An after-thought on the sports fan calendar 30 years ago, the NFL Draft is now one of the most marketable and highly anticipated three-day spans in the world. It sells the ultimate amount of hope, as teams welcome highly decorated former college student-athletes who are expected to one day be the savior of their respective teams, but what about the people behind-the-scenes? The ones that are doing a lot of the work to get to that point, but rarely have any of their names known. The average NFL fan can barely name their favorite teams general manager, but they were often once in the shoes of these individuals who hardly ever get any national popularity or credit for the time, mileage, energy and effort that they put into it to supply their teams with the apparel of the players that they wear year-in and year-out.
I got a special opportunity to interview two NFL scouts (who wanted to remain anonymous) about what a calendar year is like for them. “Over 10,000 Marriott points accumulated” and “rental car workers in multiple cities knowing my name as soon as I walk through the door” were two of many enjoyable quotes that were shared with me. It is a journey that many (including myself) don’t have any idea about unless you experience it first-hand.
May, June, and the early weeks of July are considered the “down season” for scouts and that is where they spend time with their families and many other duties that they know that they won’t be able to do for the next 8-9 months. “It is a grueling, yet enjoyable grind. I go two-to-three months at a time without seeing my wife and kids and it really sucks, but it’s the nature of the job and you understand why once you get involved within it.” These are the factors that fans don’t get to see nor consider. Once the middle stages of July comes, scouts understand that another yearly cycle is on the horizon.
It is August and it is officially their busy season. Training camp is considered the starting point of the scouts calendar year. During the first few weeks of training camp, scouts sole responsibilities are to examine the strengths and weaknesses of the team, and this is where general managers sit down with the scouting department and give a clear description of the types of players that fit their team profile, mold, and baseline requirements.
How do scouts know which prospects are at each school? Every team uses at least one of two national scouting services and databases that are called National and Blesto. Each database contains information about every prospect in the United States and Canada that is considered to have NFL potential. Included in that database are measurables such as height, weight and forty-time, but there’s also personal background information included within in it as well.
“I have a lot of schools and prospects to get to within a short time period. I’m not going to waste my time scouting an offensive lineman that’s better in a man blocking scheme, than a zone one and my team runs strictly zone concepts. By doing that, I just took minutes away from finding another prospect that can help my team win. Time is very precious with this job, so the databases are extremely helpful when it comes to things of this nature.”
Also, during these personnel meetings, the director of scouting from each team is responsible for assigning each scout a certain regional area of the country and that scout is responsible for attending each and every school in that area that has NFL-worthy talent. For example, a northeastern scout has to go to every school that’s assigned to him in that area no matter how ridiculous the amount may be. They have to find a way to fit all of these schools in their schedule. From an ACC school like Syracuse to a small division-III college like Hobart, scouts have to make sure that they attend every school because while Donovan McNabb was a widely known prospect, you don’t want to miss out on a chance to get an early impression of a small-school prospect like Ali Marpet, who’s in the same regional area.
One of the scouts was nice enough to take me through what happens and the actual sequence of events of the day when visiting a school to see a prospect.
Before visiting a school, scouts are responsible for reaching out to each programs NFL liaison in order to set up an arrival time. This time is usually around 7 or 8 a.m. depending on when the coaches arrive at the office on that particular day.
“Some of these schools are different with their times, but I enjoy a lot of the coaches. It’s a big fellowship and you’re initiating and developing relationship as well. I make sure to bring donuts or bagels and it gets repetitive at some points. I’ve had some coaches send me back because I forgot the bagels or donuts. You have to make sure to bring those! Coaches look forward to that, which I think is hilarious.”
The hours prior to lunch are spent watching film and taking notes on each prospect. Scouts also use this time to find background information from class professors, offensive and/or defensive coordinators, position coaches, strength coaches, athletic trainers and even custodians within the building.
“I want to be able to paint an on and off the field picture of this prospect by the time I leave that school. There’s been many times that I can tell you that there’s been mixed opinions about a prospect within a building. Does he treat the compliance staff with the same respect that he does his position coach? That’s something that I want to note because it reveals character and our trust factor with him if he becomes a member of our organization.”
Following lunch, scouts would now head to the field where they can see the prospect(s) on the field at practice. Many times, fans ask why scouts and evaluators like to see certain prospects in person, whether that be on the field or an actual game, after watching film on them. The answer was to simply see their intangibles and to see the things that you wouldn’t be able to see on film or TV. An example shared was former Texas offensive tackle Connor Williams, who ended up as a second round pick of the Dallas Cowboys. Texas was one of the schools included in this scout’s regional area. Along with Williams, he was evaluating other players there as well. The tackle was unfortunately not playing in this game due to a knee injury, but he still took extensive notes on him to see how he interacted on the sidelines with his teammates while he was nursing his injury.
“I wanted to see if he was still going to be in-tune with his teammates and helping the guy who replaced him or was he going to be just lollygagging and joking around with others during the game and just be there to wear a jersey on the sideline. Sure enough, he was helping others on the whiteboard, drawing up fronts and blitzes that that team was running and going over other stuff as well. That showed me a lot about him!” Examining intangibles, body type, pre-game regimen and if that prospect fits the description that the general manager outlined during their initial training camp meetings are a big part of what scouts look for when going to games in person.
These school visits take up most of the fall season for scouts, as they traverse their area of the country looking for NFL worthy talent… wherever it may be.
