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Scouting the NFL Draft for Dummies

[fa icon="calendar'] March 31, 2017 / by Chris Barry

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Amateur Scouting & Draft Season

If you’re our kind of person, this is your favorite time of the year. Baseball is on the horizon, and the NCAA tournament is in full swing, but the real March madness for us is scouting for the NFL Draft.

Like most of you, scouting is a hobby for me. I have no professional scouting experience, but I have been to one degree or another forming my own opinions about NFL Draft prospects since around 1985, when I was in college.

I’m an old-school “draftnik” (does anyone really use that word anymore?) and I was at the Marriott Marquis in person when Vinny Testaverde was drafted first overall in 1987 and the idea of actually attending an event that consisted of guys handing cards to another guy who would read the name on the card aloud seemed off-the-charts nerdy instead of mainstream nerdy.

In this article, I describe my process for scouting, which has evolved considerably over the years, in hopes that you can borrow from it to improve your own process and thus your enjoyment of draft season, or that you can share something from your own process that helps me improve mine. Spread the love.

It’s critical to keep in mind that what should matter most to you is YOUR opinion. You decide how to scout, what traits you like, how you value different positions, and what you think of individual prospects. That’s our entire raison d’être… we built a website that’s a virtual NFL General Manager simulation because we want YOU to be able to see how you would do if you could run a team YOUR way.

Amateur scouting may be a hobby for me - or at least tangentially, as I do run an NFL virtual GM website, a marginally-professional activity - but I take it very seriously and take immense internal pride in my work.

But nobody pays me directly to scout NFL draft prospects, and life gets in the way far more than it did when I was younger - I have kids, a girlfriend, and a website to run, and I love spending time with all of them. I also don’t have the access that the NFL teams have - to medical information, background checks, college coaching staffs, and the prospects themselves.

So, the question becomes:

“How can I, given limited resources (time and access to information,) do the best possible job as an amateur scout?”

Even more fundamentally, let’s start by clearly stating the ultimate goal of this process: to assign a grade to every relevant prospect that most accurately reflects my view of his ultimate value to an NFL team (and to my virtual NFL team here on PowerHouseGM.com.)

If I do this, the end result will be a draft board that:

  • Paints a picture of the distribution of talent in the draft class...
  • Enables me to formulate my draft strategy for my virtual team…
  • Allows me to prepare for the draft - with mock drafts and other exercises, and…
  • Drives my tactical decisions in the pressure-packed live NFL Draft

An “accurate” grade is based on an evaluation that, very broadly, includes:

  • Watching the prospect play football
  • Learning about the prospect’s personality, character, mental makeup
  • Understanding the prospect’s raw athletic traits
  • Getting a clear picture of any medical issues

While access to certain information, most notably medical, remains a challenge, the internet and exploding popularity (and, hence, media coverage) of the NFL Draft has made amateur scouting drastically more practical and efficient than it used to be!

 

The way I do it

I use the Prospects page on our site (under Draft Room) to manage all of my own scouting. We typically upload our list of the following spring’s draft prospects around Nov 1st. The original source is the list on CBSSports.com, which has 1,000 names. As players declare for the draft or announce they’ll return to school, we’ll massage the list, and a lot of times I’ll find guys who need to be added or deleted as I do my own scouting.

It’s important to note that our initial order - before you start moving guys around - tends to have better players listed higher, but is by no means reflective of any real rankings. In fact, new prospects we add will be at the very end, and a lot of those will be very good players (T.J. Watt, David Njoku, and Solomon Thomas are good examples.)

I just don’t have the time to watch a ton of college football in the fall, and if they’re not Miami Hurricanes or involved in the national championship picture (or, ideally, both,) I won’t get to know them until I start really working on my scouting effort around Senior Bowl time. Until then, I’ll just put any prospect notes in, knowing I’ll see them later when I do my real evaluation.

The college all-star games are my real starting point. I’ll take notes during the NFLPA game and the Shrine Game, and then watch every minute of coverage of the Senior Bowl practices, now on both NFL Network and ESPN. I’ll sometimes note observations of the TV analysts (“he’s a strong downhill runner…”,) but I’ll note the source and make sure it checks out when I watch tape myself.

Philosophically, I like to trust my own eyeballs and form my own opinions. I don’t claim to know more than Mike Mayock about scouting, but I’ve been at it for 30 years, I’m not presenting myself as an “expert” in the media, and I’d rather be accountable for my own evaluation than parroting what anyone else says.

More on the draft pundits later.

I’ve also been fortunate enough to go to the Senior Bowl practices with media access for six of the last eight years. While the TV coverage is good, nothing beats being there in person. With some guys, you can just tell. It shows in their movements. You hear a different pop when they hit. Whatever it is. I’ll always fall in love with a few guys when I’m there, and those usually pan out pretty well. Lane Johnson, who was widely thought of in the media as a mid-round guy heading into Senior Bowl week, comes to mind. I loved him from the start, and I’m not sure if he stood out the same way on TV.

