Since collegiate spring football practices in 2008, NFL scouts have been doing their due diligence on the prospects likely to be selected in next weekend's draft.
In that time, some prospects got hurt and others got in trouble while some made massive gains, held true to form or regressed in one way or another. In the same span, NFL coaches who had a system in place got fired and the majority of their replacements implemented new schemes and character standards.
There have been multiple trap doors opened up in the lengthy evaluation of players and shaping of rosters. It's easy to lose focus when finding someone who can run, catch, throw and tackle -- all while avoiding major character concerns, regardless of the circumstance.
For example, if Scout A is sitting in a collegiate press box observing a certain player and he's surrounded by longtime friends, who also happen to be scouts, it’s easy for Scout A to base an opinion on what he’s hearing his peers say instead of holding true to his opinion. On that note, there’s media influence too. Constant reports, columns and public dot-connecting -- about why a certain prospect could be the best fit -- creates a groundswell of hopes and ambition by ticket-buying fans.
"Don't listen to the media or pay too much attention to the mock drafts,” 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan said, echoing a sentiment shared by several GMs. "Do not listen to the media."
The overriding philosophy, regardless of the team, is that scouts play the most valuable role in determining who to draft. Coaches don’t get into the evaluation process until after the season. General managers are involved, but they also have to juggle contract or discipline issues with players and coaches while also scouting other NFL players for possible trades and injury replacements.
Here is a sampling of philosophies from general managers on the Do’s and Don’ts of preparing for the draft.
“Trust the tape. How productive are they in one-on-one and contested situations?”
-- Jaguars GM Gene Smith, claiming that evaluation covers practices, games, postseason all-star games, the draft combine and private workouts.
“Gather detailed and accurate information.”
-- Rams GM Billy Devaney
“Surround yourself with good scouts. That’s so important because they weigh heavily in the decision. They work so hard at it and they get paid to scout. I was (one of) them at one time, an area scout. You have to make sure they understand this part of this process. Most importantly, use them and the information they provide. That’s what you hired them for.”
“Have evaluations going into their senior year/draft-eligible years. We have a sound evaluation by a number of months because we’ve scouted players as underclassmen. Spring scouting is very important because it sets the tone for the rest of our (scouting) season. With our in-season scouting, we make sure that we have a proper cross-check system set up so that we have 4-7 looks at draftable players and priority free agents.”
-- Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff
“(Do) intensive background research on character, from their structured college environment back to their high school/hometown, to verify patterns of behavior because history is the greatest predictor of future success. … The medical evaluation, based on a medical grade and career durability.”
“Gauge pure athleticism of the football player as well an assessment of urgency and consistency and approach to the game. Those are overriding themes that come up year to year.”
“Never move someone up or down on a draft board off of performances at the Senior Bowl practices or games -- or any all-star games -- or the combine, unless it’s a drastic change, say in the projected speed. We go in with an open mind evaluating the Senior Bowl and combine, but we make sure as a group that we don’t just make a drastic move on the draft board off those performances. We may put an asterisk because of a good workout or Senior Bowl, but there’s no need to plummet somebody.”
“Don’t get swayed by good/bad personal interviews or good/bad combine drills.”
“[Evaluate] with my ears instead of my eyes -- don’t listen to what others outside of your draft room are saying about a particular player. Rely on your body of work and the process in place. … [Don’t] be blind to real character or medical alerts because of a player’s physical talent.”
-- Smith, whose assessment of these issues was universal.
“Do not lose sight of your own opinion.”
“Do not confuse football intelligence and book intelligence. That is very important. Let’s be real. We all know that not everybody has been afforded the opportunity to be educated properly in the classroom. We really make sure to differentiate between football intelligence and [academic intelligence].”