Scouting 101

The art of scouting a professional prospect is just that; an art. There is no school, course, or class one person can take to truly harbor the essence of what it takes to scout and evaluate a professional prospect.

There are draft gurus, draft websites, water cooler banter, and the expert “office know-it-all” who has never touched the field at any level and can tell everyone about what it takes to play at the highest level. (Hopefully, you are not him! Ha ha ha) All of these aforementioned areas of study make for great dialogue, but do not influence those who are making the decisions at the professional team level

I have sat in film study sessions with General Manager Scott Pioli (Kansas City Chiefs), Vice President of Player Personnel Rick Spielman (Minnesota Vikings), General Manager Jeff Ireland (Miami Dolphins), General Manager Tim Ruskell (Seattle Seahawks), former NFL Head Coach and current UFL Head Coach Dennis Green, and a whole host of others picking their brains as to what it takes to evaluate a player most objectively. What I got out of it all were three simple rules to follow and you will always find the best players available.

What is the player’s ability to play the game?

  • Play hard

  • Play smart

  • Play physical

What is his medical history?

  • Lack of durability = Lack of reliability

What is his character?

  • Arrests

  • Attitude

  • Work habits

First, ability. There are many who have played sports and/or surveyed sports contests as fan, but many more have never evaluated or scouted players for a professional team. While there is no school or class that can teach a person how to evaluate players, there are some parameters and boundaries a team must abide by. There are many well-versed and entrenched scouts who use a large amount of fancy adjectives and imaginative language to articulate a simple point: can he play or not. (Yes, the use of adjectives in the previous sentence was purposely overdone. lol). The ability to “play” is not exactly defined by each team as a group, but rather on what a team’s philosophy (Head Coach and General Manager can often spearhead a team’s philosophy if there is a hands-off ownership group) is and whether that player fits that team’s philosophy.  There are some teams who evaluate players for the entire League, and do not take into account the ability of that player to perform effectively for that respective team.  I have never understood the philosophy of General Mangers, Personnel Directors, and Head Coaches who draft this way. This can lead to often misguided results and a collective mess of players who do not compliment others very well. Ability can often override character which is discussed below.

Second, medical history. This is an area that is can be very subjective, differing in the grading criteria from team-to-team. Medical information is important because it tells how durable a player will be for his level of participation. If the player is not very durable, it is easy to conclude he may not be very reliable on the field; therefore someone a team may want to stay away from. Players are usually given routine physicals before signing a contract with a particular team. It is possible that a player never has had a serious problem with a body part requiring any surgery, but a team may not pass him on the physical because his condition may be considered “degenerative”. It is purely at the discretion of the team whether or not they wish to take on that risk or not. 

I personally know of one particular player whom I will leave nameless for liability reasons, where a team brought him in for a physical, he never had any problems with a body part in question, but was told he had a “degenerative condition”, and the team did not sign him. However, the flipside to that scenario is from another player who was diagnosed with a degenerative condition on a body part, but played for seven years with no problems until his eighth year, after changing teams, eventually tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), but not in the knee with the degenerative condition. He tore the ACL in the healthy knee. How ironic. That just goes to show the subjectivity in the process.

Third, character finally comes into consideration. Character is such an important focal point in the current day of college and professional sports. With the exorbitant amounts of money associated with today’s professional contracts, owners, coaches, and personnel staff want to make sure they are getting a quality person on the field and in the locker room.  Make no mistake about it, there will be a few bad character individuals who make up a team’s roster, but there cannot be too many otherwise the imbalance is too much and causes friction and disruption in the locker room and beyond. Conversely, it is very rare that you will see a team full of individuals who have never made a mistake or gotten into some form of legal trouble.  The ease and availability of media coverage has allowed many prospects to come under the microscope and be scrutinized for every bad (rarely good) decision they make.

If scouting and evaluating players were an exact science, there would be no need for fans, rivalries, sportsmanship, and competition. Thankfully art is all about interpretation, which leaves scouting not as an exact science, but rather an exact art.

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