As we’ve already told you, football can be hard to understand. Playbooks weigh as much as physics textbooks, and when you hear a quarterback barking in the huddle, it can sound like you’ve intercepted an alien transmission. For there to be order in the chaos, the game requires people who have mastered its specifics. Welcome to Masterminds Week, where we’ll spotlight those who have shown expertise in various aspects of the sport—from the big and all-encompassing to the random and hyperspecific.
The NFL draft is the lifeblood of roster construction. It’s where teams find and select their future superstars, the guys that will become integral to Super Bowl wins in the years to come. Excitement and interest around the combine and draft have continued to grow over the past few decades, and around-the-clock, in-depth coverage of the events has developed into a cottage industry of its own. With this, the curtain’s been pulled back as to how teams go about evaluating college players, and the understanding of and appreciation for what college scouts do in order to unearth their team’s next draft gems — grinding tape, going out on the pro day circuit, writing up scouting reports on every draftable player, grinding more tape, building the draft board, and, eventually, winning in the war room on draft day— have never been higher.
But in the process of putting together a roster, the draft is just the beginning — every club must look to outside sources to fill out the rest of the squad. The day-to-day task of accounting for injuries and suspensions, filling holes and adding depth, and keeping the team as competitive and talented as possible falls under the purview of the less famous and less understood counterpart to the college scouting team: the pro personnel department and its cadre of scouts.
From big-money free agents, to veteran-minimum role players, to potential waiver-wire acquisitions, to the ever-revolving door of the practice squad, the men and women of pro personnel departments are charged with knowing just about everything about every player and team in the NFL — and beyond. Teams are rightly pretty secretive about their evaluation processes, their free-agency strategies, and their proprietary grading systems, so I asked a few former pro scouts how they went about trying to build and maintain a championship roster.
Know Your Own Roster
Before pro scouts can even start to look to outside options — free agents, guys on the street, or potential trade targets — it’s essential to evaluate each and every player already on the roster, from the top down. “You have to know your football team,” said Mike McCartney, a former pro scout and director of pro personnel with the Bears and Eagles who’s pivoted to the agent side of the industry. “If you don’t know your own football team, first and foremost, you’re gonna make mistakes.”
This evaluation goes on year-round, but it really ramps up during the summer thanks to offseason OTAs and training camps. “It’s really important to go to practice and to study the team, watch the [practice] tape every night,” he said. “You need to be on top of every single thing that’s going on with your football team. Because as you watch other players [to potentially bring in], it has to be in relation to what your needs are and what your strengths and weaknesses are.”
Not everyone does it, McCartney said, but in his experience, it’s best to grade for your team first. As the evaluation process moves along and each player is given a grade, a quick-reference snapshot of that grade, along with all the pertinent information for that player, is placed onto a giant depth chart on a whiteboard in the general manager or pro personnel director’s office (some teams have moved to digital, too, apparently). For most teams, the grade each player is given is represented by a specific color, which helps decision-makers visualize the deepest positions on the roster and the spots where they need to bring in outside help.
“With the Cowboys’ system,” said former Dallas assistant director of pro personnel Bryan Broaddus, “everybody, especially [director of player personnel] Stephen Jones or [owner/general manager] Jerry Jones always would talk about, ‘He’s a blue player,’ or ‘He’s a red player,’ or, ‘He’s a purple player.’ The Joneses understand color more than they understand a number grade. So, if you say, ‘This guy’s got blue hands,’ blue hands are the best hands that you can have.”
Typically, the color-coded grades are used in conjunction with a number-based grade scale. The system varies from team to team — some use a higher number to signify a better player and others, the opposite — but for example, this commonly used college-grading scale goes from a 4.0 (“lacks the qualities/attributes required for pro football”) all the way up to a 9.0 (“immediate starter; rare prospect with rare physical attributes; instantly one of best in NFL”). The same types of categories are used in the color-coded pro grade scale.
“Blue was essentially a Pro Bowler,” McCartney said. “Red was a solid NFL starter; purple: a solid NFL backup; orange: a marginal backup, and then you could use plus or minuses to separate a little bit. I’m sure some teams have put different variations on those over the years, but by having your board color-coordinated, it allows you to see where your team is strong and weak.”
