Ask The Scouts: Are Draft Sleepers A Thing Of The Past?

I think one of the biggest reasons that Draft Twitter has exploded, and why the NFL draft remains as popular as ever, is because everyone wants to say, ‘I liked that guy that nobody knew about,’ or ‘everyone said that guy stunk, but I knew he’d be a big star.’

That’s all well and good, but does that still happen in the NFL? In the digital age, when everything is online, and when two major scouting services (National and BLESTO) pin their professional existence on leaving no stone unturned, is it still possible to find a lockdown corner at a tryout, as the Patriots did with Malcolm Butler (his story is still probably my best and favorite blog post)? Is it still possible that a senior who winds up as a Top 10 draft pick could have been completely overlooked by both scouting services, as Lions DE Ziggy Ansah was in the 2013 draft?

By now, if you’re reading this, you know I love to discuss the craft of scouting with people in the business. I asked several friends this question: Would you say that today, in the digital age with so much information out there, that true ‘sleepers’ still exist? Are there still players with some ability that no one, or very few teams, know about?

Here are three responses from those in the ‘yes’ camp:

  • “Sleepers are fewer and farther between but they definitely still exist! It’s hard to keep anything secret in this league but there are prospects that still end up off the radar due to circumstances: running slow, playing at a small college, multiple transfers, etc. For example, (Patriots DC) Malcolm Butler, Oakland’s punter (Marquette King out of Fort Valley State). Then there are the rare cases where they are better pros than they were in college, i.e. (recent Jaguars free agent signee) A.J. Bouye. (Sometimes it’s) luck, but luck favors the prepared.”
  • “As long as humans are doing the grading then there will be human mistakes and triumphs. No doubt! A true scout knows talent when he sees it regardless of what the numbers say. The ‘guy feel’ still is a noteworthy scouting tool!!”
  • “Hell yeah! All the undrafted players who make a 53 every season vs. the drafted players who go to (the practice squad) or (who are) cut are proof!!! (It’s) all about the great area scouts!”
  • “Sleepers pop up when young combine scouts don’t put size, speed and production players from small schools on the list! They don’t believe their eyes because of the quality of football. Example: DT from Albany State (Colts pick Grover Stewart) that popped up late in the year and went in the fourth round. Listen loud, talk soft and see with open mind and clarity comes!”

There were plenty of scouts that were of the ‘no’ opinion, and for many different reasons. We continue this discussion with professional evaluators in our Friday Wrap, which comes out this afternoon. Read the thoughts and analysis of several more NFL scouts who feel it’s harder to find a sleeper than ever — and maybe impossible — in our Friday Wrap. It’s free, it comes out every Friday afternoon, and you’ll be glad you read it. Register for it here.

Ask The Scouts: Is Scouting Harder Today Than 10 Years Ago?

One of the best things about working with people in the game is that you get to ask them questions that demystify one of the most intriguing jobs in the game of football, at least in my opinion. When you ask about things that go a lot deeper than the superficial questions normally asked by members of the sports media, you can get some interesting answers.

This week, with the scouting carousel slowing down and scouts mostly getting back into their normal routine and either returning from the BLESTO meetings or readying to go to National Football Scouting’s meetings next week, we asked several scouts this question:

Do you think it’s harder (more schools to cover, entitled players, troublesome agents, greater media involvement) or easier (digital age, easier communications, better medical data, pro days more efficient) to be a scout than it was 10 years ago?

About a dozen scouts, some on the area level and some higher-ups, responded. We’ve included the respondents of the ‘scouting is easier today’ opinion in today’s post. They’re below.

  • “I wouldn’t say it is easier or harder, but it is different. Fans are more knowledgeable about the process and media coverage is more intense, but instant access to video, social media, and more advanced draft studies are among the changes for the better.”
  • “Easier mostly due to video – VHS tapes, then DVDs, now all digital. We’d have to wait for tapes or DVDs from NFL video, then team video, always late.  Now we can access any game the next week, all on a (Microsoft) Surface. Also, background info on Internet is easier.”
  • “Digital age made it easy to watch the game tape and write reports, but you still have to watch the tape and write the reports to have a great draft!”
  • “Tough to say, but I would (say) it was harder travel-wise 10 years ago because I’m sure there was less communication, marginal GPS services and specified roles in colleges.”
  • “Easier because the Internet allows you to get background info or stats instantly.  That can also be a negative if you have lazy scouts. Fifteen years ago, a scout would actually have to make a school visit to watch film. Now you get it on your iPad or computer immediately.”

