The NFL Draft Before the Draft: Inside the Start of Scouting Season

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystOctober 28, 2015

Scouts from a variety of NFL teams watch players during NFL Super Regional Combine football workout drills Saturday, March 21, 2015, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

These are the dog days for NFL scouts as they traverse the country during arguably the most important portion of the predraft evaluation process. 

Life on the road for an area scout can be loosely described as a grind during the regular season, but those who are on the road throughout the regular season seem to prefer a different descriptive term: time intensive. 

Others appreciate the value of the work being done by these traveling talent evaluators. 

"It's a physical and mental grind," former NFL general manager and owner of Ted Sundquist said. "It's not a physical grind in that you're running wind sprints or anything like that but just getting up early, getting to schools, not eating right and sitting on your rear end all day then trying to stand the entire time at practice. They then have to drive to the next school the next day and do it all over again. It wears on them a little bit."

A cup of coffee or some other caffeinated beverage usually serves as the catalyst even before the sun rises. The rental car can be considered a scout's second home. Many miles of driving during a long day lies ahead as the NFL's eternal quest of finding the best talent continues unabated.

No scout would have it any other way. 

The NFL draft is still six months away, yet these early months during the regular season are critical in the draft process, because it's when front-office personnel and the scouts on the road do the bulk of their work. 

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The draft is now a 365-day-per-year process. Once the previous year's selection process ends, the following year's begins. 

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 30:  A general view prior to the start of the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 30, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Kena Krutsinger/Getty Images)
Kena Krutsinger/Getty Images

Everything starts when teams meet with whatever national scouting service—National Football or BLESTO—they use. General managers can then start the process of whittling down a list of approximately 750 prospects who are introduced for the upcoming season. 

Sundquist estimated he would be able to leave those initial meetings with 350 prospects he identified as potential fits for his team's parameters. 

By the time college football's regular season begins, the scouts have already been on the road for a month, checking out fall camps.

Once the season actually begins, days become hectic. 

Area scouts visit schools Monday through Thursday. Those days consist of being at the schools whenever the football offices open their doors. During those early hours, scouts are watching tape, trying to find information on prospects, taking school officials to lunch and doing whatever is possible to find out more about the players while on campus. 

The scout then takes in practice. Afterward, the area scout will either jump in his car to get to the next school or try to work on his reports based on the notes he jotted down during the day. Some might even circle back to watch more film.

NFL Scout's Daily Routine
5-7 a.m.Wake up, prepare for day
7-8 a.m.Arrive when football facilities open
8-noonWatch film, talk to school officials
Noon-1 p.m.Lunch with program's pro liason
1-p.m. until practiceContinue film work or on-campus interviews
PracticePhysically see how prospect looks, performs
After practiceTravel to next destination
8-11 p.m.Write reports from day's notes
Approximate times

"What we ask our guys to do in the fall: evaluate the prospects, watch the game tape and provide weekly reports," Baltimore Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said. "They're not actual scouting reports. They're more like updates on the players for that week. The actual reports won't be completed until some point in December. These weekly reports help give us an idea of the players our scouts are seeing and who they like. Who do we need to see? Who do we need to get more work done on?"

On average, a scout will visit his primary schools—bigger schools with more football talent—usually twice per season while visiting smaller schools once. 

These first impressions become vital to the entire process. While everyone seems to get caught up in late-season heroics, all-star game performances and even combine or individual workouts, a scout's initial report is an important guideline to the entire evaluation. 

Phil Savage
Phil SavageTony Dejak/Associated Press

"I think you'll get more of a pure evaluation now than you might get by the time you get to the combine and pro days," former NFL general manager and current Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage said. "These players are trained and coached up. They've been told, 'This is the way you should handle this or that question.' Oftentimes at the school, if you have the right sources, you can paint an accurate portrait of what a young man is all about."

Michael LaFlamme once served as an area scout for the Houston Texans, Chicago Bears and Buffalo Bills. He agreed with Savage's assessment. 

"The first report tends to be the best report," LaFlamme said. "Those are written by those who have been around the players and form those initial impressions. But, as others get ahold of them, that's how the misses get bigger and bigger."

Also, a prospect's story can change as the draft draws near. Well, the narrative can change based on the way an individual and his program are viewed. 