“An orange player was almost like a Band-Aid,” Broaddus said. When coaches looked at that depth chart and saw an orange player, he said, they were trying to find someone to replace him.
As a current example, take Jason Witten. “Witten at one time was a blue player,” Broaddus said. “I think Witten is borderline still with the athletic ability that he has [even after logging] 15 years in the league, but I think he’s probably a red, and they would say red with an arrow down, which is a descending player.”
That’s another layer to each color grade. “You have a purple player going up, means he could be red. If you have a purple going down, that means he’s closer to being an orange. So that’s a player you want to replace.”
Once the self-scouting is somewhere near complete, the pro scouting team sets about identifying which players it could bring in so the team can turn those orange and descending purple players into reds and blues.
Constantly Update the Player Database
The duty for every pro personnel department is to create and manage a database of every player in the NFL, every signable player without a team, and a number of players from lower-level or international leagues. The term “no stone left unturned” is probably a motto for more than one team.
“You’re gonna be scouting the CFL, the arena league,” said Dan Hatman, who worked in personnel departments for the Giants, Eagles, and Jets who is now a director at The Scouting Academy. “When the UFL and XFL were around, [we scouted those leagues, too]. Anybody that’s not college eligible. We’d go through as many of those players as humanly possible — in addition to grading all 32 teams’ rosters every single year — so you constantly have updated grades on everybody who’s in the league.”
In preparation for the start of free agency in mid-March, pro scouts present the decision-makers with reports on potential targets. “Usually, you start out watching the tape on your own and you try to narrow it down,” McCartney said. “When you kinda get excited about a guy, that’s when you bring in someone else and get a second opinion, whether it’s another pro guy or general manager. I remember, we were all, in [the Eagles] pro scouting department, real excited about [then-upcoming free-agent offensive tackle] Jon Runyan. It was the ’99 season. He was in Tennessee, and I was working through Andy Reid’s first year. It was a 5–11 year, late in the year, taking tape of Jon Runyan and saying, ‘Andy, this guy’s gonna change our entire offensive line.’”
Philly signed Runyan to a six-year, $30 million contract in the offseason, at the time making him the highest-paid offensive lineman in history. He became a fixture on that line, went to a Pro Bowl in 2002, and played with the Eagles until 2009.
But, as McCartney notes, the scouting department can’t rely on just its own excitement over a potential free-agency target. They must get coaches involved in the evaluation process as well. “You have to give your coaches a list of players to study because you want their opinions,” he said. “That helps your team narrow it down. ‘OK, what are we looking for? Now that you’ve had a chance to review the past season, what do we want to implement for next year? What are you looking for?’
“So we just had to really spend time with the [head] coach and the position coach and the defensive or offensive coordinator and really try to get an understanding of what they were looking for,” McCartney said. “At the end of the day, I can be excited about a player, but if you’re a coach and you’re not excited and you don’t think he fits the scheme, it’s probably not going to be a real good match.”
The pro scouts’ evaluations are integral to the process of determining the dollar value of a player as well, and the staff works closely with the salary cap gurus. “The pro department had to do a great job of communicating to the salary cap department and those negotiators in really defining the value of a player,” McCartney said. So, for example: “Let’s pull up a position — offensive guard: There were four good guards this year, so the pro department would say, ‘We have a couple guards that we really like in the first tier: We have Kevin Zeitler, T.J. Lang, Larry Warford, and Ronald Leary.’ And we compared these guys to the current market’s pay scale at the position. ‘In the second tier, we have these couple guys.’ So you fit players into tiers so that a club can make a decision.”
Once the free-agency free-for-all tapers off and teams approach training camp and the preseason, the work toward maintaining the offseason 90-man roster begins in earnest.
Keep the Shelves Stocked
In early June, the Lions learned they’d be without starting left tackle Taylor Decker for at least part of the season after the second-year pro injured his shoulder. In response, Detroit signed offensive lineman Cyrus Kouandjio off the street and traded a sixth-round pick to the Rams in exchange for tackle Greg Robinson. Last week, the Seahawks went through a similar series of events: Just days after Seattle head coach Pete Carroll named George Fant his starting left tackle, the second-year pro was lost for the year to an ACL injury. Seattle’s reaction? First, the Seahawks signed tackle Tyrus Thompson off the street, then, as Ian Rapoport reported, they “were calling around all day, looking for [an offensive tackle] for depth” before settling on the Eagles’ Matt Tobin — a trade that cost them a fifth-round pick.
