The NFL season is underway and Week 2 is in the books. Player stories are emerging now as traditional stars are lighting up the stat sheets and the “new” or “surprise” players are gaining recognition. Every year there are players in the spotlight that I never heard of when they played in college. At the same time there are players who got a lot of recognition during their college careers, but end up getting cut in the NFL. As somebody who follows college football closely from coast to coast, I’m always left scratching my head on how so many “unknown” college players become NFL regulars or even star performers, and the well-known college stars flame out in the NFL. Look at the current rosters in the NFL, or for a lot of you, look back at the fantasy football rankings you used to draft your teams this year. There are a lot of names on there that you would be hard pressed to find on recent All-American lists in college football. I mean seriously, where did Jeff Tuel, T.Y. Hilton or Cecil Shorts come from?
The quarterback position is a great case study of this phenomenon. The Carolina Panthers cut Jimmy Clausen on the final cut day this year. Clausen was their 2nd Round pick (48th overall) in 2010 after a highly publicized career at Notre Dame. He was even called “a once in a decade QB” and listed by Rivals.com as the #1 Recruit in 2007. So what happened? He got beat out for the number 2 QB spot by Derek Anderson, somebody who has managed to have an 8-year NFL career to date and is best known for one solid year in Cleveland…back in 2007 when Clausen was enrolling at Notre Dame. Now, just to test my point here; do you know what school Anderson played for in college? If you can’t answer this question without Google then you are in the same boat as me, and probably 99.5% of other NFL fans, with the .5% who know the answer being those fans who follow the school Anderson went to or the conference he played in.
I ask again, how do so many unknown college players end up starting on NFL teams? Well let’s ask the expert on this topic…an NFL Scout. I caught up with a guy who’s been in the scouting business for over 12 years. I wanted to go behind the curtain and what better way than to speak with a scout who lives behind that curtain. He is currently with his second NFL team and in order to get candid feedback and honest testimony I’m keeping his name and team anonymous. So let’s get started…
AFTER 12 YEARS IN THE BUSINESS, WHAT GETS YOU UP IN THE MORNING…WHAT DO YOU STILL LIKE ABOUT SCOUTING? - “Are you serious? I get paid to watch football man. Yes, it’s a job, but every year when that first weekend of football arrives I get every feeling I had when I was growing up. I can be in a giant stadium or, like last week, I can be at some small school college game. When the band comes out, the fans are filing in and I’m on the field watching warm-ups…it’s like I’m a kid again. It’s the best.”
SO IS THERE ANYTHING YOU DON’T LIKE ABOUT YOUR JOB? - “Oh yes. I hate the liars! The lying, loser BS artist liars! I hate dealing with liars. And also some of the egos. The guys that think they invented the game of football drive me nuts too.”
WAIT, WHO ARE YOU REFERRING TO, COACHES? – “Coaches, agents, teammates and even the players themselves. You have to sift through the BS to get to the truth about each player. In some cases the head coach has told their staffs to cover for the player. They’re protecting the player and I can understand that idea. A coach bad-mouthing one of their players would get crucified if that leaked to the media. But the liars will lie about the bad stuff and the good stuff. You have to become somewhat of a private investigator and really know the character of these coaches and the players. Again, you figure out who the liars are and who will give it to you straight. But again, after 12 years that part gets easier with experience.”
WHAT DO FANS NOT UNDERSTAND ABOUT WHAT SCOUTS DO? – “They always think we recruit. I don’t recruit. We don’t ask people to come play for us. Or, they always ask which guys on the team I brought in. It just doesn’t work that way. A team does not draft or sign a player based off of one scout’s opinion. Our team has a process where at least 7-8 people are going to set eyes on a particular player before we decide to draft or sign a guy. I get the ball rolling. Then another scout cross checks my reports. Then we have a notional scout that double checks that. Then there’s the position coach, the coordinator, the head coach and eventually the GM will look at the player. My job is to gather as many facts as I can to start the process. Most of what everybody else in our scouting department will see is football related. I have to get the character part right.”