The next big event on the calendar is the Combine, which gets extensive coverage over four intense days - more intense by far for the prospects themselves, who spend way more time getting prodded by doctors and interviewed by teams than they do actually working out on the field.

The Combine coverage is great, to me, as it’s a chance to see the vast majority of the players who will be drafted up close, without equipment on. It’s a chance to see how they move as athletes and maybe learn a bit about their demeanor, attitude, professionalism, and level of preparation. I take extensive notes throughout. The list of invitees also serves as a personal checklist for me - I want to make sure I give attention to every one of them.

Everything I see throughout these post-season events goes in my player notes on our site. In fact, you can see all of my personal scouting that I do for my own team (for free, which is a fair price for the value) if you go to the Prospects page on our site and you’re not logged in.

So, after the Senior Bowl and Combine, if I haven’t yet watched tape of a player and done my full evaluation, my notes might look like this:

 

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No Substitute for Watching Tape!

The real work is in watching game tape on the players, and I firmly believe that if you skip this step, you’re missing out on real scouting. So many people form opinions based on the collected opinions of others, and many of those opinions are also collected from who-knows-where. Watch the tape. See for yourself. If you haven’t done it, it’s an extremely enlightening exercise. You’ll be surprised how often you’ll hear a player has good hands, for example, and see on tape that it just isn’t so.

I’ll pick a position group, and stick with it until I’m done. Video is available for all of the top prospects, and most of those generally viewed as draftable. In the past, they were scattered all over YouTube, but thanks to the work of Bryan Perez’ guys at DraftBreakdown.com, most notable prospects now have videos under one roof. I met Bryan at this year’s Senior Bowl, and have a deep appreciation for the work his team does - it makes all of our lives far easier compared to just a couple years ago.

I have multiple monitors on my computer, and I’ll have the film running on one screen while I use our scouting page on the other. I’ll also keep open tabs for Google (for background checks, injury histories, and the like,) nfldraftscout.com (for tested athletic numbers before we get the official Combine results up on our site,) and sports-reference.com (for college stats.)

As I scout a particular player, I’ll check his height and weight, then look at his career stats. Was he a starter for most of his career? Just one year? I’ll take a look at the game logs for his senior (or most recent) season, and watch an available video for a game that seems representative against the best competition possible. For “skill position” prospects (man, I hate that term,) game logs also show if production was concentrated in a few games or against lesser competition.

For every prospect, I’ll watch at least one game. That’s nowhere near enough to do a thorough job, but it’s usually enough to get a feel for a prospect, and I just don’t have the time to watch every tape for every prospect. As I’m watching and taking more notes, I check his tested athletic numbers to see how they confirm or conflict with what I’m seeing on the field.

I’ll also check Google for anything related to off-field issues, character (good or bad,) injury history, or interesting personal stories. Articles from the local papers that may be months old can be particularly helpful - they’re often written by beat writers who have followed the players, know them well, and understand their relationships with their teammates and coaches. Seeing what was written before they were in the spotlight of the draft process can be extremely helpful!

All of it goes in my notes, and collectively paints a picture of the prospect. When I’m satisfied, I’ll tighten up the notes and usually add a quick final summary line. Then, I’ll assign a grade, and, if I feel I’m done with him - there are no loose ends I need to tie up - I’ll check the “Done” box and move to the next player.

Tip: As you work through a position, select “Unfinalized” in the Scouting pull-down at the top of the page to filter the prospects so you only see the ones you haven’t finished.

When I’m done with a prospect, he’ll look something like this (the green checkmark indicates this is a player I’d target under the right circumstances):

 

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My Scouting Staff

As much as I try to avoid having my opinions colored by the draft pundits in the media, as a virtual GM, I do “employ” a few scouts. These are the voices I value/respect, though we definitely do not always agree, much as there is frequently dissent in the draft rooms of real NFL teams.

First and foremost is Dan Shonka and his team from Ourlads Guide. I have been an Ourlads subscriber for 30 years, and they are old school. Dan was a scout in the NFL for many years, and his process is sound - he definitely does not parrot what other voices say. If you can spare like thirty bucks, go get the Ourlads Guide (we are not affiliated with Ourlads, and we don't get paid to promote their stuff.)

Ourlads Guide comes out just a couple weeks before the draft, so it's by necessity the final check on my own evaluations and grades. I’ll read it cover to cover, as if I’ve never seen the prospects before, and mark it up with how I’d grade them based only on what Ourlads says. I’ll then compare those grades to the ones I already had, and work to resolve any differences, bumping guys up or down a bit, or in rare cases completely starting over. Dan is the respected veteran scout in my virtual draft room who weighs in with his opinion.