The initial impression may be that when disaster struck for both of these teams, the subsequent moves were desperate and random. But while it’s certain that neither squad wanted to have to turn to free agency and trades to address newly created roster needs, their reactions were neither arbitrary nor panicked. These moves were the result of months, and in some cases, years of scouting, evaluation, and contingency-plan preparation, and both teams were able to act quickly to deal with the loss of key players because of the behind-the-scenes work of the pro scouting departments to build what’s frequently called a “short list,” “ready list,” or “emergency list.”
“Big picture, the pro personnel department is responsible for keeping the decision-makers apprised of the pool of players available throughout the year,” Hatman said. During the offseason, this list is mostly made up of street free agents, but as teams get closer to the season and begin to see how depth charts on other teams are shaping up, it can include guys that teams think will end up getting waived or passed over on the depth chart. Both Robinson and Tobin stood on shaky ground with their teams heading into 2017, and Detroit and Seattle were able to identify them both for their trade potential.
And, as we head into the final two weeks of the preseason, pro scouting departments will be in full alert, all-hands-on-deck evaluation mode in keeping that short list stocked with guys the team should target, either in trades or the upcoming roster cutdowns from 90 players to the final 53.
Exploit Roster Cutdowns
“The month of August is a grind,” McCartney said. That’s the time of year when teams are playing preseason games, scouts are evaluating backups and back-of-roster guys, and clubs are trying to decide who to cut and who to keep when final roster cuts are due.
“This year is different because teams will go from 90 to 53 in a day,” he said. That’s a big change from previous years, when teams were required to cut down to 75 players after the third preseason game. Now franchises have to cut a whopping 37 players after the fourth game. “So, that puts a tremendous amount of stress on the pro department because they’ll have about 1,200 players available all at once. So they have had to prepare and have strong opinions on many potential players that are on that list. They’ll be constantly debating, working with the coaching staff and other scouts, ‘Is Player A an upgrade on what we have on our current roster?’ And, injuries are always playing a part.”
To laser in on a list of candidates for trades or waiver-wire claims, pro scouts are tasked with identifying players worth claiming, while at the same time limiting that list to players who stand a chance of getting cut. “The pro department is responsible for providing the decision-makers with a best guess of which players we think will be available,” Hatman said. “Say I don’t have a fifth corner I like [on my team]. We already have paid attention to all the teams that have seven corners on their roster that we think are worthy, because very few teams can carry seven corners on their 53-man roster. So we’re going to be paying attention to that, and have already vetted all those players, and maybe we call about a trade and just say, ‘Hey, we think you might cut one. Would you want to just trade one?’”
Sometimes, well-established pro personnel departments look to take advantage of the turmoil a regime change creates for another franchise. “I know when we were at the Eagles, we always put extra attention on new staff,” McCartney said. “New coaching staffs — sometimes they’re making their full evaluation on their 53-man roster without seeing their team play a true game. So, new staffs can make mistakes with existing players that get off to a slow start with the new scheme or whatever. So, we put a little bit of extra attention on teams with new staffs.”
The scouts’ best guesses on final 53-man rosters come primarily from their own evaluations, but they also scour media predictions for a little bit of help as well. “If we think it’s a qualified opinion, we’re going to listen,” Hatman said. “Now, how much that gets weighed in, that depends, but we’ll look at the six beat writers, here’s all their on-or-off lists, and if five of the six think this guy is going to be available, we’re going to go ahead and leverage that.”
That narrows it down a bit. Then, based on all the research around projected rosters, “You’re going to have flagged the guys that piqued your interest,” Hatman said. “You’re not studying 900 guys off of the Week 4 tape. You’ve qualified those that you think are worthy of your consideration. Maybe you have 50 guys; we’re going to watch them, and if anybody stands out, we’re going to put them on our board and meet about it. We can have that done within 18 hours, 24 hours of that final preseason game, which puts us ahead of the cut-down part, puts us in a position to make decisions.”
