Hoosiers making the best of pre-draft process

Nick Westbrook was looking at Indiana’s pro day like a game. One of the biggest of his life.

As a likely late-round or undrafted NFL prospect, the former Hoosier was understandably anxious to grasp any chance to perform for scouts. The 6-foot-3 receiver didn’t receive an invite to the league’s combine in Indianapolis. So after taking advantage of his opportunity at the East-West Shrine Bowl in January, Westbrook headed for a training facility in Seattle with IU’s March 23 pro day in full view.

“I’m working my tail off for everything leading to that date,” Westbrook said. “It’s kind of like the first game of the season, where it’s like you’re going through fall camp and everything is building up and anticipation is building up. And it gets to a point where you are getting antsy and you just want it to come already.”

From Westbrook’s training site in Seattle — one of the earliest epicenters of the looming COVID-19 pandemic — it became apparent that well-laid plans were going to be disrupted. By mid-March, IU’s football pro day was canceled. Not long after that, Westbrook was headed home for Florida.

“Here I am, I’m ready to perform. Like, I’ve done everything I can to be ready for this moment, and for it not to be there, it’s just tough to kind of handle, especially for a guy like me, didn’t get a combine invite,” Westbrook said. “So I have a lot to prove, and I felt like I could prove it at the pro day and I really could have benefited from it. But I just have to roll with what’s happening because it’s unprecedented times, for sure.”

Westbrook is one of several Hoosiers trying to make the best of a bad situation, as the NFL Draft has yet to be pushed from its April 23 start date. Fellow 2019 captains Simon Stepaniak and Reakwon Jones are back home, too, just trying to find accessible gyms to work out, or open fields where they can get in some agility work. They have agents bringing up their names to NFL personnel people, hopeful there will be a chance to compete for a roster spot come May.

That’s assuming the spread of the coronavirus slows and the draft and rookie minicamps go on, as scheduled. Given that uncertainty, there is some added anxiety. But it’s also important to be thankful for what they have experienced.

Westbrook had a chance to compete at the Shrine Bowl, running some routes and getting face-to-face time with a few scouts. The veteran linebacker Jones competed at the Tropical Bowl. Stepaniak, the freakishly strong lineman, put up 37 reps of 225 pounds at the combine, second only to the 44 racked up by Fresno State’s Netane Muti.

There was certainly more they could have shown at a pro day. Stepaniak, in particular, is still in the process of recovering from a knee injury suffered during bowl practices. He didn’t participate in field drills at the combine. Stepaniak’s at-home regimen now includes his local Athletico for physical therapy work, getting himself back into playing shape without potential NFL bosses getting to see his progress before the draft.

But Stepaniak is keeping it all in perspective.

“It’s a blessing I can still even get in and get rehab,” Stepaniak said. “I can’t be mad about anything I’m getting now.”

Needless to say, this is just a novel process for all involved. There are no pro days, and prospects aren’t being invited to NFL facilities for visits.

Because NFL scouts have been taken off the road, Stepaniak has been having video chats with teams to go over Xs and Os.

“It’s pretty weird, being on a FaceTime with a football staff, having to draw on a notepad and do all that stuff to show what you know and comprehend what they’re going to teach you,” Stepaniak said.

The 321-pounder has been able to talk with several teams, including the Jaguars, 49ers, Dolphins, and Bengals. He’s stressing to them that his knee should be 100 percent by the start of camp, whenever that is.

Back home in Florida, Westbrook has been trying to stay in the best shape possible, too. But it’s not everything he imagined.

He’s ordering delivery for healthy foods from the grocery store chain Publix. He doesn’t have dumbbells at his parents’ house, but Westbrook’s father, who works as a photographer for Disney, does own large sandbags for anchoring light stands and other equipment. Those bags have handles, which make them just as good for lifting.

After a workout on his neighbor’s weight set, or some speed and agility drills at the local park, the sandbags allow for some more fine-tuning.

“So you just have to be creative with what you do to stay in shape,” Westbrook said, adding he ropes his mother into these workouts. “But it’s kind of fun, at the same time, to say I’m going through this, and hopefully if everything works out, I may get into the league and look back at my story and my journey and how I was able to do that.