Equally interesting, if you’re like me (and if you read this, you probably are), were the responses of those who said it’s harder now than it used to be. We’ve included those responses in our weekly email newsletter, the Friday Wrap.

If you don’t already receive it, join the 4,000 scouts, agents, financial advisors, trainers, coaches, parents of players, active NFL players, draft prospects, former players and others across the football business who do. It comes out late afternoon/early evening every Friday. It’s free, and I promise, you won’t be sorry. Click here to register.

Have a wonderful Memorial Day Weekend, and don’t forget why we celebrate it.



So You Want To Be A Scouting Assistant

I’ve spent the last week working with several ITL clients who are trying to break into the league as scouting assistants and interns. After listening to the progress they’re making and the obstacles they’re seeing, I’ve come to several realizations about the process, and what teams are seeking. Here are a few thoughts.

  • Every team is different: I need to start with this disclaimer. Some teams are looking for young people to do things around the office, gather information, file things, take calls, make copies, and the kind of grunt work that all interns do everywhere, but with a football spin to it. On the other hand, some teams’ scouting assistants spend a lot of time picking up dry cleaning, making airport runs or running other errands that have no football peg whatsoever. In fact, if you listed their day-to-day chores, you might not even know they work for NFL teams. I know one of my best scouting assistant candidates interviewed with a team this week that told him, “you need to go straight to area scout.” They weren’t prepared for his level of preparation and professionalism, and in fact, that’s why he didn’t get hired.
  • If you’re over 27, forget about scouting: I had a long exchange with a good friend who aspires to work for an NFL team last week. He’s spent a lot of time and money getting as qualified to be an NFL scout as possible, but he’s well into his 30s. I felt I had to break it to him that scouting assistants don’t get hired when they leave their 20s. I certainly don’t say this to crush your spirits if you’re 30-plus, but teams are looking for young, cheap people they can mold. Unless you’re coming out of a lengthy playing career for a team, they’re not going to invest in you if you’re on the wrong side of 30.
  • It’s not always about scouting: Teams don’t even want you to think of yourself as a scout when you enter the building. In fact, I think most teams want their interns and scouting assistants to be blank slates: completely formless and willing to do anything. In many cases, football is something scouting assistants almost do in their free time. If you’ve already begun to develop a scouting eye, this is almost a detriment, because most teams want to teach you and monitor your progress rather than having to unwind bad habits you might have already learned. This is why I’m starting to believe earning accreditations and taking scouting-related classes is a bad idea. The NFL just isn’t ready for this yet. When you have thousands of people to choose from, you just want cheap labor. You don’t want quasi-professionals. This is an important point, and this is why the best route to the NFL still goes through college recruiting and personnel offices.
  • Don’t apply online to sports job services: A few services have developed that aggregate sports jobs online and allow subscribers to apply en masse. Here’s one. I don’t know how other leagues work, but in the NFL, this is not how scouting assistants are hired. In fact, if your best shot at getting a scouting job is applying through some similar link, you should buy a lottery ticket the same day you send in your resume, because the odds of success are the same.
  • Forget about Draft Twitter: If you think that you can pad your credentials for an NFL job by becoming a Twitter scout, think again. Yes, Daniel Jeremiah rode his Twitter account to a place on the NFL Network, and several other ex-NFL scouts have had varying levels of success with Twitter, but the key is they had already been in the league. No NFL team is reading Twitter takes and saying, ‘we gotta have that guy.’

As always, I don’t dispense these thoughts to destroy peoples’ dreams, and God knows  there are exceptions to all these rules. Still, having heard stories and seen hiring in action, these conclusions were inescapable. I hope they help.

Creating Opportunities

If you’ve read our posts this week, you know we’re not real high on services that sell scouting or agent classes. While they may provide excellent know-how on the business, that’s not what gets you hired. In the end, your success in finding a job will turn on your ability to create opportunities.