"When coaches or other people in the school know a player is being scouted heavily, it's amazing how the story tends to change from August to the end of the year," LaFlamme said. "It tends to be far more positive toward the end of the year. Before then, you get a more truthful and forthright answer than what you would get during the season."

The ability to read people, trust them and incorporate their views into an evaluation is a critically important piece of the puzzle. All scouts are worried about "gotcha" moments—information that comes to light after the fact. 

These moments extend beyond a player's actions. A scout must be able to accurately read people to know how much stock to put into the provided information. Sure, the scout will still take everything down to frame the entire picture, but his ability to work his way through all of the available information at his fingertips is crucial. 

The amount of information available on every prospect can be overwhelming. The scout must be able to sift through everything to do his job properly. 

"If you try to figure out every single little thing about every prospect, you're going to drive yourself nuts," LaFlamme said. "And you'll miss some of the big-picture things."

Oct 11, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy (76) reacts up against the New England Patriots at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports
Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

In today's NFL, character is especially important for certain franchises. With last year's public relations nightmare surrounding players such as Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy and Ray Rice, background information is a large portion of the process. 

"Unfortunately, there is more emphasis now on the off-the-field stuff rather than the actual tape during the fall, because people feel they have access to the tapes year-round," Savage said.  

Scouts, however, are not private detectives. Sometimes, the job might require similar skills, but three core pieces to every early-season evaluation help shape the complete picture.  

Intangibles off the Field

While recent NFL history indicates a player's off-the-field character is determined by his rap sheet (or lack thereof), this is not the case for every prospect who is evaluated by NFL teams. 

Teams are far more interested in the person, his level of intelligence, his acquaintances, interests and how he treats others than possible skeletons in his closet. 

When a scout first visits a school in August, he'll inquire about each prospect's academic standing. During later visits, NFL personnel will try to learn more about the individual. Such questions include: 

  1. How does he respond to coaching?
  2. What's the best way for him to learn?
  3. How close is he with his family and what are they like?
  4. What type of people will be a part of his life once he becomes a professional athlete?

Everything points toward understanding whether a player can succeed on the field, if he can be a good professional and what the team should invest in him. 

Off-the-field incidents are well-documented, but finding those is not the primary goal of scouts who are going onto campuses and digging for information. 

"The real core of a scout is being able to evaluate talent, and they should never lose that," DeCosta said. "His job is to come out of a school and know a player as a person but also what he can do to make the Baltimore Ravens win. So, we're never going to lose that. It's the most critical aspect of our job: to project a player's skill set and his ability to succeed at the next level." 

What a Prospect Offers on the Field

This becomes the fun part of the job, because it involves true evaluation. But it can also become a tricky proposition. 

Each week, scouts visit numerous campuses and watch players at practice. Their job is to see if the prospect stacks up physically and whether this translates to games. 

Sometimes, though, it can be a difficult, because availability for certain programs can be limited. 

"It's dependent on the schedule of schools," Sundquist said. "More and more college programs are restrictive of when they allow scouts into their facilities. Penn State, for example, was notorious during the Joe Paterno years that they only allowed scouts in one week out of the year. So, 32 teams would descend upon Happy Valley and try to get all of their scouting done on 10 to 12 prospects in a week's time. It was next to impossible."

During the season, it's actually rare for a scout to talk to a prospect. It's far more likely to occur at a small school. Certain programs simply limit access. 

However, others, such as Penn State, are now trending in a different direction. 

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

"The NFL feels we're very different than we've been in past years," Penn State Associate Director of Communications for Football Kristina Petersen said. "If you look on our staff, there are coaches with NFL experience. Coach Paterno's staff mostly worked in college. Coach [Bill] O'Brien's staff was a mixture. The same with Coach [James] Franklin's staff. So, we have coaches who have been at the NFL level. They understand the relationship and where some of our guys want to go and get them there."

Sports information directors become a big part of the process. They help guide scouts through the process by addressing the logistics of the position. These unheralded team contacts help set up credentials and parking and link the scouts up with those on staff who can provide game film and access to practice. 

NFL Scout's Weekly Routine
Monday-ThursdayTravel days, visit campuses, watch film, watch practice, interview school officials
FridayBig report day, might visit small school, catch up on personal stuff
SaturdayAttend as many games as possible
SundaySet up for travel, possibly go home and watch team play
Varies based on NFL teams

"We generally have scouts here daily, if not every other day depending on the time of the year," Petersen said. "Scouts are frequently on campus."

