Depth charts on walls, film tricks: Women in NFL scouting find creative ways to learn player evaluation

·8 min read

Shelly Harvey and Kjahna O knew they were busted.

The Falcons scouting assistants had hastily logged on from their apartment for a virtual meeting. They hadn’t thought twice about turning cameras on in front of that wall.

Colleagues noticed.

“Do you guys have like … headshots on the back of your wall?”

The secret was out.

After the Falcons hired Harvey and O in the summer of 2020, the two brainstormed: What was the quickest and most efficient way to master Atlanta’s roster? How best to recognize jersey-less, masked players in the hallway — to identify their names and numbers, mode of acquisition and contract value?

So Harvey and O converted a wing of their apartment into a bona fide depth chart.

“We printed all our guys out,” O told USA Today Sports, “and taped it to our entire living room wall.”

PDF-and-pink-sticky-note interior design marks just one of many creative methods scouts across the league are employing to master the knowledge and skill set of a career that, general managers and personnel directors say, largely must be learned on the job. For the 13 women working in NFL personnel departments, an additional learning curve can arise in player evaluation. Unlike some male counterparts, they haven’t played the game and thus haven't been inundated with coaches’ knowledge for a decade-plus.

“I never played football so I knew the general landscape of it, but I didn’t know the real details and how to evaluate,” Kelly Kleine, the Broncos’ new director of football operations/special assistant to the GM, told USA Today Sports. “I had no freaking clue.”

Enter film tricks and mentoring sessions over lunch, conversations overheard while filming practice and ingratiation into position-room meetings. Focus on one position or scheme one day, then move on to the next. Slowly, distinguishing between a nose tackle and 3-tech becomes more intuitive; eyes become more trained to meaningfully watch multiple players simultaneously in a film session.

The process is working. At least seven of 13 women in NFL scouting were promoted this month. Kleine and Catherine Raiche, whom the Eagles promoted to vice president of football operations, now hold the most senior personnel roles by any women in league history.

USA Today Sports spoke with 12 women in scouting, two general managers and a director of pro personnel for an inside look at their journeys. Here are four of their stories:

Adding to the 'mental database'

In 2018, then-Eagles director of pro scouting Dwayne Joseph and then-Eagles player personnel intern Ameena Soliman cranked through tape each Friday over lunch.

Joseph would pick a position to focus on, with Soliman keying into a list of position-specific traits and critical factors she should mine from a player’s film.

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How did Julio Jones’ hands and route-running compare to fellow receiver A.J. Green’s? How would their traits fit into the team’s grading scale, and in what terminology would decision-makers prefer that message be reported? Joseph assigned Soliman take-home assignments the two would then debate in their next session.

“I wanted to train her early on with being able to defend what she was seeing on tape and have a conviction about what she saw,” Joseph, now the Raiders’ director of pro personnel, told USA Today Sports. “The film sessions got more and more intense because I saw her drive, I saw her want-to. She never backed down.”

Thursday, entering her fourth season with the club, Philadelphia promoted Ameena Soliman for a third time — to pro scout.
Thursday, entering her fourth season with the club, Philadelphia promoted Ameena Soliman for a third time — to pro scout.

Soliman was also immersed in running back meetings with coach Duce Staley and a depth chart including veteran Darren Sproles. Hand signals and assignments became clearer, Soliman integrating scouting theory with more specific coaching tweaks.

“Every day I’m watching, learning and adding it to my mental database,” she told USA Today Sports. “Seeing it up-close how (coaches) think about things vs. how we (in personnel) think.”

Soliman’s reports for Joseph turned into interactive discussions as she caught on more quickly, with Philadelphia increasingly relying on her for evaluation in addition to her other duties.

Now, in the last year, she has submitted 168 reports on college prospects and 200 more on pro talent. Her mental database of comparable players has grown, with Soliman now comfortable assessing a free agent relative to, for example, the fifth guy at a position on the Eagles’ depth chart. She’s trained herself to temper evaluations of what a college prospect is currently doing in favor of what he projects to be.

Thursday, entering her fourth season with the club, Philadelphia promoted her for a third time — to pro scout. She thinks back to Joseph’s advice after her first promotion to a full-time role.

“That’s good that you’re full time,” Joseph told her. “But you can’t ever lose that work ethic of being the intern trying to earn a full-time job.”

