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The NFL Draft Scouting Glossary

Sam Darnold has a “bad face.” Calvin Ridley has “tight skin.” It’s time to define those phrases—and more.

The NFL Draft Scouting Glossary Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Our long, slow descent into madness—also known as NFL draft season—is finally close to an end. Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve hit NFL draft week.

If you’re like me, you’re busy devouring scouting reports, player breakdowns, and the nonstop coverage of the 256-pick marathon event. And, if you’re like me, you’re probably going to be wondering what the hell some of these scouts and analysts are talking about when they reference things like “pile inspectors” and “glass eaters.”

The draft community draws from an extensive catalog of slang, and scouting reports and TV coverage are rife with jargon ranging from the obscure to the hilarious. Sometimes, you just have to roll your eyes, like when one anonymous scout dinged USC quarterback Sam Darnold for having a “bad face.” At other times, these terms just make you want to dig a little deeper into what that evaluator is talking about. Twitter had a lot of fun last week with one report that referenced Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley’s “tight skin.” That was from NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein, by the way, who told me last year that he likes to toss scouting idioms and turns of phrase into his reports as little “Easter eggs” for the reader. “I’ll throw some stuff in there that’s meant to be kind of funny,” he said. “It’s meant to talk about who the player is and what he is, but it’s also meant to catch your eye and break up the monotony of reading through those things.” Guess what? It works!

I love the draft scouting vernacular, but sometimes it can be tough to decipher. So to help you get through this week’s coverage and to better understand the types of players your favorite team just picked up, I put together a quick-hit glossary of NFL draft terms.

“Tight skin”

Example: WR Calvin Ridley, Alabama

Tight skin might sound like a good thing, but it’s generally a negative in the football world. It’s meant to suggest that a player—typically a wiry or thin one—may struggle to add much muscle or size to his frame. Going into the draft, Ridley’s the consensus top receiver because of his elite route-running skills and his talent for picking up yards after the catch, but his lack of bulk (6-foot, 189 pounds) may put a ceiling on which roles he can play in the league. It’s unlikely he’ll ever have enough size to become that box-you-out, physical presence in the red zone, and he may struggle with bigger, more aggressive corners.

“Bad face” or “cow on ice”

Example: QB Sam Darnold, USC

I guess “bad face” is just some scout’s way of calling Darnold ugly? That’s just mean. Quarterbacks don’t all have to look like Jimmy Garoppolo, OK? As for calling someone a cow on ice, it’s a visual that does make some sense: As former NFL scout and general manager of Ourlads Scouting Services Dan Shonka explained, “[Darnold’s] footwork is all over the place. His feet in the pocket are embarrassing.”

“Like driving a covered wagon on the Autobahn”

Example: Josh Allen, Wyoming

This phrase hasn’t really hit the mainstream yet, but it probably should: It’s another classic Shonka used, this time to describe Allen, who may struggle to process the speed and chaotic movement of the other 21 players in front of him once he gets to the NFL level. The probable soon-to-be first-rounder struggled to read defenses and throw with anticipation at Wyoming, and that contributed to a 56 percent completion percentage over his last two seasons at the helm there.

“Rolling ball of butcher knives”

Example: RB Derrius Guice, LSU

I mean, this phrase is pretty vivid: Picture a guy with an intimidating playing style centered around physicality and aggression; he’s usually big, strong, and tough as hell to tackle. What defender is going to want to take on and tackle a rolling ball of butcher knives?

“Plug and play”

Example: DE Bradley Chubb, NC State

A lot of players coming into the NFL need a year or two to get up to speed before they’re ready to hit the field. If a guy’s a “plug and play” prospect, though, he’s advanced enough in his technique or talented enough to contribute from day one. Just put him into your scheme and let him go to work. Chubb can play the run. He can rush the passer. He’s tenacious. He’s technically sound. He’ll contribute right away.

“Cerebral,” “good instincts,” or “high football IQ”

Example: LB Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State

All three of these terms mean basically the same thing, and describe a player who simply processes the game better or faster than most. For offensive players, it usually means they can read a defense and determine where to throw, whom to block, how to get open, or which lane to run though in the blink of an eye. For defenders, that might mean they can look at factors like down-and-distance, formation, and personnel, and just seem to know where the ball is going. Vander Esch is that guy: He’s a heat-seeking missile who finished with 141 tackles, 4.0 sacks, 8.5 tackles for a loss, two interceptions, and five pass deflections last year for Boise State.

