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How NFL Teams Scout the Preseason

Posted by John Middlekauff On August - 8 - 2013
"Thomas Dimitroff"

Dale Zanine – USA Today Sports

After hearing questions asked by the media at training camp practices and seeing reaction on twitter, I came to the conclusion people don’t understand how scouting departments approach the preseason. Having worked both on the pro and college sides in the NFL, I’ve seen it all when it comes to scouting the preseason. I also spoke with two former NFL executives who worked with me in Philadelphia on this topic. Phil Savage worked under Ozzie Newsome for years before becoming the GM in Cleveland from 2005-08, while Louis Riddick ran pro departments both in Washington and Philadelphia. Beside the NFL draft, the month of August is the greatest time for NFL franchises to manipulate and add to their roster. The best scouting departments really separate themselves from the pack over the next month. 

WHO PLAYS A ROLE?

Each team will monitor every organization around the NFL, dividing teams exclusively through their pro departments or giving college scouts responsibility as well. There are several ways to skin a cat, and teams have been successful doing it a variety of ways. During my time with the Philadelphia Eagles, college scouts played a huge role – each evaluating two or three NFL teams during the preseason. But having talked with several other college scouts on the road, they are not always asked to be involved in the process.

“I’ve done it several different ways, but I felt having the college scouts involved in the process gave them a huge advantage heading on the road for the fall,” Savage referring to how he ran his department.“The more exposure a scout can have to players currently playing in the NFL, the more equipped he will be to evaluate college players in the fall.”

My experience in the NFL would lend me to strongly agree with Savage. I watched a substantial amount of preseason tape while coming up the ranks in the office. Whether it’s evaluating teams practice squad players or potential future signings – this early film is like gold all season. As I transitioned to the college side of scouting, the evaluation of my preseason teams helped propel me for the college season. I was very confident in 2012 evaluating college players, and understanding who they were relative to the NFL. Is this player a starter? Dressing on game days? 53 man talent? Practice squad player with upside to develop?  Before you can make a bold statement about a college player, you must know what the NFL version actually looks like on film.  

Louis Riddick has strong feelings when including the college scouts in the evaluation of preseason film as well. “I am a firm believer that college scouts really benefit from this time of year. It helps guys have context of what is playing in the NFL. It’s also a great way for the college scouts to do some self-evaluation and watch what guys they liked or disliked from college look like at the next level.”

HOW TEAMS ARE MONITORED?

"Cleveland Browns"

Camp injuries turn plans upside down

When I first came to Philadelphia we lived off things called “sports scans” which compiled newspaper articles pertaining to each team. Each scout would look for key quotes from coaches, GMs, or any other relevant information – positive or negative. By 2011, twitter was becoming a very strong voice in the NFL community. We began allocating multiple interns to follow twitter for any relevant information. I personally followed the beat writers for my teams during training camp. I felt this gave me a huge advantage when monitoring my assigned teams. While beat writers may not be scouts, they do give some good tips on players excelling in practice, and help focus your tape study. This can help narrowing down the entire process. This trick also helped me when I was a college scout. I followed every beat writer for every school in my area. To be completely candid, if you’re not doing this you are behind the eight ball from an information gathering standpoint.

Injuries are HUGE during the preseason, because when players go down scouting departments are constantly monitoring/inputting this information into a database. Injuries are highly relevant when players are released and your team has potential interest in a given player. It’s a great starting point for your doctors or trainers giving physicals and checking into specific injuries. The more information a team possesses on a player, the more efficient they can be when acquiring his services.   

BUBBLE LIST COMPILATION

Before preseason games ever begin, every team hands out a list of players for their scouts to evaluate. This list is obviously fluid, continuously changing as new information flows. Most teams follow a general formula for putting together this list. It can consist of anywhere from 15-25 players, with guys being added and subtracted daily. Below is the general criteria:

  • Players drafted from the fourth round or later
  • All undrafted free agents who had a draftable grade
  • Any rookie free agents who had a signing bonus of more than $5k
  • Any player with three years or less experience (potential practice squad candidates)
  • Players at specific positions of your teams needs or depth on that given team.
  • Any additional rookie free agents that may standout.

“This is a very fluid situation for a scouting department, things are changing every day in terms of injuries, players being released, and depth/position of needs changing on your own team,” Savage on teams bubble lists. “In Baltimore and Cleveland we often focused on teams that had specific position depth as potential trade partners for an area we may view as our weakness. Not only are you scouting for week one, but also for the middle of the season when you may need a guard or linebacker from another teams practice squad. You are constantly balancing the future and present in the front office.”

Riddick echoed similar thoughts: “In Washington we were very scheme/position specific while in Philadelphia we were casting a much wider net. We were able to find good players under both criteria. The bottom line is teams who are the most prepared and have the most information come the 53 man cut down will have the most success,” he continued by talking about the importance of using your scouts.“You have hired these individuals because you believe in their evaluation skills, you need to lean on them during this period of time for help. They not only to streamline the process, but should understand the players who fit within your program and vision.”

Technology

This is an area that has really changed the game and enabled NFL teams to be help speed up the process. Video is now 100% digital with VHS & DVDs being a thing of the past. Video sharing has become easy as the press of a button. Pro and college scouts as recently as five or six years ago were very dependent on attending preseason games. Phil Savage paints a clear picture why this was the case.

“We sent our scouts to games because it could be a week before the film arrived at our facility. We depended on the area scouts to attend games on top of sending the pro scouts out as well. Everyone was involved in the process, but now with the speed in which preseason tape arrives, it has really changed the importance of sending scouts to games.”

Two other areas in terms of technology that have really changed the way NFL teams operate:

1: Filtering Players:  The ability to select individual players and filter all of his plays. The technology has only improved within the last 3 years – with the ability to search a wide receiver’s targets, or every time a linebacker is in on a tackle. It is really amazing what NFL teams have the ability to do with film in 2013. Instead of interns taking time to make tapes on players, a GM can press one button and watch every play on an individual player. Efficiency has gone up ten fold because of the video technology. 

2: IPads: Apple changed more than just American culture, but the NFL film landscape. Coaches/scouts/players can have access to film no matter where they are. The team can be playing two thousand miles away, and a scout in the office can press a button sending a tape to his GM or director. Scouting departments can send all their film to the cloud, creating a database that is accessible from anywhere with WiFi.

While the Super Bowl may be over five months away, don’t be surprised to see the two teams in New York rely on players they acquire over the next month. The best NFL scouting departments excel this time of year, balancing planning in the present so they can win in the future.