The ITP Draft Guide contains not only scouting profiles of 100 draft prospects, but additional essays, analysis, interviews, and more. The following description of February and March activities in the scouting calendar is excerpted from a larger article, found in full in the draft guide, describing the NFL scouting process.
For many NFL team employees, April’s NFL Draft marks the transition between one season and another. While the Super Bowl is the culmination of the hard work of dozens of players, coaches, and front office personnel, the decisions made on draft day are the product of the combined work of legions of scouts and executives who have been hard at work for months, dating back to even before last year’s draft. Their numerous campus visits, late-night drives, cross-checked reports, medical examinations, private investigatory work, and caffeine-fueled draft board arguments all help determine who will be chosen in the draft – and who will not. While many fans do not seriously look at the draft until after March Madness, for scouts and teams the draft season never ends.
With months of tape watching, scouting trips, debate, and logistics to complete, teams cannot wait for one year’s draft to complete before beginning the preparation for the next year. The draft process begins in the spring, with scouts visiting spring practices, especially the “junior day,” kind of a mini-pro-day for rising seniors. Rising juniors or redshirt sophomores are draft-eligible, too, but teams do not formally scout them until they declare for the draft. Scouts will get basic measurements from the juniors: height, weight, arm length, hand size, et cetera. The players take the Wonderlic aptitude test and may run the 40. Scouts will also compile basic background information and injury history.
It may sound overwhelming to start on next year’s draft in the spring, right in the thick of sorting through the more immediate work of draft boards in preparation for the draft. Unsurprisingly, therefore, most teams elect to outsource this spring scouting. All but a handful of teams subscribe to one of the scouting services: National Football Scouting, Inc. (NFS), which has 21 member teams; and BLESTO (an acronym for “Bills Lions Eagles Steelers Talent Organization,” though membership has changed over time), which has seven, with teams changing affiliation periodically through the years. Member teams in these services typically designate a junior scout as the NFS / BLESTO scout. This scout spends the spring capturing this boilerplate information, which is shared with all member teams, not just his employer.
While the scouting services are hard at work on the early stages of the draft process for the following year, teams are in the final steps of information-gathering for this year’s draft:
Tape scouting is by-and-large finished, but a lot of pieces that remain are critical. Teams will spend the next few weeks addressing the red flags in their evaluations, especially medical and character concerns. The Combine, pro days, and private workouts all provide opportunities for players to get in a room with team coaches and executives and show them that they are the kind of people they are looking for: hard-working, conscientious, intelligent, responsive to coaching, confident, resilient, self-aware, etc.
The Combine, held in late February and early March, is the first big event. Teams hold meetings prior to the Combine to fill the coaches in on who the players are and what their background is. Most coaches are not plugged into the evaluation process during the season, as they must focus on the week-to-week duties of coaching the team, so this is really their first exposure to the draft class. They have a lot of catching up to do.
Players participate in a variety of drills at the Combine: the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical and broad jumps, the 3-cone and shuttle drills, and the Wonderlic. Some players will decline to do some of these, either because of injury or because they think the drill might be unfavorable. Sometimes projected high picks won’t do any drills, having little to gain and potentially something to lose. There are also some position-specific football drills, which are done without pads. All of that is public, but the medical evaluations are private and arguably more important. Teams convert six rooms in the basement of Lucas Oil Stadium into exam rooms, full of doctors from five or six teams and plenty of medical equipment, including a portable MRI machine. Prospects are subject to a battery of medical exams and questions so team doctors can decide how much of an injury risk a given player poses. Players go from room-to-room, getting the same questions and examinations from a half-dozen different teams so that each team has all the necessary information.
— Eric Sugarman (@EricSugarATC) March 1, 2017
Players also meet the coaching staff and front office personnel of individual teams. Teams meet with 60 players in scheduled, videotaped 15-minute block. These meetings vary considerably from team-to-team and from player-to-player. In some cases, the interview might be more focused on character assessment, getting a bead on the player’s personal qualities or asking uncomfortable questions about off-the-field issues. A psychologist might even be present. Other meetings might drill deeper into the X’s and O’s, with a coach or coaches going over tape with a player or asking him to describe a play or a scheme.