“Elite wiggle”

Example: RB Saquon Barkley, Penn State

Prospects with “wiggle” utilize deft head fakes, shoulder shimmies, and most importantly, explosive acceleration to elude would-be tacklers. Flip on Barkley’s tape and you’ll see a lot of guys diving to tackle running-back-shaped clouds of dust.

“Fluid hips” or “oily hips”

Example: RB Ronald Jones, USC

Hip talk is going to dominate draft weekend. A player with tight hips might be fast as hell in a straight line, but struggles to move laterally. That’s a player who can function in limited roles—say, a deep-threat receiver who runs go routes up the sideline. But teams are really looking for more dynamic athletes, and players with fluid or oily hips are able to change direction on a dime without losing any speed or momentum. Jones consistently showed that talent at USC.

“Football-playin’ Jessie”

Example: N/A

No one knows what this means. Not even the people who say it.

“Downhill runner” and “north-south runner”

Example: RB Sony Michel, Georgia

These terms describe a no-nonsense running style. There’s no dancing at the line of scrimmage. There’s no hesitation. North-south runners take the handoff, run into the teeth of the defense, and get the ball downfield as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“Quicker than fast”

Example: WR Christian Kirk, Texas A&M

This term is most commonly used in reference to slot receivers, running backs, and corners, and describes players who have explosive bursts in short areas—quickness that helps them to either separate as a route runner or cover on short routes—but lack top-tier speed over long distances. Prospects labeled quicker than fast might have trouble running away from coverage downfield or keeping up with a pass catcher on deep routes.

“Tweener”

Example: LB Fred Warner, BYU

Sometimes, whether it’s because of his size or specific skill set, a player just doesn’t really fit the prototype of any particular position. A “tweener” might be taller and heavier than a normal receiver but not quite big enough to play in line as a blocking tight end. Another might be too short to be a full-time edge rusher but lack the coverage skills of an off-ball linebacker. It’s not necessarily a death knell for that player; it just means his coaching staff might have to get creative with how to deploy him on the field. That’s Warner; the BYU playmaker is listed as a linebacker but is closer in size to a safety (6-foot-3, 227 pounds). He’s got the range and instincts in coverage to play either spot, and where he ends up depends largely on who takes him.

“Glass eater”

Example: G Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame

A glass eater is typically an offensive lineman who plays with a merciless, vicious, and unrelenting mentality. Nelson’s probably the best example of this in decades.

Alternatively, you might hear an analyst say a prospect “needs some glass in his diet,” which means he plays soft or doesn’t have enough on-field intensity.

“High-point catcher” or “hands catcher”

Example: WR Marcell Ateman, Oklahoma State

A high-point catcher excels at timing his jump to fully extend and snatch a pass high up in the air and out of a defender’s reach—and this skill comes in handy in the red zone. A hands catcher is exactly what it sounds like but is important because it distinguishes that prospect from body catchers. Instead of waiting for the ball to arrive and then trapping it against his body, a hands catcher consistently extends his arms to attack the ball and reel it in. Football’s a game of inches, and body catchers have a much more difficult time with tight coverage—and they also tend to have a lot more drops.

“Extra gear”

Example: WR D.J. Chark, LSU

Only a few special athletes possess the proverbial extra gear. Just when you think a receiver or running back has hit top speed, he slams on the afterburners and runs away from coverage. Chark showed that plenty of times at LSU, averaging 20.5 yards per reception over the past two years for the Tigers, then blew the field away at the combine when he registered a 4.34-second 40-yard dash, tops among receivers.

“Sand in his pants” or “can grow roots”

Example: DT Vita Vea, Washington

When you hear about a defensive line prospect with sand in his pants or one who can grow roots, it means he’s immovable once the ball gets snapped. Vea’s as strong as any player in this draft, and even if he’s taking on a double-team block from a pair of offensive linemen, he almost always manages to stand his ground and hold the line.