Talent evaluation: What are we looking for?

There are myriad skills that evaluators examine when forming opinions on football prospects. Coaches and scouts look for certain attributes in players – some of which are position-dependent and others that that are desired in every player that takes the field. A former Card DB breaks it down for us, the "Joe Fans".

I have chosen several important football attributes to define, and to clarify my definitions, I reference examples from highlight films of commits and prospects. Though the highlight plays alone are not proof that the subject player possesses a given trait, they are solid evidence of what the player is capable of doing on the field at the college level. Many more prospects have great examples of these traits than those that I have listed below. So, I'll note that omission does not reflect my opinion of a given player's skill.


In football, there is more to speed than the obvious question of "What's your 40-time?". Don't get me wrong, that straight-line sprint is a very good indicator and does serve its purpose. But there are more questions that arise within the 40-time that need to be answered to determine how the 40-yard dash time will translate to the field.

First, how fast can this player accelerate to his top gear? If a player can only reach top speed at the very end of the 40 yards, then that 4.5-40 may not mean as much, because the player may go full games without running at full speed. On the other hand, a receiver who runs a 4.8, for example, needs to show extra proof on film that he can separate from defenders.

For our purposes, I have taken a look at film of some prospects and commits to look for evidence of speed that is effective on the field regardless of whether it is reflected by the stop watch. That is what is called "football speed" or "game speed". Skill position players need to show "short-area acceleration" along with ability to maintain their speed for long distances. The linemen, especially on defense, need to show short-area speed – a burst that enables them to catch a quick ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage.

The following are examples of players' displaying football speed.

Keanu Nelson - 0:17

On this punt return, once Nelson hits the sideline it's all over, despite multiple players who appear to be in decent position to cut him off or at least push him out of bounds. On the field, the ability to hit an extra gear when opponents are chasing you is much more important than the stopwatch time.

Keanu Nelson – 1:19

After catching this bubble screen, Nelson turns on the jets again, and nobody has a chance.

Brandon Bourbon – Early Season Highlights #1 - 1:46

Bourbon shows great acceleration on this play once he hits the hole. His top-end speed is evident throughout his film as he creates distance between himself and defenders and repeatedly beats defenders down the sideline.

Alex Turner – 3:01

On this play, Turner shows the great short-burst speed that is needed out of defensive linemen. After seeing the play develop, he reacts and accelerates so quickly that the ballcarrier has no chance of getting away.


Judging a player's hands can be difficult, but one very important thing to look for is not only that they make the catch that they are supposed to make, but how comfortable and confident they look doing it. For instance, a player who makes the routine catches with his body would be graded lower in this category than one who makes the routine catches with his hands. Some players will jump unnecessarily to catch a pass with their chest when reaching out and plucking the ball out of the air would be the better option. The player who plucks the ball out of the air is showing confidence in his hands. At the wide receiver position, that is very important as it can mean the difference between an eight-yard catch or a 15-20 yard catch and run. On defense, it can mean the difference between a long completion or an interception.

Tai-ler Jones – Sr. Video Part I, 0:42

Jones makes this catch away from his body while running at full speed and makes it look easy. Note how he barely breaks stride despite having to adjust for the ball. Continuously making those kinds of plays is a big part of what makes Jones such a coveted recruit.

Then, of course, you would like to see some catches that the player is not supposed to make. Plays that challenge the players concentration – defenders face guarding interfering with or otherwise harassing the pass catcher – are the ones to look at in this regard.

Ball Skills

Ball skills are the ability for the pass catcher to adjust to the ball while it is in the air and put himself into the best possible position to catch it. One way ball skills can be judged is by examining whether a player catches under thrown long balls and fades at the highest point possible. Does he go up and snatch the ball out of the air or does he wait for it to come down to him? The player who goes up for the ball and catches it or is able to knock it down on defense is the one who catches the eye.

