NFL Scout’s Take: What Exactly is a Pro Day?

Apr 25, 2016 Comments Off on NFL Scout’s Take: What Exactly is a Pro Day?
North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz is seen during the school's NFL football pro day, Thursday, March 24, 2016, in Fargo, N.D. (AP Photo/Bruce Crummy)

Top prospect North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz during his school’s NFL football pro day (AP Photo/Bruce Crummy)

The Super Bowl is the king of sports television. Every year millions of fans watch the NFL’s best collection of players from that particular season square off for the Lombardi Trophy. When the Super Bowl concludes, football fans tend to enter into a period of hibernation. Is there football news going on in February and March? Yes, but it mostly centers around off-the-field stories and quite frankly, that gets old real fast. Until colleges start up their spring football practice season most football fans are watching other sports or just disconnecting from sports period. However, there is one group of people that watches more football than anybody else on the planet. When fans go into hibernation this group of individuals hit the streets even harder and watch countless hours of film on players from all over the country trying to find the next group of guys that can help get their team to the Super Bowl. Who are these guys? They’re NFL scouts. When the football season ends, their “post-season” begins.

What are these guys doing when the average fan checks out after the Super Bowl? Like accountants prior to April 15th, the world of an NFL scout goes into overdrive after the season ends and their national tour begins. They should have tour shirts like rock bands do because they visit just as many towns and dates, if not more. Except in this world, they’re not living the glamorous rock star lifestyle on the road. Their days are filled with hours of time in film rooms, on practice fields, and in coaches’ offices. When they’re done with that they get to spend their evenings in their hotel rooms typing up reports on the prospects from the schools visited that day. If you thought all scouts do is go to games on Saturdays, think again.

Unless they’ve been hiding under a rock for the last 20 years, football fans are familiar with the NFL Draft. The NFL Draft has become a significant event all on its own. ESPN and The NFL Network have wire-to-wire coverage of the event that really does start soon after the conclusion of the Super Bowl in early February. At the end of February the NFL invites college senior prospects to the NFL combine to conduct interviews and workout in front of every eyeball that works in the front offices of every NFL team. Is it all or nothing for these players at the combines? No, but it can help or hurt a player’s draft status. If you’re not invited to the combine are you doomed? No. In fact, none of the underclassmen that declare for the NFL draft are even at the combine; and only 350 of the roughly 6500 players the NFL scouts evaluate get invited to the combine. So how do these other guys get to show off their talents and athletic abilities? That’s where a player’s “NFL Pro Day” comes into the picture. Have you ever wondered what really goes on behind the scenes at an NFL Pro Day? You’re not alone.

Sports-glutton.com has worked with a few scouts in the past to bring fans a backstage pass into the world of NFL scouting. During this draft cycle, we were fortunate enough to travel with another NFL scout and shadow him during 2 different NFL Pro Days in an effort to show fans what goes on behind the scenes in this process. This time around our wingman on this journey was Ryan Cavanaugh, a longtime NFL college scout for the Houston Texans. He has been an NFL scout for 15 years. Every scout has a dedicated territory they are responsible for scouting for their respective team. Cavanaugh covers the east coast from North Carolina all the way to Maine, with the Big Ten Conference footprint thrown in the mix as well. I learned quickly after looking at his travel schedule that these guys are true road warriors, not just during February and March when the season ends, but throughout the entire college football season.

Cavanaugh explained, “From the minute our preseason camp ends we hit the road in our territories in order to reach every school, some multiple times; and we don’t’ stop until right before the draft. This isn’t a job you can do from a distance with a computer. You have to be hands on and you have to be living in these programs. The success of your team, and ultimately your job, depends on the depth of what you do to evaluate the players in your area.”

Next up on his itinerary? Two pro days in his area. A school’s pro day is like a mini-combine day for that school’s prospects on their home turf. Each school runs their day a little different but they all do everything they can to show off their players, and in essence their programs when the NFL scouts come for their pro day. Like the combine and the draft, these pro days have become huge media events as well. Earlier in this draft season Ohio State had a huge pro day with a record number of players and NFL personnel attending their event. ESPN and the NFL Network were both on hand to broadcast the entire event. It’s an example of how another piece of the NFL Draft process has grown in stature.

