NFL Draft: The Perfect Imperfect Science

Former pro scout Tom Marino walks you through the year-round draft prospect evaluation process through draft weekend. Get an insider's look at the scouting process, how lists are whittled down, the four draft boards team set up for draft weekend, preparations for signing undrafted players and more.

So you think you can evaluate football players? Well, we're less then a week away from an event that has in many ways become more important than the actual game itself; the college football draft. Preparation for this event actually began quietly 14 months earlier when a scout representing one or both of the two NFL scouting organizations (National and Blesto) attended a scheduled late-winter pro day.

Approximately seventy percent of the universities throughout the country allow these predominately entry-level scouts to weigh, measure, test, time and run through questionnaires with the upcoming class after usually evaluating the entire class on tape. Most will also have an assigned coach (pro liaison) who will expound on the virtues — and in some cases the shortcomings — of these professional hopefuls. In some cases, the universities' strength coaches will comment on the players' athletic, strength and growth potential while the athletic trainers will often be called upon to provide injury history. And in some rare cases, they will cite a player's willingness to participate (game and practice) when less than a hundred percent. This particularly valuable and very sensitive information is usually reserved for the veteran area or regional scout.

This process is repeated over the next four months after which the combine scouts rate and rank the upcoming senior prospects based on their ability and athletic potential. The following week, just prior to Memorial Day weekend, these combine scouts present their findings to a contingent of scouts and administrators representing the member clubs, thus providing them with an initial road map for team scouting during the fall. The list of approximately 850 prospects and suspects will vary from organization to organization, but the core grouping is generally very similar.

From this list, the scouting director will separate and assign these prospects to the team area scouts. Many of the lesser prospects will be evaluated during training camp, and based on the team's area scout's opinion, the club will decide whether to send a scout on a school visit in the fall. 

Invariably, six to eight team scouts will add an additional 100 to 150 prospects — who were initially overlooked during the initial process — while crisscrossing the country, visiting schools and attending games. At the conclusion of the season, the scouting organizations will again meet and finalize their rankings of senior prospects. Just prior to the holiday season, the team scouts will meet for the first time since the training camp, usually attend a game, and over the next three to four days eliminate six to seven hundred players from the list of close to a thousand would-be prospects.

The next phase starts around the first of the year and includes bowl and all-star contests. At each of these postseason all-star games, players are re-measured, interviewed, psychologically tested and viewed by the trained eyes of multiple scouts from every member club within the league. Some meet on a daily basis to discuss their findings while others will submit reports following the practice week.

Pro scouts time a draft prospect at Boston College's Pro Day.
AP Photo/Winslow Townson

During this period, junior and sometimes even redshirt sophomore prospects will elect to forego their remaining eligibility and enter the professional ranks. Most are very talented and physically ready for the demands of professional football, while others will declare based on the opinions on some uninformed friends, family members and unscrupulous player agents.

The Indianapolis Scouting Combine is the next, and in many ways the most important step since virtually every member of the football, medical and executive staff is on hand to observe, test and evaluate these professional hopefuls.

Once again, players are measured, timed and tested.  But unlike the previous evaluations, everything done in this highly underrated Midwestern city is videotaped for future viewing. From there, the scouts will attend individual and team workouts, called "Pro Days" and then finally return to the team complexes to meet from one to four weeks to read and discuss the prospects and ultimately decide which direction the club will pursue on draft day. Over the years some of these meetings have gotten very heated.  And on more then one occasion, individuals have had to be separated. I personally spent a number of the Easter holidays at the home of scouting directors, friends, or quietly at the team complex viewing just one more game tape.

Teams are allowed to bring up to 30 players to their facility during this period along with an infinite amount of local prospects to visit, receive a physical and meet with the coaching staff for them to ascertain if they have the mental capabilities to understand the professional game.