That’s why, Wednesday morning while I was at the gym, it was so satisfying to get this text from a friend with an AFC team: “Hey Neil do you have any potential interns trying to break in?” Of course I do, I told him. As soon as I got home, I sent him eight candidates. By noon Wednesday, a couple told me they had already heard from the team. I wished them luck, of course. The trick is matching good opportunities with good people. I’ve got another friend who’s requested a list of former NFL scouts who are on the street now, and their contact info. I got that to him last night.

These kinds of requests are great, but don’t come in very often. That’s why we tell our clients who are scouting hopefuls that we can provide them with tools, but no guarantees. It’s great when someone asks us for names, but in the end, we try to help them create their own opportunities.

Here’s what we give our Next Wave clients (aspiring members of the football business, who get a one-year subscription at an 80 percent discount, $70). We help them contact the teams they need to contact, and we work one on one with them, where possible, so they know where the opportunities are. One way we do that is by compiling all the openings in our Scouting Changes Grid. Of course, we also expand on everything we hear (in ways you can’t do in a Twitter format) in our Rep Rumblings. We don’t put a lot on Twitter except hirings and firings. Buzz, rumors, speculation, analysis, what we think — all in Rep Rumblings. If you’d like to join our ranks, click here. If you’ve got questions, email us.

Still, even when we’re helping, and even with the resources we provide, there are things that enhance your odds of success. Like getting to know ex-NFL types, befriending them, working hard for them, and getting them on your side. Ex-NFL people tend to know still-active NFL people, and if you treat them right, they go to bat for you. The best way to do that is by working for a school in their personnel department, but you can get creative and find other places to volunteer.

Also, living in an NFL market is an incredible advantage. Take Houston, for example. If you’re here, you not only have a chance to find ways to volunteer for the Texans, but you could easily drive to two other markets (Dallas and New Orleans) if opportunities arose there. Teams don’t pay for people to come interview. We also had a Super Bowl last year, which had endless opportunities to pitch in and maybe catch someone’s eye.

At the end of the day, it’s all about hustle. Don’t forget about that. The odds of getting a job in scouting might not be in your favor, but if you create enough opportunities, good things will happen.

The Fine Line

On Monday, I discussed the things you can do (and the things not worth doing) that may help you land a job in scouting. One of the points I made was that somehow, some way, you’ve got to get in front of scouts or you’re probably dead in the water. You might have interpreted that to mean that you need to do some big-time butt-kissing if you happen to so much as share an elevator with a scout. Not so.

I was able to get one of my scout prospects on the phone with a friend who scouts for an AFC team a couple years ago. This prospect, who had been an ITL intern and had done a smashing job, was top-notch. The best. I felt like he would knock the scout’s socks off, but it didn’t happen.

My friend the scout said the young man had been a little too educated, and maybe had  been a little too polished. Maybe my protege had tried to come across as too NFL-ready when what he should have done was promote his whatever-it-takes attitude and all-out work ethic. I wasn’t around for the interview, but it’s possible he played up his pedigree at one of the finer academic institutions in the country when he should have come across as more salt-of-the-earth.

Another time, I recommended a candidate to a friend in the business and this time, the prospect totally killed it. He didn’t get the job, but it wasn’t because my friend didn’t try. He passed him along, and though the young man didn’t get the job, he was in the running. I’m confident he’ll land something soon. I think he interviewed better simply because he had more experience related to the business, i.e., he had worked in the recruiting/personnel office for a major Big Ten school, and had been to several all-star games, where he’d networked until he collapsed.

There’s one more aspiring scout I’ve worked with, and this one I’ll name. He’s Mike Jasinski, and he works in personnel at Northwestern. I met him through friends and he was one of three aspiring scouts I brought to Bedford, Texas, for last year’s College Gridiron Showcase. He did great, and I think he’ll get an opportunity very soon. I think going to the CGS was a benefit for him, but he’s pretty much played it perfectly, working in a major school’s personnel department, building great relationships with NFL folks, and parlaying it perfectly. I think his personality has been great. He’s professional and deferential without kissing up. He’s confident without being a know-it-all.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s not just about getting the opportunities, but how you handle yourself when you get them. I think most teams are looking for competent young people who are football-savvy, but still blank slates. They want someone who will be comfortable around football people but not entitled. Keep this in mind as you gather chances to state your case.