We checked in early in the morning. As we’re checking in I notice that the other scouts are all standing together exchanging some small talk. Despite what I assumed coming into this, the scouts actually interact a great deal with each other throughout the day. It’s not the secretive espionage world I had envisioned…to a certain point.

Upon check-in the scouts are given a list of the players that will be working out that day. Each scout quickly scans the list to see if it matches what they were expecting to see. According to Cavanaugh, in addition to players the scouts expect to see on the list, there could be guys from previous seasons or even players who never played much may still show up to display their skills in an attempt to catch the attention of a scout with a fast time or strong position workout. What surprised me was that Cavanaugh still knew who these guys were and their stories.

Cavanaugh commented, “It’s always interesting to see who’s on the list. I usually have an idea of exactly who I’m looking to watch that day for a number of reasons. Maybe they weren’t at the combine. Or if they were at the combine maybe they didn’t do all of the drills or had a subpar performance. Different reasons for different guys. But I get it; some guys are using this opportunity as their last chance to get noticed. The uphill climb for them is the fact that we are here all year long. If we haven’t noticed them at this point, then they better be ready to turn in a special performance that’s a game-changer.”

After asking to explain further what he meant by “uphill climb”, he explained what has gone into his evaluation of each school’s prospects before they even get to pro day. As mentioned above, the moment the NFL teams break from their preseason camps the scouts hit the road. They start visiting every school to watch practice, watch film, and watch games. But it doesn’t stop there. The scouts also start talking to everybody in and around the program that can help them learn more about every player and every little detail about those players both on and off the field. In this day and age, on-field talent alone doesn’t get your name called on draft day. Teams today want to know what kind of person they’re drafting, not just what kind of player you are on the field. It’s the scouts’ job to be the teams’ investigative eyes and ears on the ground in every way possible. So by the time the pro day arrives, the scout has already watched multiple games, practices, and countless hours of film on the guys working out that day. If you’re a real prospect, chances are the scout has already “written you up” before Pro Day.

What exactly does Cavanaugh mean by “writing a guy?” He explains, “When I say I ‘wrote that guy’ that means I saw enough in my evaluations of that player to warrant creating a profile on the player and I’m preparing that profile to present to my team when we go over prospects in my area. If you’ve been written up, then you have a chance.”

After checking in the scouts filed into the team’s meeting room. The coach in charge of that pro day, usually the team’s strength and conditioning coach, will give the scouts a preview of the day’s events and a brief synopsis on each player that’s participating that day. As the scouts waited for that to begin I observed them comparing notes on who was on the workout list. They weren’t getting into specifics like, “We really are high on this guy,” or conversations that deep or revealing. As I mentioned before, they were more talkative with each other than I expected, but only to a certain extent. Any chatter about specific players was surface-level type stuff. Comments could be heard critiquing certain players, but nobody was opening up their files on the player and showing their actual profile on that player.

“Asking guys who they’ve written up is good for small talk and a quick gauge on that day’s prospect list, but you’re really not going to learn much from their answers.” Cavanaugh continued, “Guys aren’t going to really tell you who they’re high on. First of all, the no-brainers are high on everybody’s list. Some of the others may catch your attention if other guys wrote them up, but most of the time you’ve written them up too.”

The school’s coach who previews the day is there to sell their guys to the scouts. They try to lay out some expectations for how the players will perform and tell the scouts about specific things to keep an eye on. After the orientation everybody headed into the weight room for all of the indoor drills. This is where the scouts take over and from that point on it really is their event at that point.

When I say takeover, what I mean is the scouts are actually the ones who run all of the drills, similar to what you may have seen on television during the combine. There’s a reason for this. One thing you learn quickly is that there is a specific formula to how scouts evaluate prospects. Now there are definitely nuances to that formula and how each scout or their team may analyze those evaluations, but some things are going to be universal. For instance, the combine drill results. They want to achieve the highest degree of accuracy possible with the drill results and measurements in order to be able to apply those results in a repeatable fashion when comparing different prospects in the draft. If the pro day drills are not executed in the exact same way they were at the combine, then the results are not transferrable and therefore they are not relevant. As a result, the scouts set up the drill and they all, to a man, have the same, strict expectations for how each drill is to be executed. If a player deviates from those instructions none of the scouts hesitate to stop them and make them start over. I witnessed a few scouts tell guys to start over and in some cases get frustrated with the player.

