Secret life of NFL scouts: How one photo sold Dolphins on drafting Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick

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 ninth 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 MiamiDolphins draft night
Breaking down the 8 players Miami drafted

A single iPhone picture perfectly captures the extreme affinity of the Miami Dolphins scouts for Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Dolphins didn’t expect Fitzpatrick to be around at No. 11 when they selected him in the first round of the NFL draft on Thursday night.

They rejoiced his selection with a cacophony of celebration in the draft room – high-fives, back-slaps and hoots of joy. The root of that enthusiasm can be crystallized to 9:01 on the morning of Oct. 21. Dolphins national scout Ron Brockington arrived six hours early before kickoff of the Crimson Tide’s game with Tennessee that day.

He soon settled into the Alabama football facility to watch film, a rare opportunity for a scout at a blue-blood program on gameday.

Walking through the facility that morning, he noticed Fitzpatrick watching film by himself in the defensive backs room. It was an unusual and inspiring scene on the morning of a game. The image of Fitzpatrick struck Brockington, as the junior already put on his suit, donned headphones to cut out distractions and appeared locked in seeking one final edge.

Brockington took a picture on his iPhone and sent it to fellow national scout Matt Winston and general manager Chris Grier with the caption: “Gameday Minkah is here watching video.” (Two clapping hand emojis followed).

For the Dolphins scouts and brass, catching Fitzpatrick in that impromptu moment of dedication reinforced what they’d seen on video, heard from staff personnel and their background research.

“I dropped the mic,” Brockington says. “I could not believe that. Top professionalism, I could go on and on.”

Minkah Fitzpatrick talks to Alabama coach Nick Saban before the Crimson Tide’s Sugar Bowl game against Clemson. (AP)
Minkah Fitzpatrick talks to Alabama coach Nick Saban before the Crimson Tide’s Sugar Bowl game against Clemson. (AP)

There’s a reason behind Alabama breaking a school and SEC record with 12 players drafted last weekend. (An additional five members of the Tide agreed to free-agent deals.) While it’s obvious that Alabama coach Nick Saban recruits, trains and develops top-tier talent each year, it’s well known in NFL circles that Alabama is the most accommodating college program for NFL scouts.

Not only does Alabama have rare talent and play in a scheme that mirrors what players will do in the NFL. The Tide also are open virtually 24/7 for scouts, as there’s no restrictions or paranoia. To Saban, restricting access and information for scouts would be like a business school limiting recruiters from Apple, Google and Amazon.

“A lot of college coaches, they see things through a microscope in terms of their college and university program,” Saban told Yahoo Sports on Monday. “If you’ve been in the NFL before, it broadens your scope in understanding players want to play in the NFL someday. To me, I’ve always felt like you’re in a little bit of a partnership with the NFL.”

The Crimson Tide are as open and accessible the week of the Mercer game as they are the Auburn game. Practices are open to scouts during spring ball, summer camp and game weeks. All film is available, as Winston points out that Alabama practice film showing Calvin Ridley go against Anthony Averett in one-on-ones is just as valuable as scouting a game rep. If a scout wants to work ahead on their next stop, often Auburn or Mississippi State, Bama will provide the opponent’s film.

Scouts can park at the Alabama facility on gameday, watch film for a few hours and head over to pregame to body type the players. The massive football staff, from respected strength coach Scott Cochran to the program’s academic liaisons, are available and accessible. Alabama even serves scouts three meals a day, as Brockington jokes he practically gained 5 pounds from being there three days in October. (Saban’s openness certainly doesn’t hurt recruiting either. The more players who get to the NFL, the more attractive Alabama becomes to recruits.)

That “partnership” Saban mentions boils down to a healthy exchange of information. While he says some college coaches limit scout access to “protect their underclassmen,” Saban wants to know from NFL teams where his players project to be drafted to help them make good business decisions. (Having all those scouts on the sideline helps practice energy, too, as intensity can’t slip with potential employers looking on.)

Alabama developed a reputation for being open about juniors, in part, to help the reciprocal information exchange. If NFL teams have full information, they can give a clearer picture of that player’s NFL draft reality.

“You really want to help them do their job, and it benefits you in the long run, too,” Saban says, generally. “I don’t see a downside in it. I don’t see us losing players. Most of the time when our guys go out early, they make the right choices.”

For part of Saban’s time at Alabama, Ed Marynowitz, now an agent with CAA, oversaw the access to scouts. He’d been a Dolphins scouting assistant before coming to Alabama in 2008, sharing an office with Winston as they started climbing the ladder. Marynowitz worked as Alabama’s director of player personnel from December 2008 through May 2012 and came back the past two years as an associate athletic director for football in 2016 and 2017. (Jody Wright followed Marynowitz in player personnel and earned raves from scouts, but he’s heading to UAB as an on-field coach.)

Marynowitz said Saban’s understanding of the importance of information exchange revolved around the complicated timing of when underclassmen need to declare (Jan. 15) versus when NFL teams finalize their board (April). That gap necessitates good relationships to get information to help players make the best decision. And Alabama’s treatment of scouts fits a bigger Saban ethos.

“There’s a certain expectation, whether it’s treatment of an NFL scout or five-star recruit,” Marynowitz said, “he wants things done at the highest level.”

Saban values the information from the NFL so much because of the stakes behind his players’ decisions, as he points out there’s no minor league system in football. He says that New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge can work his way through the minors to develop, but if a player isn’t a first- or second-round pick in the NFL, their chances of getting to a second contract are distinctly lower. If a player isn’t projected as a first-round pick or a second-rounder with no chance to improve their status, he encourages them to come back. “You don’t have a chance to develop in the NFL,” he says.

The Dolphins had plenty of eyes on Fitzpatrick’s development at Alabama. General manager Chris Grier, who worked with Saban when he coached the Dolphins, spent two days there this season. That’s the normal length of a visit because it takes that long to study all the prospects. Adam Engroff, their director of college scouting, goes there every year. So does Winston, who covers the state. Brockington spent three days – two to evaluate players and then the Tennessee game. West Coast scout Lenny McGill, a former NFL corner and veteran scout, is the defensive backs cross-checker, so he watched Fitzpatrick extensively on film. (McGill saw the ability to play multiple positions – safety, slot and about 13 to 15 snaps this year at outside corner – and could tell his communication skills from the use of hand motions.)

There’s a resounding appreciation for Saban’s openness in Miami and beyond.

“It’s a win-win for both of us,” Grier says. “Nick is appreciative of what the NFL can provide his players. Being around Nick and working with him [in Miami], obviously he may be the greatest coach in the history of college football. Just the way he runs it, Nick treats us incredible. He’s got no restrictions. They’re basically open 24-7.”

And that’s why Bama remains a picture-perfect visit, as the handclap emojis from Brockington’s iPhone came to life on Thursday night in din of the giddy Dolphins draft room. “You sleep well as a scout,” Winston says, “with a guy like that.”

Next: The calm of draft night for Dolphins

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