A lot of these players are rookies or second-year guys still looking to catch on somewhere. The pro scouts will often consult with the college scouting team on players they’ve recently graded. “We would look at those [college] grades,” McCartney said. “We would look at the reports and we talk to the scouts. Some guys you would just knock out right away, whether it’s a medical concern, character concern, learning issues. You try and narrow the field as best you can based off those college reports, but then you can’t use necessarily the college grade at that point. You finally get to see them in a pro environment. And so now you get a chance to say, ‘OK, I see what the college guy saw, but I kinda see him fitting with us a little differently than maybe what he saw.’ And those aren’t decisions that one guy makes on his own. It’s a group effort. There’s a lot of discussion and, ‘Hey, here’s what I’m seeing with this guy. What do you think?’
“The better-prepared pro personnel departments are gonna shine [this year],” McCartney said, emphasizing how the new one-day cut-down rule will give them an edge over disorganized or recently assembled groups. “If you watched the tape and you’ve got conviction about your own team’s strengths and weaknesses and you get on the same page with the coaching staff, then it’s absolutely a time where you can improve your roster. Especially if a team is on the climb. The teams that are at the top may not have as many changes to be made, but the teams that are trying to get to a playoff level can definitely help themselves at that point.”
Once the roster cut-down chaos has died down, pro scouting departments turn their focus back to working on their short list of potential targets and building and maintaining the 10-man practice squad.
Win the Battle of Attrition
“Every time there’s a transaction on the waiver wire, you’re gonna be looking at those players,” Hatman said. “When a guy gets cut, you’ve gotta be prepared for claims.” This is where the in-season “ready list” or “short list” becomes so crucial. For some teams, there are multiple lists. “We had a short list of young guys and a short list of vets. We kept it split up,” McCartney said.
“The ready list is gonna have all the players not under contract who are therefore on the street and/or on the practice squad that you’d be willing to sign or that you have interest in,” Hatman said. “To get on that list, it means that someone in the pro department starts the process, liked them, graded them well. Then, the director and assistant director both qualified that, said they liked him, and, depending on the GM, they might have also taken a peek to sign off on that. That ready list is gonna have the grade, it’s gonna have where the player’s home base is, who his agent is, agent’s phone number, what have you, all there, and that ready list is available at the drop of a hat.
“So if on a Wednesday, a guy gets injured in practice and we just need a new practice-squad wide receiver to get through the rest of the week, there’s a ready list for that,” he said. “Plus, the GMs that I’ve worked for, in the booth on game day, they’ll have an emergency list, and if a guy goes down in a game and they get a bad report back — if the doc says it’s gonna be an ACL — the GM is working off the emergency list, calling agents during the game. ‘We wanna have your guy in here tomorrow.’”
To keep the ready and/or emergency lists properly updated, teams typically work out a group of free-agent players every Tuesday, when the rest of the team has a day off. “We’re bringing in guys off the ready list or bringing in guys as favors to agents,” Hatman said. “Say you’ll have an agent call and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this guy who’s bugging me because he hasn’t worked out for a team for a while. Can you bring him in and work him out?’ He does that because every workout goes on the transaction record, and it’s one of those things. ‘Oh, you know, X, Y, and Z worked him out. Now we gotta go look at him. We gotta vet him.’ That’s what every department does.”
But those workouts aren’t a waste. Teams are still building a database of available players and getting important information out of them every week. You “get updated height, weight, body type, because guys do change — you can see what kind of shape they’re in,” McCartney said. “Say there’s a running back you like, but haven’t seen in the pass game enough — you can throw him some balls, see how he moves and catches the ball. Then, as much as anything, it answers: ‘What kind of shape is a guy in? Is he ready to play?’ Because if they’ve been out of football for a couple weeks or longer, that becomes a concern.”
“It’s important to get a chance to meet with them and talk with them,” Hatman said. “You have a chance to get them in for a physical — that’s a huge one, obviously. We’ll get him checked out by the doctors. Say we like this vet. We’ve liked his film. We brought him in. We enjoyed being with him. His medical checks out. And then in Week 4, our starter goes down? We’ve already done all the leg work. We just call the agent and agree to terms.”