I’ve also come to value the work Lance Zeirlien does for NFL.com. To be honest, part of this comes from the fact that, for whatever reason, we tend to see things the same way with eerie regularity. I’ll often have in my notes, say, that a WR struggles getting off the line vs. press, and then find the exact same thing in his evaluation, sometimes verbatim.

Lance’s reports are published pretty early in the process, which makes them useful when I’m doing my initial prospect evaluations. I’ll finish my write-up on a player, then read his and see where we disagree, or maybe catch something I missed.

By the way, I strongly suggest you try hard to resist confirmation bias, but it does boost my confidence in an evaluation when Lance and I are in agreement. Lance also helps me catch character or medical information I may have missed.

Another scouting resource I lean on heavily is Drew Boylhart, whose prospect analyses are published on TheHuddleReport.com, run by Drew and partner Robbie Esch. I've followed Drew's work for years. Be forewarned: Drew is wired a bit differently, and it's his unique perspective that I find so valuable.

Drew, to me, is another scout in the draft room chiming in with his opinions on the prospects. When we agree, my confidence in my evaluation is reinforced. When we don't, it can be a reason for me to re-visit a prospect. Drew certainly does his homework. He also writes his evaluations early - many of them in January - so he absolutely doesn't get caught up in the draft season noise.

I had the pleasure of spending a lot of time with Drew during 2017 Senior Bowl week, and on top of being a knowledgable and experienced talent evaluator, he's a great guy. Definitely check out THR if it's not already an important part of your scouting process.

Some others whose opinions get my attention include: 

  • Bill Polian of ESPN and SiriusXM NFL Radio... and the NFL Hall of Fame
  • Gil Brandt of SiriusXM NFL Radio
  • Matt Miller of Bleacher Report
  • Eric Galko of Optimum Scouting
  • Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network and the Move the Sticks podcast

This is not to say I don’t listen to anyone else - I love the draft and I find all of the media lead-in immensely entertaining. But it’s important to keep in mind that everyone has an agenda. The draft pundits in the media look smart when they correctly identify where a prospect will actually be drafted. They are in the prediction business. If the draft were an exact science, where a player is actually drafted would be the same as where they should be drafted.

But it’s not. I’m running a virtual NFL team, and thus I am trying to pick players who will actually become good NFL players and improve my roster. I’m not trying to impress anyone with my predictive skills (thank goodness.) They say every one of the 32 NFL teams has a different draft board, and my draft board is different, too.

A final word on the media pundits: You’ll often hear that some prospect is “shooting up draft boards.” This is usually nonsense. The media guys cultivate relationships with NFL scouts and personnel people like crazy. Try as the NFL teams might to keep everything quiet, there are, inevitably, leaks. When the media has a guy pegged as a late pick, but teams have him much higher, that eventually trickles out, and the pundits catch up. It’s almost never the case of a prospect suddenly getting an R2 grade in March when he was on a team’s board as a PFA in February!

 

Tying it All Together

Once I’ve graded all the prospects at all the positions, the heavy lifting is done. I’ve got everyone sorted into general “buckets” representing their value as I see them. My next step is to go to our Board page (on the Draft Room menu) and fine-tune specific order of the prospects within each bucket, with the understanding that, after the first couple of rounds, there is not a lot of difference between prospects in the same bucket; the highest R6 prospect is not much more valuable than the lowest.

When I’ve got my personal board set, I can use it to drive mock drafts. I also print it out, which is easy to do from the Reports page (on the iGM menu.) Players I’m targeting show in bold on that report, and the format is the familiar “horizontal board” grid. When the day comes for the live NFL Draft and the action starts, that simple report is right in front of me, driving every decision I make for my own virtual NFL team.

Lastly, you may notice that you can click on the prospect names on our scouting pages and see a dedicated page for about the top 500 prospects, give or take.

This is something new we tried for 2017 as an experiment. The idea is to take the process described in this article and put all the different resources in one place to make your job easier and more efficient. We learned a lot, and I think we’ll be able to do a much better job in the future of becoming your one-stop-shop for draft preparation!

So…

How do you manage your scouting process? I’m always trying to get better (and more efficient) at this, and I’d love to hear your ideas! Please share them with our community in the comments below.

And, of course, good luck in your own draft preparation process!

Topics: Football Scouting, NFL Draft, NFL Draft Prospects

Chris Barry

Written by Chris Barry

Chris Barry is the creator of PowerHouseGM.com, home of the most realistic NFL General Manager simulation ever devised. An unapologetic NFL geek, Chris ran a virtual team on an Excel spreadsheet for 15 years following the same rules behind our iGM game for no reason other than to see how he could do.

2019 Draft Prospects Uploaded 11/2/18

We have uploaded our initial list of 861 2019 NFL Draft prospects. The top 99 are from CBSSports.com (they include projected underclass entries,) and the rest are from NFLDraftScout.com. We will periodically add and delete as the class shapes up. Good luck with your scouting!

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