Scouting from High School to the NFL

INDIANAPOLIS, IND. - The college football world was tuned in to National Signing Day just three weeks ago, and the focus of pro football has honed in on the NFL Scouting Combine this week. Both events are about scouting football players, but the process involved can be very different.

Football is about being big, strong, and fast, not necessarily in that order. There are skills to be developed to maximize production, but physical attributes are scrutinized more heavily in football than any other sports.

College football coaches are willing to take more chances on developmental prospects. Jason Smith, who played his college ball at Baylor, highlights the differences between scouting for the NFL and scouting for the college ranks.  When Smith arrived at Baylor from W.T. White High School in Dallas, he was 6-foot-5, 225 pounds. Smith was a project. A project who had a frame to get bigger and the athleticism to warrant the risk that he would.

Fast forward a few years and Smith was drafted No. 2 overall by the St. Louis Rams as an offensive tackle. He measured 6-foot-5 and 309 pounds at the Combine. The Rams signed Smith to a six-year contract valued at $62 Million. Smith was drafted to play left tackle and play right away for the Rams.

The margin for error on the college level is infinitely larger than it is in the NFL in some ways. First, college teams are allowed to bring in 25 scholarship players per year, while there are only seven rounds in the NFL draft. About 2,500 players enter the college ranks as freshmen every year, while roughly 200 rookies are lucky enough to make NFL rosters.

With so many more players needed to fill college rosters and knowing that they'll have five years to develop those players, coaches are willing to take more chances on developmental players like Smith. Smith was far enough removed from being a sure bet on the college level that the traditional powers in the Big 12 neglected to offer him a scholarship.

NFL teams are looking for players that are closer to finished products. A team is willing to take a risk on a player who has the physical tools to compete in the NFL but for some reason didn't produce in college like a future NFL player should.

Maryland's Bruce Campbell is an example of that. He had the physical measurements of an elite offensive tackle. Standing over 6-foot-6 and weighing 314 pounds, Campbell ran the best 40 time among the offensive linemen in attendance, had the longest arms and did more bench press repetitions of than anyone over 6-foot-4. He was the most impressive big man at the Combine, but when scouts put in film he wasn't among the five best offensive tackles in the ACC. He had the physical ability of a No. 1 overall pick, but the film of an undrafted free agent.

Campbell was taken in the fourth round by the Oakland Raiders, a spot that will give him some time to translate his physical prowess into on the field production, but the time to accomplish that translation is much shorter in the NFL than college.

And that in a nutshell is the biggest difference between scouting for college and scouting for the NFL. High school players are developmental prospects while players being drafted by NFL teams are grown men who are expected to be physically ready to compete right away. There's no redshirt year in the NFL.

Size and speed are at a premium at all levels of football, but strength is a measure taken more seriously as a player gets older. Most college prospect camps will test players in an NFL Combine format, only they won't test the bench press. Why? Because strength is the easiest physical attribute to increase during a college career.

If Bruce Campbell came to a college prospect camp during the summer before his senior year and measured 6-foot-6, 314 pounds, and ran a 4.85 40-yard dash, he'd have his pick of schools regardless if he could do a pushup. Fast forward five years as he gets ready for the NFL, and if his strength is subpar, there will be questions about his ability to compete not to mention his work ethic.

In college recruiting, other physical attributes are going to more heavily scrutinized. It's understood that a high school player is not going to have the level of coaching and time to dedicate to his skills as he will in college as well as the fact that he's been able to dominate without having to refine his technique. Why does a defensive tackle need to learn a swim move when no one can stop his bull rush? The wide receiver doesn't focus on beating jams at the line of scrimmage when every defensive back gives him a 12-yard cushion.

College coaches are looking for size and speed. The skills can be taught. College coaches are also looking for growth potential. Seventeen-year-old kids mature at a different rate and many players have yet to fill out their frames. The NFL draft is full of stories like Jason Smith, under-recruited, undersized tight ends who grow into first-round draft picks.

But the farther away a player is from being where he needs to be, the more the risk is involved that he'll never make it. If it were as easy as finding every 6'5 and 225 pound player to turn him into a $60 Million man, there would be a lot more of them.

USC's Tyron Smith is another example of the risk/reward involving growth potential. Unlike Jason Smith, Tyron Smith was closer to being physically ready to compete. He was 6-foot-5 and change, 260 pounds, a fluid athlete and was a natural offensive linemen, but he was several years from reaching his potential. He was rated Scout's No. 1 offensive lineman in the Class of 2008, not for what he would be as a freshman and sophomore but for who he could become in this third, fourth, and fifth years.

However, Smith declared for the NFL after his third year at USC, and while the evaluation of being the No. 1 offensive lineman in his class looks to be a good one, USC won't get the benefits of a player of that caliber because he's leaving just as he's reaching his potential.

The growth curve is also less liberal by position. Bigger athletes are generally given more time to develop, but skill position players, especially running backs are expected to display the skills that will translate to the next level much sooner. Linemen are built; skill players are born. They display the traits on the field that have announcers claim "that can't be coached" when they see a spin move or diving catch that is purely God-given ability.

Coaches like to see production, but they understand that production doesn't translate to the next level without the physical attributes to come with it. The "enough" factor. Is he fast enough? Is he big enough? The enough factor is different from college to the pros. With spread offenses the rage in college football, there are a disproportionate amount successful 6-foot quarterbacks compared to the NFL level. In the NFL, Drew Brees is considered the exception. Of course all things being equal, the bigger, faster, stronger athletes are going to get more attention, but the enough factor will get a player looked at if his production is good. 

One characteristic that can't be measured but is being scrutinized more heavily in this day and age is character. Players getting in trouble is big news and it's an embarrassment for the programs and organizations involved. The tolerance for troublemakers is a sliding scale proportional to his talent, but even the most talented of players are finding jobs and scholarships harder to come by if they've got a checkered past.

Coaches want to see players that make good decisions off the field, because they know there's a much better chance that he'll make a good decision on the field.

The X factor in all of recruiting is the human element which can't be measured. How will a player react to adversity? How will he react to success and riches that go along with being a high round pick? How dedicated will he be to getting better? Those questions will be answered in the future and help differentiate between the Ryan Leafs and Tom Bradys of the world who were the No. 2 pick and No. 199 pick respectively.

In the business of predicting the future, the only certainty is that there's no such thing as a sure thing, but when it comes to scouting players new Denver Broncos coach John Fox summed it up quickly when asked by Scout's Erin Hartigan what he was looking for while in Indianapolis for the Scouting Combine, "Big, strong and fast helps."

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