Secret life of NFL scouts: 'We're never going to take a player we like and the coaches hate,' says Dolphins GM
Editor’s note: Yahoo Sports reporter Pete Thamel spent nearly a year entrenched with NFL scouts in preparation for the 2018 draft. This is the second story of a 10-part series.
Secret life of NFL scouts
• Part 1: How the Dolphins’ draft came together
• Part 2: How GM, coaches work together in picking players
• Part 3: Examining the player and the person
• Part 4: What scouts look for at practices
• Part 5: ‘We don’t want a team of exceptions’
• Part 6: Why ‘workout wonders’ can become draft busts
• Part 7: One grunt keeps tabs on all players, schools
• Part 8: Memorable ‘Olympic marathon’ debate over Jordy Nelson
• Part 9: Why scouts love visiting Nick Saban and Alabama
• Part 10: The calm of Miami Dolphins draft night
• Breaking down the 8 players Miami drafted
DAVIE, Fla. – The most unassuming general manager in the NFL strolls through the dining area of the team’s football facility one morning this past July wearing a Boston Red Sox shirt and his ever-present New Era Golf baseball hat. Chris Grier, 48, then takes a seat and munches on bacon and an English muffin at a cafeteria-style table. Through the windows, the practice fields that will host that day’s practices glisten in searing summer sun.
With training camp entering full swing, the players who pass as they fill their plates give Grier anxious nods and awkward hellos. They know Grier will have a significant say in their training camp fate, and the nervous interactions show that even NFL players get awkward around their bosses.
As the general manager, Grier both runs the franchise’s personnel department and oversees the NFL draft and free agency. In the draft room, he sits at the head of the team’s table — a U-shaped design — with team owner Stephen Ross, executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum and coach Adam Gase.
But there’s infinite sub-layers to draft decisions, some of which converge every year at training camp when the organization’s scouts mesh with the coaching staff. There’s a time-tested and inherent tension between coaching and scouting, and Tannenbaum credits Grier’s “fine touch” to make sure Gase and the Dolphins’ coaching staff are involved and onboard with all front-office decisions.
“We’re never going to take a player we like and the coaches hate,” Grier says. “It does no good for us to force [on the coaching staff], because at the end of the day, if he’s not playing, the excuse is built in for the coach not to like him, and we’re upset we wasted our time. We go in [beforehand], hash out any differences, but at the end of the day we’re all aligned in the vision.”
That vision includes Grier, Tannenbaum and Gase sitting down, discussing and adjusting what prototypes they prefer for players. Gase and the Dolphins brass have backgrounds philosophically intertwined through old-school, smash-mouth football. Gase comes from the Nick Saban tree, and Grier worked as the assistant director of college scouting during Saban’s time with the Dolphins. Both Grier and Tannenbaum have worked extensively with Bill Parcells, meaning that there’s a general preference for a bigger team that can bully opponents at the line of scrimmage.
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“Adam and Mike and I all share the same vision for what we wanted our team to look like at positions,” Grier says. “We set prototypes, but we’re not beholden to them.”
Grier’s primary football influence, of course, came from his father. Bobby Grier has lived a full football life that included nearly two decades in the Patriots organization. Bobby Grier has been credited for doing extensive background research on a certain sixth-round quarterback out of Michigan who has tortured the Dolphins and the rest of the NFL for the past two decades. Bobby Grier is retired now, but still dabbles in consulting for the Dolphins and has a locker in the scout area of the team’s facility.
Scouting runs in the family, as Grier’s brother, former NHL wing Mike Grier, played hockey at Boston University, more than 1,000 games over 14 NHL seasons, and scouts for the Chicago Blackhawks. (Bobby and Mike both don’t hesitate to remind Chris, occasionally, that they both have championship rings).
Grier learned how to scout early in his days with the Patriots. Other than his father, he credits Bucko Kilroy, a legendary former NFL executive who is credited with helping start the NFL scouting combine. Kilroy sat down with Grier early in his Patriots days and taught him the nuances of watching film and evaluating players. Among the lessons?
“Trust what your eyes see, as Jerry Rice ran a 4.7 [40-yard dash] and is the greatest receiver in NFL history.”
“There’s a difference between timed speed and play speed. People say someone is a 4.5 guy. Do you see the 4.5?”
“Take the best players [in the NFL] and watch what they do well. When you watch these other players, do you see these traits and qualities?”
Grier majored in journalism at the University of Massachusetts, ironic for an executive who rarely speaks publicly outside of a handful of annual scheduled briefings and actively avoids attention. After working for the Patriots for six years as both an intern and regional scout, Grier has been with the Dolphins since 2000. Since that time, he has seen the franchise make eight coaching changes and worked under four general managers before entering that job. The scouts respect him because he understands their life, as over 18 seasons he has experienced every step — area scout to national scout to assistant college director to college director before landing the general manager job prior to the 2016 NFL draft. He knows the feeling of leaving his family for weeks at a time, often forgetting which college town he’s in upon waking up.
In his general manager job, there’s a dichotomy that exists between Grier’s day-to-day managing of the team and always having the next NFL draft in mind. If the Dolphins are playing nearby a marquee college game — they played at the Los Angeles Chargers the same weekend Texas played at USC, for example – Grier will scout the game on a Saturday. Overall this season, he’ll see four games live and make 11 visits to major colleges.
At training camp, Grier and the rest of the Dolphins’ brass have encouraged the intersection of the disparate worlds of coaching and scouting. A majority of the scouts are scattered around the country, generally disconnected from the day-to-day operations of the team.
“They’re involved in everything and they need to feel like they’re part of everything, which they are,” Grier says. “But you live out in Frisco, Texas, like Matt Winston, it’s hard. You don’t feel like you’re part of it, even though they have a huge part of it. It’s different when you’re not here all the time.”
Director of college scouting, Adam Engroff, lives in Boise and senior scout, Terry Bradway, lives in New Jersey. National scouts Ron Brockington (Indiana) and Matt Winston (Frisco, Texas), live where they were former area scouts. Two area scouts — Milwaukee- based Chris Buford (Great Plains) and Colorado-based Lenny McGill (West Coast) — live amid their sections of the country. J.P. McGowan scouts the Northeast but lives in South Florida, and both Chase Leshin (Southeast) and Grant Wallace (MAC) have split duties of area scouting and player personnel.
To bridge the gap between scouts and coaches and familiarize themselves with each other, the Dolphins invite the scouts to training camp and embed each in a different position group. Winston, for example, will handle wide receivers, a position group he’ll cross-check for the 2018 NFL draft. He’ll also sit in on assistant coach Shawn Jefferson’s meetings.
“It’s good because they spend time, they go to meetings, listen to the coaches installing [plays], what they’re asking the players to do,” Grier says.
That way, the distance between Frisco and Davie can shrink a bit, part of the massaging that’s necessary to keep everyone organizationally aligned.
With his organizational primer finished, Grier gets up amid the bustle of the cafeteria and prepares to head out to the morning training camp session. He stands in the corner of the field by himself, pulls his hat out over his eyes, and watches to see how all the prototypes and projections, draftees and free agents, stars and longshots, come together.
Next: Examining the player and the person
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