Want to be an NFL Scout? Here Are A Few Tips

Whenever someone asks me how to get a job in scouting, I tell them this story.

A few years ago, I was trying to figure out how to develop and market a program for budding NFL scouts. So I reached out to a friend (who would go on to be hired as a GM soon thereafter), and asked him, “So how does someone get a job in scouting?” His response: “Why? You got a guy?”

Here’s another quick story. Another friend in the business was in charge of hiring a scouting assistant for an NFL team a couple years ago, and I asked if I could recommend a couple candidates. “Well, OK, but I only want people who really fought their way up, paid their dues, and know what it’s like to really grind. I want someone who came up just like me.”

And there you have it: the two routes to becoming a scout. Either you start young and pour all your blood, sweat and tears into landing a personnel job and don’t stop until you get there, or you “know a guy.” It also helps if you’re the son of the owner or head coach.

This is why I don’t believe you can take a class to be an agent, or a scout, or a coach, or nearly anything else. No degree, certificate or other validation is going to get you a job in the game. It’s a people business. It’s only going to happen based on the relationships you build, how many opportunities you create for yourself, and the sacrifices you’re willing to make.

So how do you get opportunities? You have to get in front of scouts. If you’re working for an FBS school already, you simply have to build bridges with scouts when they come through. You need to make sure you’re the pro liaison, or work with the pro liaison, or find a way to interface with scouts. If nothing else, be there when they sign in for pro day. Here’s another tip — when you meet someone, write a handwritten note to them via the team (or the address on their biz card if you get one) and thank them for the meeting. You’ve got to make an impression and you’ve got to prove yourself capable.

But let’s say you don’t work for a school. Maybe you have a job and a family. If that’s the case, find a way to help with football activities. The best way to do that, and to make scouting contacts, is to volunteer for all-star games. The Senior Bowl is the best, and probably hardest to volunteer with. The Shrine Game is the No. 2 game, and has a pretty hardened group of volunteers with lengthy EWS service time. The NFLPA Bowl likes to do things a certain way and is a little exclusive. Then there’s the College Gridiron Showcase, the game played in the Dallas area that I advise. All four games are always looking for good helpers, but I think the CGS offers real opportunities, for several reasons that I’ll go into later.

I’ll talk more about how to create opportunities later this week. In the meantime, be on the lookout for ways to meet key people in the business. At the end of the day, that’s the best way to make connections that can lead you to your dreams.

The Bloodbath and the Aftermath

If you follow ITL on Twitter, you know it’s been an incredible week for transition in NFL scouting departments, and not in a good way.

It began Sunday morning when 17 Bills scouts, both pro and college, woke up to find that not only were they let go, but their key cards didn’t open doors, their email addresses didn’t work, and they’d been wiped off the Website. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen an entire department (save for two scouting assistants) completely wiped out in one move. But that was just the warmup. From Sunday afternoon to Monday afternoon, we reported 11 scouts and evaluators from seven different teams that had lost their jobs. Several of them are good friends of mine, and friends of friends. I remember texting scouts and their responses were full of shock and grief. It was an incredibly difficult day.

So why did it happen? Why was it such a brutal week? I don’t know, but here are some possible ideas.

Belt-tightening: As everyone who follows NFL football knows, TV ratings were off by 10 percent this year. This doesn’t mean teams lost money in 2016, of course — not by a long shot — but it could have given the teams’ bean-counters a reason to recommend cutting expenses. One fact of life in the NFL is that scouts are probably the least respected football people in the building. The players, obviously, get the lion’s share of the money, and the coaches do pretty well, too. However, scouts are on an entirely different plain. If you aspire to be a scout one day, you need to understand that reality.

Analytics: It’s possible 2017 is the true ‘dawn’ of the age of analytics in football. I’m not sure why that would be, as the Browns’ move to go all-in for metrics hasn’t exactly resulted in success. On the other hand, Cleveland has done it, and for better or worse, the critics have pulled back to see if it works or not. Some teams could see this as their opportunity to lean on the younger, cheaper analytics experts in their offices rather than the 20-year area scout in his 50s. As with other big businesses, a lot of what NFL teams do is influenced by what kind of media blowback they risk.