December and January
Outside of the NFL Combine, these months begin the tail-end of the true evaluation and information collecting portions of the calendar year. Scouts begin to prepare for post-season bowl games and all-star contests. The two most popular being the East-West Shrine game in St. Petersburg, Florida and the the Reese’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. These games have grown to become very popular over the past few decades and the talent has improved every year.
“I love going to the bowl games, especially the playoff games because it’s another opportunity for us to see some prospects play against the best of the best. It’s very helpful, especially when they’re matched up against a foreign opponent that they rarely ever played against in school history.”
Bowl games and all-star games are huge opportunities for scouts to confirm their initial assessments or discover someone new who may have not been on their radar much throughout the fall. A recent example from the 2017 draft was Arizona Cardinals first-round pick and linebacker Hasson Reddick. The former Temple standout wasn’t one of the headliner names coming into the Senior Bowl, but of all the prospects there, he helped himself the most and it resulted in him be selected on Day 1.
At the all-star games, teams are able to informally interview any prospect that they choose at the conclusion of practices and this is where scouts are able to add more information to the portfolio of a prospect while they watch them throughout the week of practices.
February and March
These two months are considered the most crucial months of the draft process. “Those two months prior to April, I hate even saying it because that lets me know it’s crunch time and this is where things intensify.” The NFL Combine and prospects’ pro days are the two biggest stages for prospects during the evaluation process. Taking place in Indianapolis every year, the Combine is a large spectacle and it is where every scout in the league gathers to get official testing numbers for over 250 prospects. To their choice, prospects will go through medical and on-field tests, positional drills, interviews and take a wonderlic test. A wonderlic test is used to test the I.Q. of players and it varies team to team (and position to position) how heavily it factors into their final grades and big board.
Let’s talk about the interview process.
These interviews with each prospect are basically like speed dating. There are rooms along a long hallway assigned to each team. These meetings are only 15 minutes and they are the first chance for the coaching staff and members of the front office to have a face-to-face talk with each prospect that they set up an interview with. There are a plethora of questions asked in these meetings. Film sessions, personality, and off-the-field situations are the most frequently asked, but there are always different types of ones that arise.
At the conclusion of these interviews and after compiling the official numbers from the combine, these numbers are recorded and go into a team’s database for future references, specifically when teams set their final draft board. The conclusion of the combine signals the start of college pro days.
Since the early-to-mid 2000’s, pro days have become huge events to the point of national networks televising them live. From Teddy Bridgewater’s non-glove wearing debacle, Johnny Manziel wearing equipment while throwing and this year with Sam Darnold having an impressive showing in the rain, quarterbacks garner the most attention, but other positions have started to grab the headlines at these events. The growth of pro day coverage has been tremendous and it’s only going to continue to grow in the future.
What are these teams looking for at pro days though? It varies by team. The scout I talked to marveled over Mitchell Trubisky’s pro day at UNC. What I found surprising was that he didn’t care about one pass that he threw on that day.
“I wanted to see how he interacted with everyone and if he was a true leader. Starting such a few amount of games (13), there where a lot of questions about his outspokenness, laid back personality, and if that could lead to him being a leader of a group of men. How did he talk to his receiver that he was throwing to? Was he in control out there? How did he bounce back from making a poor throw? Those are the things that I wanted to see. Of course, there were a bunch of other teams there for other reasons, but throwing wasn’t one of them for us. It was clear he could do that on film. It was a leadership and personality assessment. He passed our test with flying colors, though.”
These are the angles that many fans aren’t aware of and even something that I learned during this interview process. Each team has their own specific reasons (based on position) for attending pro days and it varies based on the prospect.
The first two weeks of April are designed to finalize the draft board. The number of prospects on the board varies amongst teams. Prior to the 2018 draft, San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch came out and said that “We’ve got just under 200 players on our draft board, that we see as draftable players on our board”, this may seem excessive, but the numbers are different per-team.
Thinking all the way back to the summer months of July and August, all the way to this point, there has been a lot that’s been factored into setting this board. “Long discussions, man. Very long discussions. We’ve had 17-18 hour days watching film and setting our final board and trying to weight the pros and cons of each guy we like. It’s a fun process though and you enjoy it because it’s like a puzzle, where you’re trying to find the correct piece to build and eventually complete everything.”
Factoring in summer evaluations, post-season bowl games, the NFL Combine, and pro days, teams have had a lot of chances to gather as much information as possible about each prospect that interests them. All of these variables are factored into setting the teams final big board.
“I’ve been in a war room where we use velcro magnets on a white board to where we have an electronic smart board that does everything for us. That just tells you how much disparity there is in the philosophies and technology in each war room. The biggest thing I learned about being in there though is just trust your gut, instincts and don’t be scared to speak up in what you believe in about a prospect that you’ve scouted. Some GM’s are different. Some listen to their scouts, while there are some that don’t factor in outside opinions much into their final decisions on draft day. Just know that you’re going to hit and miss on prospects, but just make sure to learn from each evaluation no matter what.”
The draft day stories shared were unique and phenomenal in their own ways. Overall, most fans don’t understand the day-to-day grind that it takes to be an NFL scout. Looking at the end result, it may seem like a job that’s fun, but little do we know, it is a hectic and rigorous lifestyle. From basically living out of hotels to being in a room with some of the organization’s most powerful individuals, being an NFL scout is no easy task. Factor in the pressure of putting your job on the line and in the hands of a process that is essentially a well educated guess. The information gathered and opinions formed from it from fans and evaluators are what make the NFL Draft so fun and one of sport’s most rapidly growing events.