Aside from the skill evaluations, players are systematically eliminated from the draft board for three distinct reasons:

1) Mental limitations
2) Character concerns
3) Medical and durability concerns

Scouts and coaches can, and have disagreed with head coaches and GMs as to the relative worth of a prospect.  But there is no arguing with a negative orthopedic evaluation. To the best of my knowledge the NFL has never won a workman's compensation case against a player.

In the last week before the draft, GMs and college directors meet with the press to give their general thoughts on the draft (a useless exercise in my mind), meet with the head coach, their salary people and ownership behind closed doors to map out their draft-day strategy.

The scouting director will meet briefly each day with the scout to check and re-check both the front and back boards and to go over their draft day assignment. Scouts will work with coaches to formulate a potential free agent list. That list will be used during the afternoon of the second day when the coaches will begin the process of calling and telling either the players and/or their agents what a great chance the player would have of making the squad if they are not drafted and agree to sign with them as a free agent.

On Friday, the telephone company will begin the process of installing additional phone lines, linking clubs to their representatives in New York. Those representatives are often an equipment manager a non-football related employee, a relative or friend of the GM.

All reports from the combines, coaches, scouts and directors are organized (often by position) and placed strategically within the draft room

The press room will be set up to accommodate the many local and national media types who will report via television, radio, in print or online as players are drafted or veteran players are traded or waived.

Mike Shanahan is flanked by director of player personnel Jim Goodman, left, and Ted Sundquist during the 2007 draft.
AP Photo/Ed Andrieski

Most clubs operate on draft day with four distinct boards. The backboard is made up of all of the non-rated players. Backboard cards are usually arranged alphabetically by position. You wouldn't think so, but every year players in this category are drafted and make their way to the team board. I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 

The front board is the heart and soul of the draft. It is arranged by position and grade. Most clubs have no more then 200 total players on this particular board, a figure which remarkably will be more than enough players to cover the roughly 250 players that will be selected in the draft. An additional 100-150 priority free agent prospects will be positioned in the well of the board.

Many teams have a separate top-100 board arranged by grade regardless of position. Off to the side of the front board are two distinct groupings of players arranged in order of ability. Each card is enclosed by a red or blue plastic sleeve. The red sleeve is for players who the medical staff has determined are high risks and should not be considered at any point in the draft, while the cards with a blue plastic sleeve are for players deemed to be character risks. The standards for determining which players will be placed in either of these categories will vary from team to team, but make no mistake about it, when management or the medical staff makes the decision to take the player off the board, there is no looking back.

Back in 1980, the Giants were poised to trade up with the Jets to draft offensive tackle Anthony Munoz from USC.  The late Rosie Brown, a Hall-of-Fame offensive tackle, and Jerry Shay both saw him as a fixture on the left side for the next 12 to 15 years. But after an extensive examination by our team physician, it was determined that a pre-existing medical condition would limit his playing career. As it turned out, Munoz participated in 11 Pro Bowls over an illustrious 14-year playing career. Sadly, just seven months later, the physician who made the determination — John Marshall — was killed in a private plane crash as he was on his way to the Lake Placid Olympic games.

On draft day, the private numbers of every head coach and GM within the league are speed-dialed into a phone line used exclusively for trades. As a player is drafted, an assigned scouting assistant removes his card from the front board and transfers his card under the helmet decal of the team that has selected him. Television monitors and the highlight tapes of every player on the front board are labeled and are ready to be viewed at any time prior to the pick.

I think I could go on for another hour detailing what goes on in the week leading up to the draft, but I would suspect that you now understand that choosing football players and being a professional scout is a far more involved process than just putting pen to paper and parroting back who self-proclaimed TV experts proclaim to be the top professional prospects in the country.

In closing, let me offer this new breed of instant evaluators a few pieces of advice:

1) The NFL doesn't draft 167-pound receivers in the first round.
2) The NFL doesn't draft 5-foot-9 corners who run a 4.65 forty-time in the first round.
3) Don't give up your day job.

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