-of-mind standpoint … To even take part and exhibit my talent to teams.”.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

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