With most NFL clubs opening training camp within the next week, the evaluation process of every player on each club begins. While things will be a little different from team to team, they are also fairly similar. It goes without saying, all 90 players on the roster are evaluated on a daily basis.
Usually during the first seven to ten days of camps, most of the college scouts are in town meeting with the decision makers as they prepare for the college season. At many NFL camps, the college scouts help evaluate their own team while in camp. A scout will be assigned a position to watch and then will write up each player in that position group before he leaves camp. These reports often go to the general manager and those evaluations help the GM when he is in player meetings with the head coach.
In many cases if a club’s coaching staff has been around for a few years, the emphasis will be on the young players, especially the rookies. While the veterans still are being evaluated, the coaches know what those players can do. What they are looking for when watching the veteran player is seeing if there is a significant drop off in his play. This can be a difficult evaluation as a veteran knows how to show he can still play. Coaches trust players who know and understand their assignments, so if a veteran player comes into camp and plays mistake free football even if he is losing some of his physical skill set, he can “fool” the coach into thinking he can still play. This is where a second set of eyes is needed to help the coach with the evaluation. That may be a scout or scouts from the pro or college scouting department and/or the GM and scouting director.
Many veteran players whose play is on the decline know how to get through camp without letting evaluators know their skill set is eroding. This can be dangerous for the club because that vet may play fairly well for a few games during the season, but as the season wears on their level of play drops off. That’s why many head coaches and general managers believe it is better to get rid of a player a year early than a year late. Keeping a veteran too long can cost you ball games!
On clubs that have a new coaching staff, the evaluation process is a little different for the coaches. Other than watch tape from the previous season, the position coach does not really know that much about the players in his group. With no pre-set opinions, the veteran player has to work harder in camp to show his new position coach that he can play. Often in new coaching situations, the first camp is a little more physical than others. The reason being is the staff needs to find out the talent level of all their players. It can be a lot harder for a veteran to “fool” a new staff.
With rookies, the process is a little different. Coaches know that they are new to the system and are often lost mentally at the beginning of camp. What coaches and scouts want to see is if the player improves every day. He has to always be ascending so to speak. There will be a time when his play levels off. This happens with almost all rookies. What evaluators want to see is after a few days of level play, the rookie starts to show improvement again at each practice. If they doesn’t happen, then the player has most likely hit his “ceiling” and it’s time to move on.
In recent years we have seen many clubs spend a few days practicing against another team. Often this is with their upcoming pre-season game opponent. During these practices, evaluators can get an excellent feel for their own players because they see their players going against another club’s player in a more intense practice setting. Where it is also beneficial, is it gives a club an excellent opportunity to evaluate the players on the opposing team in a practice situation. Because of this setting, it can help a club (especially a weaker club) when it comes time for cutdowns and waiver acquisitions. The club is getting a much closer look than just viewing tape from pre-season games.
Before all game tape was digitized, clubs often sent scouts to many of the pre-season games to watch younger players who they feel may be cut. While scouts still may attend some pre-season games it is not nearly as much as they used to. The reason being is that with digitized tape, clubs often have the game tape of every pre-season game played within 24 hours of the game being played. That makes viewing the game tape that much easier for scouts. As long as they are somewhere with an internet connection, they have access to game tape. This makes the evaluation process of young players so much easier than it was even 10 - 12 years ago. Not only is it easier, but much more thorough and there is no reason a club doesn’t have a good “book” on just about every player in the league…young or old.
Training Camp and the pre-season is all about finding and developing talent. During the off-season program and OTA’s there is no contact allowed, so there is only so much a coach can see about his players. Once training camp opens, real football begins. Coaches will find that players they liked in the spring while running around in shorts aren’t quite as good as they thought they were. Conversely, guys who didn’t look like a potential good player in an OTA setting can show the coaches what he really is when contact begins.
I’ve always felt that training camp can be the best part of the season. The veteran players begin to bond with the new young players and the offensive and defensive units begin the process of becoming a cohesive unit. What a great time of the year.