YOU MENTIONED KNOWING THE PLAYER’S CHARACTER BEFORE – “Right. Well it’s a big deal and the only way to gain this knowledge is from scouts like me who are at these schools all year talking to anybody that may know the kid. But my job isn’t just to point out bad kids. It works the other way too. I’m constantly having to convince the coaches and other scouts that the player is a good kid. Some guys get bad public reputations but inside the locker room they are good kids. Sometimes a coach will hold one thing against a guy and it’s my job to ease those concerns so that we don’t miss out on a great player due to misconceptions about his character. The coaches will get a chance to interview the guys at the combine, or talk to people at the pro days at different schools. But at that point, especially at the combine, everybody is full lying mode or have been coached by their agents exactly what to say and what not to say. So again, I have to get that part right. If I bring a guy in who ends up being a jerk or worse, well now I look bad.”
WHAT ELSE IS CRUCIAL TO YOUR JOB? – “You must see your prospects live in person, whether it’s a practice or a game. Film is important but you can’t only rely on film. In fact, I would get slammed in my meetings if I recommend anybody I haven’t seen live. The reason is that film can trick you. Guys look great on film, but in person you realize they don’t stack up to NFL players. The body measurements matter for each particular position. The NFL is a man’s game. Watching the NFL game from the sidelines will blow your mind. The speed and power are hard to imagine. It’s no place for boys. You can’t recommend boys to your General Manager.”
HAVE YOU EVER GONE TO THE WALL FOR A GUY? – “Yes, particularly with my last team. The set-up there was more of a debate atmosphere and arguing was par for the course. I had to get into plenty of arguments there because that’s how that process worked. Some places like a ‘yes-men’ atmosphere, some like the fighting atmosphere and some are like the system my team uses. Football wise, our process allows us to come to a consensus which is good because you want differing opinions in order to do your due diligence. For example, I hate slower WRs. But my team likes big WRs, and when you want bigger guys, they may be slower. So every scout has their likes and dislikes and like Baskin Robbins, there’s a favorite flavor for everybody. Bringing in more eyeballs is what makes our process efficient and successful.”
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE DRAFT? – “I like to watch every pick. The draft is what allows me to evaluate my own skill. Whether we pick the guys I like or not, I’m watching to see where they go and compare that to how I graded them. And on that note, I like to follow guys I didn’t like and see if I was right or not. I might even watch them closer because the guys I didn’t like who end up doing well eat away at my ego and makes me want to work harder. There was a LB this year I was thought was no good, and he made a team’s final roster this season. That will eat at me this year.”
IS THERE MORE TO IT IN DECIDING IF YOU WERE WRONG OR NOT? – “Yes, you really need 2-3 years to decide how a guy is going to pan out or not. Like that LB, I’ll be interested to see if he even plays. More importantly, I’ll be interested to see if he shows up on the substance violation list. He was 220lbs when I evaluated him and now he’s 250lbs all of a sudden. I’m waiting for his four-game suspension.”
SPEAKING OF THE DRAFT, WHAT DO YOU THINK OF ALL THE DRAFT “EXPERTS?” – “Well, I like Todd McShay. I really do. The guy really does his research, watches the film, and grinds at his job. Mel Kiper grinds too, but in a different way. He had so many contacts in the front offices so he just gathered his information mainly through talking with GMs. Unfortunately for him, those contacts are slowly phasing out of the league, so he’s lost some of the really good information he used to have at his disposal. But he’s upped his game now after the arrival of McShay. The best of them all though is Mike Mayock, from the NFL Network. He’s a straight shooter and does well evaluating talent.”
DO YOU HAVE ANY CRAZY DRAFT DAY STORIES? – “Absolutely. One in particularly involved a GM and the head coach. I was just an intern moving the name magnets on the draft board. The head coach was dead set on taking a certain DB in the first round. The GM said they needed to trade the pick and move back in the draft and that the DB would still be there. The head coach objected, but the GM promised him the DB would still be there. We traded the pick and the DB was picked a few spots later and we missed him. The head coach was so ticked off he left the office and didn’t come back for the rest of the draft! The tension in the room was thick. In the end, the GM was right because the guy we picked will be a Hall of Fame WR candidate.”
ARE THERE OTHER BATTLES LIKE THAT? – “Yes, between coaches and scouts. Always. We work all year and then coaches swoop in at the end of the process and try to trump months of research and erase what we’ve done. It’s not an all-out fighting situation; just an underlying current that always exists. The scouts are frequently in a position where we just feel like we see the potential of the players differently than the coaches do. But hey, scouts scout, coaches coach and players play.”