No template: Because scouting is such a mysterious, subjective business practiced by a select few, and because football is so cyclical, no one can point to one strict way of doing things and pronounce, ‘this is how it’s done.’ Even the really good teams blow it with their first-rounders every once in a while. This allows teams to make moves that don’t seem to make sense to people in the business. Fans and outsiders just shrug their shoulders and presume that it all makes sense somehow.

Disposability: Scouts are not celebrities. There is no union for NFL scouts. By their nature, they work in anonymity. Fans don’t know them. This means that when a scout is let go, it doesn’t make big headlines. Sometimes, a team just removes the scout’s name from its Website and never even makes an announcement. What’s more, there’s always a scouting assistant waiting for someone to retire, get fired, etc. In general, I just don’t see value attached to the experience and network a seasoned scout has.

Though Black Monday is behind us, we’re a long way from seeing all the changes in scouting departments that come in May. Time will tell if there’s even more transition next week. In the meantime, if being a scout is what you aspire to, please proceed with caution.


A Brief History of NFL Draft Hype

This week, a tweet about the vapidness of NFL draft hype got me thinking about how we all spend January through April. Ironically, it came from a draft pundit. You might be surprised to learn that I find the NFL draft a little painful. Well, not the draft itself, but its coverage.

It’s troublesome to me that every year, for 4-5 months, football fandom buys into the incessant praise of players who haven’t even set foot on an NFL field yet. What’s truly irksome, however, is the parade of draft pundits who make pronouncements on players or teams with no accountability. How do people become famous by making a serious of statements that include ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if’ or ‘it’s possible that’ or ‘it’s likely that,’ etc.?  It got me thinking about how we got here.

Thirty years ago or so, a few teams started trying to bring scouting into the 20th century, so they agreed to get together and have players work out at a central location. It was around this time that ESPN, which didn’t have a lot of live sports coverage (outside of tractor pulls and Australian Rules Football), decided to broadcast the draft. They tried several people as pundits (Joel Buchsbaum was lousy on camera, while Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman got into an on-air fight with a fellow broadcaster) before settling on little-known Mel Kiper Jr. This was long before draft news was anything anyone cared about.

Brick by brick, the game of football grew in popularity, and the combine progressed as well. Then the Internet was invented, and soon, every fan could find someone with news, opinion, or both on the draft. Those fans could also express their own opinions, first through blogs and newsgroups, and then by Twitter and other social media platforms. These days, we have not one but two major networks (ESPN and the NFL Network) going pick by pick through the draft, and we have play-by-play dissection of practices at the major all-star games, as well as up-close coverage during the combine. I guess, to some degree, NFL draft coverage has been the perfect marriage of technology and the nation’s obsession with pro football, and that’s great. But something about the way it’s packaged and over-produced drives me crazy.

I know my aggravation with all of this puts me in the minority. I guess, at the end of the day, I don’t see this as entertainment, and don’t think it should be treated that way. You always read these stories about how ‘football is just a game’ and ‘when (some crazy illness or death) happens, it really puts football in perspective,’ but really, that’s not true.

For the fan, the NFL is just a game, a way to put aside the world and escape. But tell that to the player from a poor background trying to reset the course of his family’s life. Tell that to the scouts that have never done anything else in their professional lives, then get fired due to a GM change or belt-tightening. Tell that to the coaches who get their lives torn apart on social media because their teams didn’t win enough games to satisfy fans’ bloodlust.

There’s a lot of money in football, but that doesn’t mean everyone in it spends all their time rolling around in cash. In fact, most of them spend 10-12 hours working hard to keep their jobs, and the other half of the day worrying about what happens if they don’t. This game is fun, but it’s also deadly serious.

Here’s Why Gauging a Team’s Draft Interest Is So Hard

For the last couple months, you could barely surf the Web without plowing into dozens of stories, tweets, blogs and the like telling you who’s going to go where in the draft. Naturally, you need to take all of these reports with a grain of salt, whether you’re an agent or just a fan. What makes predicting this stuff so hard, even with so many parties jockeying to get information out there? Here are a few reasons.

Best player available: Many teams (I think the Steelers are one) are welded to the idea that you draft the best player available at all times. These days, you can find dozens of reports on what teams need what, but for certain teams, you can throw that out. Unless you have first-hand access to their boards, you can’t know who they’ll draft. That’s all there is to it.

