Secret life of NFL scouts: Why it takes an 'Olympic marathon' to make each player's draft profile
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 eighth 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
MOBILE, Ala. – The Senior Bowl is a venerable football institution, a traditional homage to the transition of college football to the NFL. Tucked between the western edge of the Florida panhandle and just a few miles from the Mississippi border, Mobile offers the perfect setting for an event best known for those who pass through. From Terry Bradshaw to Dan Marino to Russell Wilson, the Senior Bowl resonates as a showcase touchstone between the collegiate accomplishment and professional potential.
The Senior Bowl is an actual game, but by the time it kicks off more than 75 percent of the NFL evaluators have already fled back to their buildings. NFL executives flock to the Senior Bowl to watch practices, interview prospects and gather information that, at least symbolically, represents a fascinating transition in the draft process to the so-called “Olympic” portion. Some would term it silly season, a time when collegiate performance begins to recede in importance and endless variables like measurables, testing (40-yard dash times, vertical jumps, etc), mental testing, character profiles and scheme fits come into play.
“The more I do this, the more I think we overcomplicate our business,” Dolphins executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum says over lunch at Wintzell’s Oyster House, a famed Mobile dive. “If the draft was on January 15, would we get a better result? In basketball, the draft is a few days after the playoffs. It’s during the season in Major League Baseball. We’re more of a coach-driven sport.”
Tannenbaum didn’t say that to knock Adam Gase or any coach he’d worked with in his two decades as an NFL executive. It’s more of an insightful observation of what makes the NFL draft so unique, the juxtaposition of the timing months after the college and NFL seasons. The timing, as opposed to other sports, distinguishes it and creates outcomes inherently less likely to be based on production. (This is, in part, how Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee gets drafted and Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett doesn’t).
The previous day, former Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield entered the Dolphins’ hotel suite for his interview and prior to sitting down accidentally banged his head on a chandelier.
“He’s not even a Dolphin yet,” Tannenbaum jokes, “and we have to put him in concussion protocol.”
That proved less embarrassing than Josh Allen, the coveted Wyoming quarterback, referring to Dolphins legend Dan Marino as “Mr. Elway” during his interview. (Not ideal, but consider that Allen was 4 when Marino retired).
The Olympic process for stars like Allen and Mayfield continues from here, with further interactions at pro days, the NFL scouting combine and, perhaps, a so-called “30 visit” where teams can invite up to 30 players to their facilities to get to know them better. (The Dolphins were so comfortable in last-year’s first-round pick, Missouri defensive end Charles Harris, that they didn’t invite him on a “30” visit. Same with Minkah Fitzpatrick this year).
For the Dolphins, the Senior Bowl unofficially marks the end of their football research. With the rest of the scouting results coming in shorts rather than pads, the entire staff will convene in February, just after the Senior Bowl, for two weeks of meetings. The February meetings are a time, Dolphins general manager Chris Grier says, to get “off the fence” on player opinions. The meetings are encouraged to be contentious to spur vigorous debate on players.
The February meetings are a two-week marathon of tape and caffeine, with essentially a different position group analyzed every day.
Dolphins scout Lenny McGill recalls advocating for Kansas State wide receiver Jordy Nelson while scouting the Midwest for the Green Bay Packers back in 2008. He’d given him a first-round grade based on production, but the rest of the scouts had second- and third-round grades. McGill argued, with conviction: “If his name was Jerome and he was black and [beating all these top defensive backs], we wouldn’t even have this discussion. The fact he’s a white dude named Jordy, there’s hesitation and pause.”
(The Packers drafted Nelson in the second round, a wise move after 69 touchdown catches and four 1,000-yard plus receiving seasons that validated McGill’s conviction.)
Those discussions happen in the Dolphins’ February meetings for two straight weeks, starting at 7:30 a.m. Scouts wanting to work out early take “Bus 1” at 5:20 a.m. The other option, “Bus 2,” leaves the hotel around 7:15. Tannenbaum, Grier, the 10-member college scouting staff, analytics director Dennis Lock, senior director of player development Joe Vitt and consultant Bobby Grier are all in the room.
