TheRanchReport.com sat down with an expert who spent more than a dozen years as an NFL assistant coach (including two stints as a defensive coordinator) and more than a dozen years as a scout.
“Fans and talk show hosts … what do they talk about? Height, weight and 40 times,” he said. “If that’s all it took, you could draft players by reading rosters and media guides. You look at those things, and Joe Montana and Drew Brees never get to the NFL.”
The former scout, who spoke anonymously because of relationships he maintains around the NFL, including several at Valley Ranch, said that while he and every other scout out there collect the “measurable” info (height, weight, 40-yard dash times, bench press, etc.), the single most important statistic is production.
It sounds cliché, but how good he was in college is the best indicator of a player’s chance for success at the professional level.
“I worked for a year in the USFL, and a guy who had played for me in the NFL called me, asking for a job. He said he’d sign for the minimum salary — he just wanted a chance to keep playing,” the former scout said. “I remembered that I really liked the guy when he played for me in the NFL, but I told him I have to talk to my head coach about him.
“So I went to my head coach, and asked if I could sign this guy as a free agent. The head coach wanted to know about the player, and I told him, ‘he played for me, he has talent, he’s a good athlete, he works hard …’ — all those things that you want to hear about a player. I told Coach that he’d play for the league minimum, too. So Coach told me to talk to the guy’s college coach. I called him up, and came back. I told Coach that the guy’s college coach had said the same kind of things: ‘talented guy, worked hard, went to class, never got in trouble — good kid.’ Coach told me to call the guy’s high school coach, who told me this was the best player he’d ever coached. When I took that back to my head coach, he asked me to find out if the guy had played Pop Warner ball. I found his Pop Warner coach, and he told me they had named their old field after the guy.
“The moral to all this — what the head coach was showing me — is that good professional players, for the most part, were always good players. It seems like everyone wants to find a guy from a small school that nobody has ever heard of, that diamond in the rough. There’s a reason those guys are so hard to find: there aren’t many of them, because most of the guys with the talent to play in the NFL are the best players on their teams at a young age, so they go to the bigger schools. If you’re looking for players, you start at a Florida, an LSU, a USC, an Ohio State.
“Every few years, the TV guys get all excited because a guy hasn’t played football for a long time, but he is a good athlete and looks the part — maybe a former basketball who’s 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds and can run. All of a sudden, he’s a hot-shot tight end prospect? The next Antonio Gates? No. He’s a basketball player who has some muscle on him, or maybe a basketball player who tried football. You can’t just project guys because of how tall and heavy and strong they are. If you could, the league would be full of Scandinavian offensive linemen who can bench press an iceberg and wide receivers who can win Olympic medals in the 100-yard dash. There’s a difference between great athletes and great football players. The ones who make scouts look like geniuses are the ones who fall into both categories, but you don’t find them at small schools in the fifth round. There’s a reason those guys go in the first round, and teams trade up to get them.”
After production, the scout said he does look at the measurable statistics … but again, only to a degree.
Production in college, vital statistics, the desire to improve and mental toughness are just some of the traits Jerry Jones and company will be looking for out of the players in the Cowboys' 2010 draft class. (Getty Images)
“We do keep the height, the weight, the 40 times, but again, you can’t get too caught up in that,” he said. “I’m more interested in his skills. I don’t need to know a guy’s 40 time. If he plays at Georgia, and I see him catch a Florida wide receiver, who needs a 40 time? If he’s fast enough there, he’s fast enough.”
Perhaps the most underrated characteristic, the scout said, is intelligence.
“I don’t mean the score on the Wonderlic test — that’s something every team gets,” he said. “What I want to find is the player who is smart enough to evaluate his own game objectively.
“Smart players make smart plays, and smart players are the guys who can look at their own performances and know what their weaknesses are, and know how to make themselves better. When you can see what you don’t do so well, and you can figure out a way to make that weakness into a strength, then you’re a smart player. That’s when you make your teammates better players, you make your coaches better coaches, and you make me look like a genius for scouting you and recommending the team drafts you.”
The last thing, and another thing that is underappreciated by the casual fan, is toughness, the scout said. That doesn’t mean physical toughness — any player who can’t fight through the normal bumps and bruises won’t make it through training camp anyway.
What it means, the scout said, is mental toughness.
“A lot of guys have always been the best player on the field,” he said. “When you get to the NFL, it doesn’t matter whether you are a free agent or drafted in the first round — you’re going to get whipped once in a while, before you get out of your first training camp. If you’re a receiver, there’s a veteran DB who’s going to shut you down and pick off passes in front of you. If you’re an offensive tackle, there’s a defensive end who’s going to run you over on the way to the quarterback. If you’re a linebacker, there’s a fullback who’s going to knock you out of your cleats when you try to blitz.
“The guys I want are the guys who can get their asses kicked and bounce back. The guys who can dust themselves off and not lose faith in themselves, and figure out why they got beat. Every receiver in the draft can catch a football, but not everyone can do it with a 30-year-old cornerback hanging all over him and talking to him to get inside his head. So when that happens, how does the rookie respond? Teams adjust to what opponents do, and players have to be able to adjust, too.”
Sounds simple enough, right?
If history tells us anything, the draft is anything but simple and more of an art at times than science.
Still, when looking at this week's draft, ask yourself if the players selected by the Cowboys, or your favorite team, have these qualities.