Top 30 visits don’t matter as much as you might think: The way things have developed, T-30 visits are kind of the catch-all for players a team thinks it might draft that didn’t go to the combine. With the new rules that have expanded the geographical area for local pro days, lots of teams can now have projected first-rounders in without having to burn a Top 30 visit. For example, the Bears worked out Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer as part of their local pro dayBottom line, I won’t call T-30 visits plentiful, but I get the sense that teams are starting to use them almost to eliminate a player (and create false interest) rather than to get that up-close look they have to have before drafting them.

Opinions change: I’ve spoken to scouts who had great interest in a player at an all-star game, but subsequently lost interest in the player for any number of reasons. More often than not, no one tells the player or his agent. It doesn’t matter how many times a kid is interviewed at the Shrine Game or the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. If that interest doesn’t continue throughout February, March and into April, you can forget about that all-star heat.

Good ‘ol subterfuge: I think this happens a lot less than it used to. In the old days, I think team executives and scouts were more adversarial with the media than they are now. The Internet has changed how much information, good and bad, is out there, and  it just makes more sense for scouts and directors to have the local writers and TV personalities on their dance card, so they don’t outright lie as much. Still, there are plenty of times members of the media (especially those that are from out of town, or who are new) are led to believe the wrong thing, or are not told the whole story (or are just plain ol’ lied to). After all, the draft is a huge card game. If a team can throw others off its scent with a false story, that’s a big win this close to the draft.

Some Last-Minute Pre-Draft Thoughts for Agents

There’s less than two weeks until the draft. If you’re reading this, there’s a great chance you’re an agent, and an even-money chance you’re puling out your hair. It’s a crazy time. Here are a few thoughts that might help you preserve your sanity.

  • Your clients may be panicking because nobody is talking about them in the media. The thing you have to remind them is that the draft media is really only interested in the top 30-40 picks. Unless your client believes he’s a first-rounder — I mean, really believes it, not some total pie-in-the-sky wish — no one on Draft Twitter, the NFL Network, or whatever is going to talk about them, and they shouldn’t expect it.
  • When a “league source” is cited on Twitter, it’s always (every single time) an agent. Every time you hear about a team conducting a private workout with a low-ranked player, or inviting in a lesser name for a Top 30 visit, it’s because an agent called his buddy in the media to give his client some buzz. The irony is that often an agent will give a writer a tip on his client, then immediately call his client and tell him about the ‘buzz’ the kid is generating. Bottom line, there aren’t scouts working out players, then immediately calling the media to brag on the sleeper they’ve found.
  • For my next point, a quick story. I made it into the Naval Academy out of a small town in West Virginia to great fanfare (at least around the Stratton household). Four years later, I’d failed out in grand fashion. I remember coming home on a rainy day in June 1991 hoping to lick my wounds a bit. Instead, my parents were loving, but hurt, embarrassed and scared. I realized I would have to be the strong one. There’s a great chance your client is going to have to be strong when his parents are demanding answers from you on why he’s not getting phone calls, why he’s not getting workouts, and the like. Communicating that to him might not be easy, but if you can get that point across, your life will be a lot easier.
  • There is no league-accepted clearinghouse for draft rankings. Your guy is probably Googling NFL Draft Scout (the closest there is) every day, but whatever he finds doesn’t really matter. If your guy isn’t rated in the top 200 players, there is no earthly way that a team knows when, or if, he’ll be drafted or signed. There are too many players that will fall on draft day, and others that will rise, that will create chaos in undrafted free agency. I know that’s not what anyone wants to hear, but tis true.
  • If at this point you’re not hearing from teams, start thinking CFL. Right now, even if your client isn’t draft-worthy, teams should be calling to persuade you to send your client to them in free agency. If that’s not happening, it’s OK, but it’s probably time to start walking back expectations.
  • Remember, it’s a relationship-based business, so it pays to know the alma maters of scouts and coaches. We’ve already done the work for you on scouts, and today, we posted colleges of active NFL coaches, from head coach all the way down to quality control. Coaches are becoming a bigger and bigger part of the selection process. this info  might come in handy in conjunction with our email frames. Just a hint.

Try to stay sane over the next two weeks. It won’t be easy. Good luck.