Access is crucial. 

It's difficult to determine how a player stacks up physically when scouts don't see him at practice or only through limited viewings. 

"Some schools made it more difficult to get the full information on players, because you're only there one week out of the year," LaFlamme said. "There are some coaches who believe in not talking negatively about their players either." 

Height, weight and speed numbers are important, but those same numbers can be inflated to the point where the prospect's ability to actually play the game becomes overlooked. 

The ability to chart physical attributes and watch game film is far different than seeing the players on the field in practice and especially in games. 

Live Exposure

Nothing beats seeing a player in action during live game situations. 

Monday through Thursday, scouts are usually on the road, visiting schools. Friday generally serves as the day that teams request the week's reports to be sent in after completion. Scouts can then catch up on a few personal things. Some might even visit a small school since larger programs are almost always closed to scouts for Friday walkthroughs. 

Saturdays become an opportunity to see those players in action. Scouts can usually see at least two games on any given weekend, and they're setting the table for the rest of the organization. 

Eric DeCosta with Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome
Eric DeCosta with Ravens general manager Ozzie NewsomePatrick Semansky/Associated Press

"We try to get three good evaluations on these guys in the fall," DeCosta said. "They give us enough information that when we move into October and November, we'll start taking trips and get more into tape. Just get a chance to watch these guys play." 

Area scouts aren't simply there to inform the front-office personnel of what is going on, because their early visits also allow the team to prepare later visits from its cross-checkers to come in and get a fresh set of eyes on prospects. 

Scouts generally won't stay for the entire game, but they'll leave that particular school with a good idea of where a player stands. 

"We encouraged scouts that even if they were planning on seeing a team, school or player a second or even third time during the fall to make sure before they got into their car to have that guy buttoned up," Savage said.

Essentially, the live viewing is the culmination of the work the scout already did on campus, at practice and hustling around to find information. Thoroughness allows these talent hounds to speak confidently and paint the proper picture of a prospect they've already seen. 

Technology and Social Media Forcing Scouts to Adapt

Hollywood popcorn flicks such as The Scout, Talent for the Game and even Clint Eastwood's Trouble with the Curve created a fantastical vision of scouts, albeit for baseball in these examples, as troubled men who desperately needed and eventually found a Herculean prospect who appeared out of thin air—the sleeper prospect whom no one else ever seemed to stumble across during his or her travels. 

Actor and director Clint Eastwood arrives at the 'Trouble With The Curve' at Mann's Village Theatre on September 19, 2012 in Westwood, California. AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR        (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/GettyImages)
JOE KLAMAR/Getty Images

Each of these films was nothing short of a farcical view of the profession. Part of the reason is due to NFL scouts being meticulous and tireless workers. Also, social media has all but destroyed the idea of a true "sleeper" prospect. 

"With the Internet, social media and Facebook, you can really delve into a player's personality and background," DeCosta said. "There is a lot of critical information out there. Most of us do that. It's not a secret."

With smartphones, tablets and laptops, information on nearly every player is available at anyone's fingertips. It then comes down to the scouts sifting through it all to determine what is pertinent and what isn't. 

And this is the art of scouting. 

The ability to evaluate a player will always be at the heart of the profession. However, evaluating prospects is approximately half of the job description. 

Scouts are also like journalists in that they must accurately and succinctly convert their findings into team reports. Written communication is still a large part of the process. 

Former coaches, for example, can struggle with a transition into scouting because they understand football but can't express what they've seen through their reports. 

There is also a trend toward younger scouts in the field who can easily understand modern technology and the role it plays in their job. 

"The biggest changes revolve around technology and social media," DeCosta said. "Everything comes to you quicker. A game gets put on tape Saturday, and we can watch it the following week. In the old days, colleges would play games in September, and we might not get that game until December or January. And that was an actual physical copy. Everything is now digitized."

While doing all of these things, the scouts must also live up to the expectations and standards of the organization they represent. Savage said he always asked his scouts to be on time, present themselves properly and fill in all of the blanks in an evaluation when on campus. 

Needless to say, the first two months of the regular season can be overwhelming, but the information acquired now will serve as the foundation of a team's draft selection in late April or early May. 

"The early reports were, to me, just important as the late reports based upon how a player is developing on the field," Sundquist said.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Brent Sobleski covers the NFL draft for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.