NFL scouting is not a perfect science. Tony Mandarich and Ryan Leaf were high first-round draft picks. Defensive tackles John Randle and La’Roi Glover went undrafted. Tom Brady was a sixth-rounder. So why is the scouting system only about 60- to 70-percent accurate? I have some theories.
My 24 years as an agent have given me a front-row seat to watch and learn about the typical NFL scouting system. I have probably had a few players drafted higher than they deserved and some drafted lower compared to their eventual production. I’ve seen small-school players get over looked at the combine and all-star games and watched clients not get drafted at all, then start in their rookie years. Any agent you talk to has a story about how the scouting has mistreated their clients.
I love the forensics and science of football. Scouting is the R&D (research & development) department of an NFL franchise. After talking to a few scouts, scouting directors and two GMs recently about this subject, I realized where the primary fault lies in this system. The No. 1 problem falls in the “disconnect of communication” between the road/regional scout and the final decision-makers on draft day. Either that or your scouts just outright stink.
To understand the scouting system, you must first understand the role of the regional scout. This person usually resides in a region of the country that he also covers. For instance, a west coast scout could live in San Francisco and cover the Pac-10, the Mountain West and all the schools within the western region. The regional scout circulates among these schools anywhere from two to five times a year. He may attend spring practice, pro day, a game, a practice and/or just stop by to watch some tape and ask some questions. A regional scout will most likely watch a player develop for four years. He gets to know the players extremely well. He even gets to know how good or how bad the coaches are who are developing the players.
The regional scout is a hard-working foot soldier whose first priority is to collect data. That data is then delivered in the form of reports to his superiors. The superiors, such as the scouting director, GM, head coach and even the owner review the information and rank players based on their internal grading system.
The irony of this system is that the regional scouts probably may have the best idea of how players should be stacked against one another. However, come draft day, the GM, owner and head coach usually make the decision regarding whose name is called at the podium in New York. Some teams now have their regional scouts fully integrated in the war room on the draft weekend while others literally lock them outside.
Another twist to the system is that regional scouts may only be in the team office a few times a year while the top execs see each other every day and work alongside the coaching staff. Thus, the communication between the two groups can sometimes be awkward. Although many GMs and directors started out as regional scouts and still hit the road themselves, there still can be a major disconnect as information flows up the chain of command.
Scouts are actually paid to give an opinion, although many are afraid to do so. It’s typical for a regional scout to be called into the war room and asked a question about a player in front of the owner, the president, the head coach and GM. The scout must decide what information he should deliver to the power group and at what level of conviction it should be delivered. A scout knows the delivery is as important as the information, and the moment may be a defining one is his career — for better or worse.
I love hearing stories about scouts getting into heated debates in the war room during or prior to the draft. That means they have conviction about their players and are doing their jobs. It’s no coincidence that a more passive scout may not get as many guys drafted from his region because he may not have the personality to champion them. So it’s very important for these scouts to develop communication skills that allow them to communicate effectively.
Another interesting dynamic that occurs in the draft process is how many cooks come into the kitchen when it’s time to serve the meal. As we get closer to the draft, a lot of regional scouts fade into the background while the generals take control.
To further complicate the process, scouts and top execs may have a different set of needs to fill on draft day. The execs have to think of the big picture, things like: How does the player’s chemistry fit with the current team? Will the owner like the player? What will the fans think of me when I draft this player? Am I spending the owner’s money wisely? How will the media react to my pick? Can he help us right away? Will he respond to our coaching staff? Can he learn the offense/defense quickly? Will time, fame and money change the player? Does the current environment allow for this player to develop? Will the fans and media be patient with his development? Where does this player project in terms of maturation and development in one, two, even three years from now?
On the other hand, the scouts are more focused on how the player compares to his peer group. So when asked, a scout may sell a player with conviction because he feels he’s a superior football player to the peer group. However, he may not take into account all the needs of the top execs listed above.
A scout I talked to earlier this week told me that if he tried to fight for a 6-foot linebacker, his execs would not take him seriously, regardless of how productive the player was in college. “They are too quick to stereotype, and some other egos get in the way,” he said.
Some of the more successful scouting operations I’ve seen have been teams that keep small staffs; their top execs spend considerable time on campuses and in the film room. In addition, they communicate often with their scouts and make them as important a part of the process as they are. The staffs that communicate openly and frequently respect each other’s opinions will win the R&D battle in late April.
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