An old cliché says, "there are several ways to skin a cat." That saying was never so true regarding NFL clubs scouting college football players each fall.
The point of scouting is getting the correct grades for each prospect going into the Draft in the spring, and each club has its own way of doing things. So is there a right way or a wrong way? I'm not really sure, as the important thing is the results.
In today's NFL, scouting departments are larger than ever. Having more scouts doesn't mean that club will do a better job than a team with fewer evaluators. It does mean that the club will have more looks/reports than another, but that certainly doesn't mean their evaluations are better or more thorough. How good a club's evaluations are is a direct correlation with how strong a club's scouts are.
When I was with the New York Giants, we had a huge scouting staff; in fact, at the time, it was the largest in the League. I remember being on a school call with a General Manager from another team, and he said, "I bet you guys waste more money than I have in my entire scouting budget." I don't know if that was true, but we did a good job, and the results of that were three Super Bowl appearances, and two Super Bowl wins during my 17 years with the club.
With the Giants, a scout would go to maybe 45 – 50 colleges every fall and grade those players. He would only go to each school just one time. If I was at a school in August during camp, I could only see practice and view the previous year's tape of each prospect. What I saw in August wasn't necessarily what a player was like in November.
To make sure we got different opinions on a player, as many as three or four other scouts would make school calls at the same school. In the end, we would have four to five opinions from that many scouts on each prospect. Trying to get the right grade on a player was difficult because each scout has their own way of looking at and evaluating a player. Ultimately, it worked for the Giants as the team was successful and loaded with Pro Bowl level talent.
These days, not many clubs evaluate the way the Giants did in the 80s and 90s. Today, many clubs have about six "area" scouts and two to three "over the top" scouts. The area scouts are responsible for all the prospects at all the schools within their area. Because they are in a limited area (usually five to six states), they can make several school calls to the better schools each fall.
The "over the top" scouts' job is a little different in that when they make a school call; they are just evaluating the best prospects at that school. They seldom spend more than one day at a school and usually only have a few players to watch at each stop. In essence, they are cross-checking the area scout.
A club's Scouting Director and or Player Personnel Director will also make school calls, but often they are going to schools to see players at a need position. If that need position is a quarterback, they certainly want to go to a game because seeing how a quarterback performs in game situations is extremely important. The tape of the game shows us how he played in the game, but when you're at a live game, you also get to see how the player interacts with his teammates and coaches on the sideline between series. It also gives us a fairly good idea of what kind of leader that player is.
When I was the Chicago Bears Scouting Director, we had one of the smallest scouting staffs in the League, but it was also one of the strongest. We had only six road scouts, all of whom were excellent evaluators. That has since been proven, as five of the six scouts have or have had decision-making roles with their current clubs. One is a General Manager, another is an Assistant General Manager, and two others rose to the position of College Scouting Directors.
Our six scouts each had an area, and they never left that area during the fall or spring. It was their responsibility to know not only the talent level of the players but also their background, including character. Because they were in the same area each year, they established strong relationships with people on campus close to the football programs to get quality information on each player.
We did not have a Director of Player Personnel; my job was a cross between Scouting Director and Director of Player Personnel. When I called a college, it was usually to evaluate players at need positions. General manager Jerry Angelo, who was an excellent evaluator, would not make many school calls but spent at least six hours a day, every day, watching college tape of top prospects.
Early each December, we would bring the scouts to Chicago and review their fall reports. At that time, we would determine whether each player was a prospect for the Bears. Basically, it was the first cut of players. Our list of prospects would always be cut down to around 600 players following the December meetings.
Over the next seven to eight weeks, each scout had a cross-check position, and they kept that same position group each year. He would be assigned 25 – 30 players at his position group to cross-check and then stack those players once he finished with the evaluations.
When the season ended, the coaches got involved, and each position coach would be given about 20 players from their position group to evaluate. In the end, we would have four to five reports on each player that included the area scout, the cross-checker, the position coach, the coordinator, and either myself or GM Jerry Angelo. The final grade was not necessarily a consensus of all the reports but rather what we felt was the fairest grade. Since we Drafted 12 Pro Bowl players, I think we did an excellent job. Could we have done better? Of course, and that's what the challenge of scouting is…
To keep getting better.