“And I was basically doing Rocky workouts in my backyard, my back driveway.”

The lack of a true pro day was a bummer, but Westbrook tried to make up for its loss.

Before he left Seattle, Westbrook filmed his own “pro day,” getting some drill work on camera, sending the footage to his agent for it to be edited and distributed to NFL scouting departments.

“I wish I would have been able to get a professional videographer to put it together, but with my circumstances, I just had to make the best of what I had and just ran the show myself,” Westbrook said.

It wasn’t a perfect scenario. The “pro day” was so impromptu, Westbrook wasn’t able to throttle back on his training in the days leading up to that video, truly performing at his peak.

But, in many ways, the result was still a product of what led Westbrook to this point, and what has been beaten into his mind by IU coach Tom Allen the last several years in Bloomington.

“It’s what Coach Allen and all of my coaches, probably every coach at Indiana, would say. ‘Control what you can control,'” Westbrook said. “That’s how I approach this, and stay ready for whatever happens.”

11 comments

  1. This group of players all across the country are in a uncomfortable position as they wait for their chance at a NFL career. Many people have been impacted by this virus but we often forget about the football players that are leaving the college ranks. As bad as this virus can be, I am more concerned about the economic disruption devastating people’s lives and the resulting consequences.

    Good luck to the three IU players and I wish them the chance to play in the NFl this coming 2020 season.

  2. I think you are going to see a lot of really talented players available as undrafted free agents due to the fact that the teams just aren’t going to have a chance to look at them pre-draft.

  3. I don’t remember the exact stats, but I think it is around 50% of all NFL players were un-drafted free agents. Shows you how exact the NFL’s evaluation process is.

    NFL teams have everything they need in order to evaluate players coming out of college. So what if they have to substitute face-to-face interviews with interviews conducted over the phone. They’ve got plenty of film, their college position and head coaches to speak to, coaches of teams that played against the kid, etc. It’s a roll of the dice no matter how thorough you evaluate the kid.

  4. “Of the 1,947 players, 1,374 (70.6 percent) were an NFL draft pick. That means roughly three out of every 10 players in the NFL were in fact undrafted.” 2012 figures from https://bleacherreport.com/articles/1641528-where-does-nfl-talent-come-from.

    Another article said that 40% of playing time is by undrafted players, suggesting that they punch above their collective weight.

    Although these articles don’t confirm 50%, it nevertheless indicates that 1) player evaluations/draft selections are indeed a crapshoot and 2) trading a first round pick for a player you need and a couple of later picks is probably a pretty good bet.

    1. davis, I could not agree more. Being a contractor in the field of mgt. evaluation I had to respond to your thoughts. The military model is undeniable: sergeants are backbone for everyday results. I told my 3 sons from the time they could read a team full of 7’s do insurmountable tasks lead properly. If I were an NFL GM I’d trade every 1st round pick available. I’m also of the opinion you could trade for a 1st rounder and subsequently trade him and come up aggregate talent far superior.

      1. I agree with that for guys in the trenches, but every team still needs playmakers that are uber talented. You can’t win a championship without those type of guys. Name the last team to win a Super Bowl that didn’t have a big time playmaker on that team. Lunch pail guys are good, but they won’t bring you a trophy. Unfortunately, you will still need to overpay for a high quality WR and QB in a pass happy league.

        1. 7’s(of 10)are playmakers and not just in the trenches. They play every down harder than the 1 before. But what the QB can execute is important.

          1. Concur about the QB, HC. Papa Bear said that the only shortcoming football has as a team sport is the premium placed on the quarterback position (recommended reading: “Halas by Halas,” Halas, Morgan, Veysey; McGraw-Hill; 1979).

          2. Thanks much davis. Like Wilson said earlier on after arriving in Bloomington, ‘offense is dictated by what the OL can block and the QB can execute’. Since hearing him state that I watch every offensive play through that window.

  5. I believe Stepaniak will be drafted and has the chance to last a while in the NFL. Not too many guys who can bench press 225 lbs. 37 times. His size, strength and his experience playing in the Big Ten’s East Division should make him a safe pick. An NFL team can never have too much depth at O-line.

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