Ever wonder what goes into a #NFLCombine interview?
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) March 2, 2017
Free agency begins shortly after the Combine. Teams should have a sense of which of their players are likely to leave in free agency and which free agent targets they want to pursue. Smart teams look at both the projected free agent class and the draft class in combination in formulating plans. If the draft projects as a strong one for tight ends, for example, they might be inclined to let their backup tight end leave. If they don’t like the offensive tackle draft class, they might target a veteran tackle in free agency.
College teams will schedule pro days in March or early April. These serve as mini-Combines, containing a lot of the same timed drills, positional drills, and medical information as the Combine. Players who were not invited to the Combine, were not healthy enough to participate, or chose not to participate can run the drills, and those who were unhappy with their Combine metrics can get a second bite at the apple. Players from colleges that are too small or have too few prospects to conduct a pro day can participate in regional combines or a pro day at a nearby school. Longtime scout John Peterson explains that pro days can be a factor in breaking ties or moving players within tiers, but only amount to roughly ten percent of the evaluation. NFL teams also conduct local pro days, a team-run workout for players who attended high school or college in the area.
NFL teams can also meet with prospects at private workouts. Teams can officially meet with 30 prospects, either at their own facility or at the prospect’s home or school. The players can decline an invitation, either because of injury or lack of interest in the team. These workouts are private, unlike the pro days, and not time-limited, unlike the Combine meetings. That gives teams opportunity to really dig in with a potential top pick. Sometimes teams will use the private workout to get up-to-date medical info on a player who couldn’t participate on the Combine or pro day due to injury. They might also want to meet with a player with off-field or character concerns.
With millions of dollars on the line, teams will go to great lengths to chase down rumors or gauge off-field concerns. Scouts will visit with a player’s old high school coach and teachers, tracking all the way to sixth grade to get a bead on who the prospect is as a person. The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin reported a story from former Tampa Bay Buccaneers GM Mark Dominik about the steps the team took to learn about wide receiver prospect Justin Blackmon:
The Buccaneers sent a scout to Blackmon’s college town and hung out at a popular bar from 3-11 p.m. every day. The scout saw Blackmon come into the bar too many times, and Dominik, picking No. 5 overall that year, took Blackmon off his draft board.
Blackmon ended up going five, but to the Jacksonville Jaguars, who traded up with Tampa Bay. He flashed tremendous promise early in his career but played only 20 career games before various recreational-drug-related suspensions took him off the field. He has not played since 2013. That’s a worst-case scenario, and fear of such situations drives teams to send scouts, security personnel, and other staff to make as certain as possible that the players they draft will be available on Sundays.
The ITP Draft Guide
Over the past several weeks, Inside the Pylon staff have been hard at work on our first annual draft guide. We have incorporated a number of steps from the draft process that real NFL teams use (with a massive nod to Scouting Academy Director Dan Hatman):
- Teams of ITP scouts breaking down film for each position.
- Cross-checking within position groups and between position groups by ITP scouts.
- A valuation process to create a draft board, ranking within positions and overall.
- Biographical information like that compiled in scouting services reports.
- Analysis of scheme fit in the scouting reports.
- Analysis of one-to-three-year projection in scouting reports.
- A grading scale that features a numerical grade and flags denoting various positive and negative qualities of note.
- A scouting language with guidelines as to what adjectives like “exceptional,” “very good,” “solid,” and “marginal” mean, and what constitutes effective “click-and-close,” “speed-to-power,” “stack-and-shed,” and more.
The guide also features essays by ITP contributors, dynasty fantasy analysis (including Individual Defensive Player (IDP) rankings), and more. There are plenty of draft guides out there, but nothing quite like this. We are thrilled to bring it to you. More information at https://itpdraftguide.com/.