“The drills are designed for a certain reason to show us different skill sets and body functions we need to see in each player,” explains Cavanaugh. “But it’s also a small window into how these guys react to coaching and how quickly they follow instructions. We’re watching how they act and carry themselves through out the day. Another thing I watch is their energy level through out the day. We’re looking at everything.”

The first part of the day is spent in the weight room area. They’ll measure the players’ heights and weights. They’ll measure their vertical jump and their broad jump. They will also do the bench press at this time. The only people in there are typically the scouts, prospects, coaches, teammates, and maybe a section where family can watch the activity. The second part of the day is out on the practice field. This is where more family and friends will attend and the media typically attends this portion of the Pro Day.

The average fan knows what a 40-yard dash is for and what the bench press shows the scouts. But what about some of the other drills? What is the 60-yard shuttle used to show? What about the 3-cone drill or the 5-10-5 drill? I heard repeatedly from the scouts during those drills, “Guys, do it right. We want to see each part of the drill executed for specific reasons.” Cavanaugh explained those specific reasons to me. “The 5-10-5 drill, or short shuttle, is best at showing how a player bends. You can’t cheat this drill. The 3-cone shows bend and change of direction. The 60-yard shuttle shows if a player can stay low and what kind of body control they have. Plus, it shows their effort and energy level.”

One of the other preconceived notions I had coming into this is that there is no way the scouts can keep track of hundreds of players in their area; and that they probably use the pro day to reintroduce themselves to each player’s skill sets. Wrong on both counts. As I listened to the scouts talk about the players participating that day one thing stood out to me; these guys know everything about these players by this point. Not just the stars from each team, but the other guys trying to impress them too. In some cases, they were predicting 40-yard dash times down to the exact tenth of a second for each player, even guys that weren’t at the combine. And they were getting those predictions right.  

In one instance they were discussing a player who was having a terrific pro day to that point. The guy ran a fast 40-yard dash and was very explosive in all of the drills. He definitely looked the part. So what was missing? The scouts were commenting on the fact that there wasn’t much film on him, which meant he didn’t play a lot this past season. One scout told me the worst thing they can do is get enamored by a great workout and forget about how the player performed on the field, or the fact that they didn’t play much. Now sometimes it’s not that the player wasn’t any good because it could have been a roster issue where they were loaded with talent. Either way, the scout has to figure that out.

Cavanaugh explained further, “This is our job. This is what we’re paid to do. We spend all season tracking down information and watching film on every possible prospect. If I came to this pro day and didn’t know who I was watching, then I haven’t been doing my job. By the time I get to pro day, I’ve already written up all of my preliminary profiles of the prospects in my area. What I’m doing now is waiting to see if there are any great workouts that make an impression on me or make me add anything to my profile on specific guys. Another thing we may do at these workouts is ask the prospects more questions or follow up on some of their interviews from the combine to clarify a few answers. And remember, we’re not just focusing on the guys we may draft. We’re also keeping track of the guys we may want to sign to free agent contracts after the draft. In most cases this is our last chance to see them before the draft.”

Notre Dame's Romeo Okwara runs a drill during Notre Dame's NFL football Pro Day in South Bend, Ind., Thursday, March 31, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Notre Dame’s Romeo Okwara runs a drill during Notre Dame’s NFL football Pro Day in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

As the drills were finishing up the players began to do position drills. The scouts will run these drills as well, but sometimes teams will send their assistant coaches to run these drills. Typically if you see a position coach, like an offensive line coach, at the pro day; then he’s probably there to check out an offensive lineman or two that the team is interested in and want to evaluate further. It gives the coach a chance to work with a guy that may be in his group if they draft him. This was the case at both of the pro days we were at on this trip.