On linebacker day, for example, the Dolphins start with Georgia inside linebacker Roquan Smith. He’s introduced with his estimated height, weight and speed. To keep an aura of mystery and eliminate any bias, the players are introduced by order of the highest grade, leaving wiggle room for a variance since multiple scouts have graded the top players. The scouting reports on the player aren’t read until everyone has offered their opinion, as Grier doesn’t want the initial scout opinion to sway what the scouts are seeing.
For Smith, the Dolphins watched his entire game against Notre Dame, picking one where he played well (seven tackles and a sack). Grier often points to the old Bill Parcells line in scouting of being sure to highlight what a player can do, not what he can’t. After the full game, they watch Smith’s “point-of-attack tape” on XOS Digital, which shows all the plays – tackles and missed tackles – that Smith was involved with during the season. (Using the XOS film eliminates the bias of a scout who likes or dislikes a player splicing together a favorable or unfavorable set of plays).
After the film session, Grier polls the scouts who haven’t seen Smith. Lock will give his analytic breakdown of the player, which canvasses everything from how his physical make-up projects to his statistics.
The scouts who saw him will go last, with Adam Engroff getting the final say as the college scouting director.
That entire process will play out approximately 25 to 30 times a day for two weeks, from quarterbacks to guards and receivers to safeties. National scout Matt Winston holds the remote, a key job to push everyone through the monotony, as the Dolphins attempt to watch every player they have up to a mid-sixth-round grade on. The meetings routinely last past 9:30 p.m. each day, with scouts counting the hours until Bus 1 – which isn’t actually a bus, just scouts piling in Engroff’s car – leaves the next day on their way home.
“After the first few days,” jokes Engroff, “you don’t know what day it is.”
But by the end of the two weeks, the Dolphins know what the architecture of their board is going to look like, as 3,960 reports have been distilled into a group of players and early rankings of who the Dolphins are interested in drafting. (A key part of this phase is throwing out players who they don’t like or don’t fit their prototypes to keep their board streamlined.) The Dolphins grade the players by round, and then there’s a more finite delineation within the round to slot the players. Grier stresses they’re graded “for the Dolphins,” which means a receiver – where the team is flush – may not be ranked as high because there’s less need.
The end result is a “pure football grade,” one that shouldn’t endure a significant fluctuation – one round or more – as the “Olympic process” of the combine, pro days and interviews play out. (Unless, of course, there’s significant injury or character concerns that arise.) “If you’re moving someone significantly,” Grier says, “a serious flaw has happened and we missed something.”
The Dolphins’ scouts and brass proceeded to attend the combine, 98 pro days and interview 532 prospects before the next round of meetings in April. This round of meetings involves the coaching staff, as Gase sits in on all of them, as does the coordinator for the position being discussed and the position coach. For Smith, for example, linebacker coach Frank Bush and assistant linebacker coach Charlie Bullen will both present their opinions. Gase will share his thoughts, too, if he’s seen the player.
Gase knows this process well, as he spent 2003 and 2004 with the Detroit Lions as a scouting assistant. His opinions, from setting prototypes to picking players, are heavily considered throughout.
This April’s set of meetings lasts about 10 days early in the month, and includes reports from the Dolphins’ security and medical staffs. All objective data is considered. It’s all condensed on cards, which are the physical representation of each player on the draft board: “The entire building touches that card,” Tannenbaum says.
The draft board is essentially set by the end of April meetings and a lot of leg work is done identifying and ranking potential undrafted free agents. That’s an area in which the Dolphins, like all NFL teams, expend a lot of energy. A remarkable five undrafted free agents made the Dolphins’ opening day roster last year – as did all of their draft picks – a point of strong pride throughout the executives and scouting staff.
“I think any scout you talk to is proud of those late-round picks and free agents,” says Chase Leshin, a 32-year-old Dolphins scout and player personnel coordinator who got his start around football tending the mascot, Bevo, while an undergraduate at Texas. “Those are the guys you have to stand on the table for. Without that, they fly under the radar and make another team.”
After the meetings ended on April 13, the Dolphins’ brass reconvened on April 21 to lock in the final free-agent boards and pour over all the draft scenarios that could happen prior to their pick at No. 11. More than four months after the college football season concludes, the Dolphins have outlasted the Olympic marathon and made significant headway winnowing 1,504 players into eight picks.
Next: Why scouts love visiting Nick Saban, Alabama
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