Teams can use the Tuesday workouts as a short-term mini-scout team — the group of lower-level players tasked with emulating specific future opponents — as well. “Say you’re gonna play a team that has a left-footed punter,” Broaddus said. “What you’ll do is you’ll bring in a punter during the week that’s left-footed to try out. On Tuesday you tell your punt-return guys, ‘Hey we’re going to have this workout at 10:30 a.m. today so come on in,’ and what you’d do is you’d have a guy left foot punt so you get some emulations for what you’re going to see.”
The league’s 10-man practice squads give teams another chance to evaluate young players. Some teams pick 10 and stick with those guys throughout most of the year, while others continually churn through a laundry list of guys. “Say there’s six guys that we really like on our practice squad,” Broaddus said. “A couple receivers, a defensive lineman, a tackle or two, and a tight end we like.” He’d hold on to those players with a mind toward developing them. But, as Broaddus said, “I didn’t want to sit there and just go with the same damn 10 guys. If I knew they weren’t good enough to make our team, I always wanted to go see if there’s somebody else out there that can make our team.” So the churn would continue, and sometimes that meant one of the tryout players would land himself a job.
The practice squad is also a great tool for stocking the scout team. “If you have a situation where you play in a division with a team that plays some read option,” Broaddus said, “you go get a quarterback that [does read-option work], but you might want to try him as a wide receiver or maybe a running back, too. Denard Robinson from Michigan would have been a guy like that.”
For some teams, the pro personnel team becomes almost an HR department. “When I became a director, I thought it was really important that I was around the team,” McCartney said. “I went to practice every day, I watched, I was around the players, I knew what the issues were. The outside world has no idea what’s going on in the inside of an NFL building a lot of the time. I think people would be shocked to learn how many issues there can be that they would never in a million years hear about. A football player has a mental breakdown. A guy’s struggling at home in a relationship, and some guys can manage that, others can’t. It’s relationships. They’re people. People have problems.”
These problems can affect a player’s availability during the week or on Sundays, and the team, at times, must make roster changes to account for that. “There’s all kinds of little things like that,” McCartney said, “and [teams] must strike balance between the short term and the long term.”
Provide Advance Scouting
Player evaluation goes on all season long, with pro scouts constantly updating the ready lists, churning players on and off of the practice squad, and doing the legwork to re-evaluate each and every player in the NFL. Along with this grueling schedule, pro scouts are also often charged with scouting a team’s future opponent. Scouts travel ahead of their team, going to an opponent’s game the week before they’re due to play each other.
Say your squad’s playing the Cowboys and the Giants are up next on the schedule. “While the team’s in Dallas, I’ll be at the Meadowlands watching the Giants,” Hatman said. “I’ll be studying nuances and schematic pieces that can give you an advantage, like, who do they use a lot on third downs? What are some of the ways that they get the ball into their hands? Who’s the worst pass protector that you should be targeting? Who’s the guy that deals with stunts and twists the worst? Depending on the team and the coaching staff, there’s a huge variety of questions a pro department might be asked to help that coaching staff prepare.”
“The coaches get the tape,” Broaddus said. “What you need to give to them is how teams substitute. Are they a fast-substitute team? Are they slow? Who’s the signaller on the sidelines? When do they snap the ball? Do they try and draw you offsides? How is the demeanor of the quarterback when he comes to the sidelines? Do they always huddle? You’re really trying to get an idea of how the game is played out for your opponent.”
All the while, these scouts are putting together reports on every player on that Giants team to be used for not only the upcoming game, but also the player database in the spring when free agency kicks off yet again.
Rinse and Repeat
This cycle goes on year after year. And it’s always changing and evolving with new coaches, new players, new schemes, and new pro personnel. The methodologies, the scouting reports, and the ready lists must be continually updated and improved.
As Seahawks general manager John Schneider said immediately after the draft this year, “We don’t stop. We compete at every corner. There’s no finish line. We’re going to continue to evaluate the guys we have, all the guys are coming in as tryout guys. You guys have seen us sign many tryout guys with the rookie minicamp as well, then we’ll head into the post-June area and see if there’s cap-casualty guys involved, and then we get to the 53 and see if anybody’s cut there that can help us.
“It really, quite frankly, never stops.”