During the position drills the scouts are either watching the drills or talking with the other prospects on the sidelines. As far as the drills go, some guys do well and some do not. Even my amateur eyes could see that the cream rises to the top. To prepare for these drills, a lot of the guys these days go work out with “combine trainers” the minute their college season ends to get ready for the combine and their pro day. In fact, a whole new industry has been born in this area. A quick google search will turn up hundreds of links and you can even find sites that rank the different training programs by listing their previous clients and the draft results of their prospects. Cavanaugh said it’s a double-edged sword though.

“Well, the good side is that some guys really do improve their technique and learn more of what it takes from a work-ethic and nutrition standpoint to take care of their bodies. The problem is that everybody is going to these trainers now, including guys that will never come close to getting drafted. Some guys lose that football “shape” when only preparing for the drills. Like anything, there are going to be good trainers and average trainers. The trainers that are the most honest with their prospects are better in the long run with this process. Honesty with expectations is important.”

Cavanaugh isn’t the only one harboring concerns about certain prospects when they visit for pro day. Other scouts told me about different types of concerns they have at every pro day. Some of these are born from the fact that the scouts notice everything that goes on throughout the day. They notice how you interact with the coaches. They notice how you run on and off the field. They notice if you’re in shape or not. They notice your attitude. Nothing slips by the scouts.

One said, “Look at that guy. He’s already tired. How on earth are you not in shape for one of the most important days of your career?”

Another mentioned, “I’ve had numerous players tell me that they’ve been working really hard since January for this moment. My question is, ‘Well, why weren’t you working hard before January?’ This day and age, these guys have all of the resources available to them at their schools to help them make it to the next level. If they haven’t taken advantage of those resources then that’s on them and it makes you question their desire.”

One guy discussed off-the-field issues that he will try and get clarified at a pro day. He explained, “One kid was posting questionable material on Twitter and then pulled it all down. Did he truly realize it was a mistake, or was he just trying to hide it, and in essence, hide who he really is off the field?”

When I asked one scout what he thought a certain player needed to work on he responded, “Honestly? His degree.” Ouch. Nobody said making the NFL is easy. In fact, only 1.6% of NCAA players make it to the NFL.

At one of the pro days I stood and listened to a few scouts quiz a player pretty hard. Well, they were casual and friendly in tone, but their questions were not easy. The player handled it the best he could, but it wasn’t hard for the scouts to get him mixed up in his answers. The player was clearly nervous and wanting to represent himself well. Of course, who doesn’t get nervous in a job interview? I noticed one or two of the scouts hang back with him after the questions ended and gave him their cards. I pulled one of them aside to ask why they did that.

He explained, “Well, he didn’t do badly with the questions because in the end, he told the truth and was honest, which is what I needed to see. He has some decent film and had a great workout today. We’re interested in signing him as a free agent after the draft and I wanted to make sure he knew that and who I was so that a relationship was established.”

Therein lies another part of this draft process, the free agent market after the draft. A father at one of the pro days mentioned to me that his son had been out to dinner with a scout the night before and was going out to dinner with another after his pro day was done. That struck me as odd because that particular player was not really showing up on any mock drafts nor was he one of the main guys I heard being discussed among the scouts during the pro day. Cavanaugh explained exactly what all that meant in the scouting world.

“It’s like the recruiting process all over again. There are always a certain group of guys teams will target to sign as free agents after the draft. Well at that point, those guys can sign wherever they want and may have multiple options. If they’ve never heard from you before that point then the chances of them choosing to sign with your team are slim to none. Guys will sign with people they know.”

Finding the next group of talented players to bring into your franchise is like putting together a puzzle. The pro days are one of the final parts to putting that puzzle together. As mentioned above, they can serve as confirmation that a player has the talent and skill to make an NFL roster, or they can serve as confirmation that a player doesn’t have what it takes to make an NFL roster. Either way, once the scouts step on campus everything a player does that day matters. From the way you carry yourself on the sidelines to the skill level you show in the drills, the scouts will see it all.

As each pro day wrapped up the scouts finished up conversations with prospects and coaches in attendance. Then they checked in with each other about other pro days in the area and who was going to each one and what the rest of their “season” looked like. In some cases scouts were done and headed back to their respective team’s headquarters to get final evaluations and profiles in place for the draft meetings with their front office personnel. Others were headed back on the road to the next tour stop. Until the NFL Draft begins on April 28th, the only certainty is that a scout’s job is never over.

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