ANY GOOD SCOUT VS. COACH STORIES? – “Yes. Drew Brees and Russell Wilson. Scouts loved these guys. But coaches were scared away because of their heights. Who do you think was right? And with Brees, he exposed another big fear teams have in the NFL. How a player’s body will respond to an injury. That’s another major variable in this business. Can you play a long time in this league? Is your body capable of doing it? Some bodies just can’t recover. With Brees, San Diego was scared about his shoulder injury. So was Miami, who could have had him after the Chargers. Then he fell into New Orleans’ lap and the rest is Hall of Fame history.”
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT “MONEYBALL” TYPE SCOUTING? – “I read the book. I hated Billy Bean the whole book. He trashed his scouts. I understand what he was trying to do with sabermetrics in baseball. It’s not easy to apply that in football. But maybe I’m old school because I still believe scouting is an art form and evaluating a player has to go beyond a stat sheet. The problem with doing it in football is that you have too many variables due to the fact that it’s a team sport. In baseball a player is on his own at the plate or in the field. In football, a QB I’m scouting might have all the tools and traits we’re looking for, but his WRs are garbage or his line can’t block. So his stats stink. It’s my job to go beyond those stats and figure out if the guy can play if he was surrounded by good players. And that’s how you end up seeing guys you’ve never heard of playing QB in the NFL. Take a talented guy who had no talent around him in college and then surround him with NFL talent, and you end up with a Tony Romo or a Matt Schaub. In fact, Schaub’s backup, TJ Yates is a perfect example of that. His best year was when he was throwing to Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate, 2 current NFL players. He didn’t have that talent in his last year. This guy was trashed by fans while he was in college. Yet, he led Houston to their first playoff win ever and is now a legit backup QB in the NFL. And there you have the “art” of scouting.”
EXPAND ON THAT AND EXPLAIN TO ME HOW A GUY LIKE YATES MAKES IT AND A HYPED GUY LIKE JIMMY CLAUSEN GETS CUT – “Clausen is better than Yates. But he’s a jerk. His teammates didn’t like him, his coaches didn’t like him and he was basically a prick at Notre Dame. Big egos get cut because they can’t figure out how to have staying power in this league. A QB has to have the respect of his team or he will not last in this league. A QB has to be a leader.”
DO YOU WATCH MATCH-UPS LIKE JADEVEON CLOWNEY VS. JAMES HURST IN THE SEASON’S OPENING GAME? – “It’s hard not to watch those matchups. They stand out during the game. Clowney looked like he was quitting. Hurst looked like he was working Clowney in a way people didn’t expect. Hurst was highly touted and this definitely helps a guy like him. What happens next is the scout for that area will be at South Carolina and trying to figure out what was up with Clowney. Was he sick, was he out of shape, was he hurt, or did he just get handled by Hurst? Some guys in his position pick their spots and just try to get through the season without getting hurt. It happens all of the time.”
WHO ARE THE TOP NFL SCOUTING TEAMS? – “Baltimore, Denver, Green Bay, and Seattle…well this guy from San Francisco that helped get the 49ers where they are now went to Seattle and now he has built the Seahawks into a great team. Baltimore is very consistent. They always take tough, mean guys who fit their system. And they keep their pride in check. When a guy needs to be cut, they cut him. I like what they do. Pittsburgh was good too, but they have fallen back a step.”
WELL THEN, WHO ARE THE WORST? – “It was the Bengals, but now they’re better. The Jets are a mess. Jacksonville is terrible, but they have new guys trying to turn it around. And one that may surprise you…the Patriots. Brady and Belichick cover up a lot of mistakes their scouts make. Plus, who am I kidding, Belichick chooses every player on that team. For instance, one of their rookie WRs was considered a “free agent steal.” Well, he was available because his criminal background check was awful and nobody else would touch him. But because Belichick is who he is, he is praised for “seeing what nobody else could see.” They don’t just run through players because they’ve found better ones. They run through players because their original evaluations of those college guys were wrong. Where they are really good is evaluating the free agent pros.”
WHO DO YOU HAVE IN THE SUPER BOWL? – “After the first week’s games…Denver vs. San Francisco.”
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