The Rest of the Team
There is much more occurring behind the scenes at NFL team’s headquarters to prepare for the NFL Draft, beyond just the work of the College Scouting department (as outlined in Part I). A team’s General Manager and Player Personnel executives have integral involvement as well.
They will often travel to see some of the nation’s top prospects during the season when and if their schedules allow. After a Saturday morning walk-through, these individuals may choose to take a flight to see an evening college football game, only to catch the first flight out to the city of their team’s game on the following day.
They also directly contribute during a team’s Draft meetings and help to manage the final Draft board. A few select executives will settle differences of ranking and establish if more information is needed.
Stand on the Table
There were often instances in which two or more scouting reports conflicted on the value of a player, and a good General Manager knows how to glean an appropriate final value. There were times when it was necessary to stop a scouting meeting and watch game tape from numerous games just to make sure we had the grade correct on a player. There was one particular occurrence in which each scout was asked if the top two players at a position in that year’s Draft had much difference in value. Just about everyone had spoken stating that if also offered additional Draft picks to move down in the Draft order, they would prefer to take a trade and select the second best player.
When it came time for one particular scout to state his opinion, he confidently said that he respectfully disagreed. He said no amount of Draft picks was worth trading down, and if the number one player at the position wasn’t taken by our team, we would regret moving down for years to come! Talk about putting your job on the line. I respect scouts for that. I respected this scout for that. Scouts must RELY on what they SEE, trusting their eyes and experience. They cannot be swayed by other viewpoints or a majority opinion… I am happy to say that looking back years later, that scout was right on the money.
Not Just a Coach
Similar to Player Personnel executives, coaches also play a significant role with Draft preparations. Just because there are not games, practices, training camps or mini-camps occurring does not mean that coaches are on vacation or away from the office. Quite the contrary; they too want to get to know the Draft prospects coming out. Position coaches will receive a list of college players worthy of reviewing at the respective positions from the College Scouting department. Coaches will begin watching game tape as early as January, and they will travel along with scouts and executives to the Senior Bowl, NFL Combine and college workouts. They will interview players at the position they coach at each of these places, and they may even get an opportunity to spend an additional day with a player if a team chooses to bring a college player within that coach’s position group in for one of 30 official visits.
To Visit or Not to Visit
Each team is allowed to fly in no more than 30 college players for official visits. These visits take place in March and April, after the NFL Combine and before the NFL Draft. Teams may chose to not use all 30 visits, but most teams wish they had more. Teams could choose to use these visits for any of a number of reasons, some of which include:
- Having incomplete medical information
- Player having attended a smaller school which results in less exposure to the player’s game tape
- Questionable character
- Establishing if a player has matured from earlier in the scouting process
- Wanting to know a player on a more personal level
- Qualifying a player’s passion for the game
- Determining a player’s ability to learn in the classroom
- Solidifying the analysis of a top prospect
With such a limited number of visits to use, teams must be prudent in deciding which players to fly in. Front Office members can travel to school campuses to visit with players during the off-season (within NFL rules), but sometimes it makes more sense to fly the player in. Teams can get these players out of their comfort zone. They can see if a player is responsible enough to follow the travel directions. Doctors cannot travel off-site for medical exams, so bringing a player in allows for medical review. An entire team’s staff wouldn’t travel to meet a player, so bringing him in also allows the whole staff to meet him and spend time with him. Most importantly, the timeline for these visits is within the same time period as the team’s Draft meetings, so team staff doesn’t have very much time for traveling.
But it is not just as easy as saying, “Hey, we need to bring this guy in.” A team will have to compete with the other 31 NFL teams for a player’s free time, and some of these college players are still taking classes! If a team is smart, they will reach out to the prospects they know they want to visit with early in the process to guarantee that the player makes it in. If a team waits until the last minute, there is a good chance the player’s schedule will already be booked. The remaining visits are then scheduled as the scouting meetings progress and it is discovered that a visit is necessary to solidify any piece(s) of information about a player.
All visits must be reported to the League Office, and while they are not disclosed to the other teams, the media often intercepts information about players visiting. These reports offer other teams an indication about players their competition is interested in. Let the chess match begin! The other 31 teams may try to track these reports to help their cause with building their own Draft Day strategies. Or it has been suggested that a team will bring in a player to fool other teams about an apparent interest. While I have no doubt that this does happen, my educated opinion is that it only happens minimally and only with the top players with first round talent. Teams really have no reason to bluff about lower round talent, because preference and ranking becomes more diversified as the Draft progresses. (I will speak to this more later in this series.) Conversely, the talent of the top prospects is universally known, so a visit with these players will not alert other teams of unknown talent: These visits would primarily indicate greater interest, but they also present a greater opportunity to bluff.
As the NFL playoffs are wrapping up, college prospects get one final chance in late January to shine in a game environment. The East/West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl offer NFL scouts, coaches and executives one final look at the top prospects that have been invited to play in these all-star games. NFL staff will travel to the site of these games to watch the practices and games of these top athletes. It is a chance to see these players perform against top competition, and it is one more piece of information to gather to determine a team’s interest in drafting the player.
Poked and Prodded
Every February, 340 of the top college football players in the nation are invited to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. This is the ultimate competition for the prospects as they go up against the top players at their position. They are measured, tested, interviewed, and sent through a series of drills. They are even given a Wonderlic test to determine their mental capacity. The only thing they don’t do is actually play a game, so these results need to be taken with a grain of salt. These players run around in shorts and t-shirts, not full pads.
There is minimal contact, so toughness cannot be accurately gauged. Strength is measured by a bench press, not functional strength on a football field. Speed is emphasized by a 40-yard dash in a straight line, not the burst and change-of-direction we see on Sundays. Granted, there are some simulated drills taking place which allow teams to see a player’s skill-set, but scouts know that going to games and watching game tape is still the most reliable information when grading a player. Teams can make mistakes when they put too much weight into a drill time. They also need to be careful to not favor a player simply because of his personality or the system he played in at college. While the 40-yard dash times get the most attention, I got the most out of the interviews and on-field agility drills. One could really gauge a player’s passion from the interviews, and the on-field drills were much more comparable to game tape than the timing drills.
All of these events and activities are a part of the process of deciding which players to select in the NFL Draft. Hopefully you are discovering that teams truly are educated, calculated and focused when the NFL Draft actually arrives. Check back next Friday as I go deeper into Draft preparations.
As always, you can contact me directly. I welcome your feedback.