Daunte Carr – 0:36 – North Gwinnet 7 on 7

Carr makes a nice play on a downfield pass here. He has even better plays on the ball on his footage from this year, which has not yet been posted on Scout.com. He knows how to get into position on the ball, and he always attacks the ball at its highest point. The jump balls that we saw against Notre Dame would be much tougher to complete with a guy like Carr playing center field.

Devon Carrington – Junior Highlights 1 - 1:07 Carrington shows his hops here as he attempts to come down with the INT. Though he doesn't make the interception, he shows the aggressiveness and good timing that are evidence of good ball skills.

Devon Carrington – Jr. Highlights Part 2 - 3:49

Again, Carrington is aggressive to the ball and times his jump well. That allows him to break up the pass even though the opponent was in a better position to make the play.

Kenny Stills – 2008 Highlights - 0:23

Stills goes up to snatch this ball out of the air for a touchdown. His ball skills ensure that the defender has no chance to make a play without committing a penalty.

Kenny Stills – 2008 Highlights - 3:10

In this play Stills adjusts to an underthrown ball and times his jump perfectly in order to come down with it.


Change of direction is what makes or breaks a football player. Whether talking about an offensive tackle or cornerback, the ability to move in one direction and stop and/or move in another direction with little to no wasted motion will help a player defeat the man across from him.

For running backs, defensive backs and wide receivers, the guy that can run east, put his foot in the ground, turn his hips and head north without losing speed is a guy who needs to be on the field. Even more important for defensive backs is a quick break out of their backpedal.

Keanu Nelson – 0:45

There is a lot to be excited about in this highlight as it shows two great examples of the type of agility that coaches covet. First, Nelson makes a great break on the ball out of his back pedal after reading the quick slant. That allows him to beat the receiver's route and pick off the pass. What is even more impressive is the agility that he shows on the return. After starting outside he makes a sharp cut inside to avoid would-be tacklers. Then, without losing any speed he puts his foot in the ground and is headed back outside so quickly that you almost miss it on film. The footwork and loose hips that Nelson shows in this highlight are both very impressive.

Amir Carlisle – 1:52

Carlisle's ability to completely stop his momentum with one step turns this play from a nice 15-20 yard run into a long touchdown.

Amir Carlisle – 2:46

Again, Carlisle is able to change direction with one jab, but this time, he does it twice in a row leaving two different defenders with nothing to tackle but air. Keep an eye on how quickly Carlisle gets his hips turned after putting his foot in the ground.

Defensive linemen have to be able to re-direct to the ball carrier once they get past the line of five 300-pound men in front of them. This comes into play for offensive linemen mostly in pass protection. On tape it might be a little hard to judge, but a great indicator of whether a lineman will be able to change direction is their hip level. Being able to bend at the knees instead of the waist will allow for much easier and fluid change of direction. This is usually hard for tall fellas who carry a lot of weight. Many players 6'3" and up end up being "waist-benders" rather than "knee-benders". Remember that huge guy you met somewhere and wondered why he never played college ball? He was probably a waist bender.

One Stanford commit who is definitely not a waist-bender is DE Henry Anderson. Throughout his highlight film he has little difficulty bending his knees to get leverage on opponents or change direction.

Henry Anderson – Jr. Highlights 2 – 3:49

Though Anderson doesn't pick up the sack on this play, he tracks down an agile QB. All that stopped him from taking the QB down was a timely push in the back by the offensive tackle. Note Anderson's knee bend as he changes direction to follow the quarterback. That is very impressive given his height, and is likely one of the reasons that he has some very impressive offers.

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There are many more attributes that can be gleaned from the highlight films of the commits and prospects. However, for a more definitive determination as to whether a player possesses an attribute, a full game or two is very helpful. Even plays that end up bad for a player may show an ability that does not show up on his highlight film. But the above-mentioned examples should leave us with a good idea of some things to look for when watching film of football prospects as well as what we might expect from some of these prospects when they hit the college football field.

Garry Cobb, aka SUIndian31, played DB for Stanford from 1998-2002. He was born into football – his father played 11 seasons in the NFL after winning a couple of Rose Bowls at USC. When not practicing law, he also writes occasionally for a Philadelphia Eagles website.

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