Day-to-day grind

Andie Gosper didn’t play football growing up. But the former college softball player spent years honing outfield transitions like a defensive back would, as well as throwing mechanics, like a quarterback would do.

So Gosper runs through her mental checklists as she prepares to scout the Eagles and Giants, in addition to cross-checking fellow scouts’ reports on NFL quarterbacks, running backs and tight ends for the Bills in 2021.

Take quarterback.

Andie Gosper works in scouting for the Bills.
Andie Gosper works in scouting for the Bills.

“How quick is the release, are they patient in the pocket, do they set up and let the play develop or like to bail out?” Gosper told USA Today Sports. “I’m looking at arm velocity, short/intermediate throws vs. long. Are they accurate? Do they have a good touch? Do they anticipate the route or are they throwing behind the receivers? Are they a leader, do they take control, do they recognize blitzes?

“All that.”

Gosper anticipates spending about 75% of her time this season focused on college responsibilities, though she’ll continue to dabble in pro and administrative work. If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is.

“I’m on the grind,” Gosper says. “I’m not afraid to leave here at 10 o’clock at night and come back in at 6 a.m.”

Bills general manager Brandon Beane is watching. He praises how effectively Gosper has grown into painting a picture for him to evaluate, an aptitude she pairs with intrinsic motivation.

“She’s just a grinder,” Beane told USA Today Sports. “I’ve had to kick her out of here. ‘Go home. Get away. You’ve been here too much.’

“Her maturity is off the charts.”

Shooting video to chauffeuring rookies

The Falcons hired Terry Fontenot as general manager in January after he climbed the ranks in New Orleans for 18 years. During his first season in scouting, he never wrote up a player.

Fontenot’s top piece of advice to young scouts: Listen and do.

“You can’t compartmentalize success,” he says. “How you do anything is how you do everything.”

Fontenot recalls a Saints scouting intern who once balked when asked to shoot video of practice. The intern “didn’t make it.” So when Fontenot sees Harvey and O remain eager — whether they’re behind a camera, organizing draft board magnets or chauffeuring rookies to minicamp — he notices.

“It’s so cool seeing them pop around,” Fontenot told USA Today. “They’re excited and really enthused about it. … There’s a mindset.”

It’s a mindset Harvey and O apply to their scouting crash courses with supervisors. Film sessions range from addressing how to weigh school size and strength of schedule in grading scales, to ensuring film cut-ups contextualize as accurately as possible. Harvey, who ran track at LSU, says she’s most comfortable evaluating offensive linemen, running backs and tight ends.

“Are they a mismatch? Are they good at run block?” she asks herself when scouting tight ends, like the Falcons’ 2021 No. 4 overall pick Kyle Pitts. “I don’t expect you to just go out and pancake a guy, but if you can shock a guy, stop a defensive end in his tracks a little bit, that’s pretty good.

“I’m looking at their hands. If he’s going up against a corner, can he create mismatch? Separation from 50-50 balls — is he the one coming down with the ball? Of course speed. You have a few rare people that can just run downfield but overall, my main thing would be the 50-50 balls, run-blocking and catching ability.”

Baptism by fire

In Miami, personnel scout Liv Passy is preparing to delve deep into NFL special teams tape this summer. Young and developmental players in the league often earn their keep on special teams. So Passy wants to communicate clearly how her prospects will fit into that phase.

In her inaugural NFL season with Miami in 2020, Liv Passy refined her film-watching process.
In her inaugural NFL season with Miami in 2020, Liv Passy refined her film-watching process.

“You’re looking at their temperament because they’re basically running down to have full contact with another guy, which takes a different kind of motor,” Passy told USA Today Sports. “That’s a really fun part of college football, too: identifying value of guys who may not have done it in college but you’re projecting they will in the league.”

In her inaugural NFL season in 2020, Passy refined her film-watching process. She prefers to watch a game uninterrupted, metabolizing a full game before any necessary rewinds to analyze a trend. This season, she’ll apply her new film processes and skills to school assignments with more volume and depth.

“The best way to learn is baptism by fire,” she says. “I don’t think anyone is ever done learning the game.

“That’s the really cool thing that makes (me) excited about a future in football. You’re never done learning. You never know it all.”

Follow USA Today Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL scouting: Women in league find new ways to learn player evaluation