Learning to see the game like a scout
We live in a golden age of draft information. Fans can view every snap a prospect played last season. And still, come draft day, we’re often left wondering: What do teams see in Player X that the rest of us don’t? At the combine last year I had an illuminating conversation with one NFL scout about Bryce Petty. The Baylor QB, then a junior, had just thrown 32 TDs, and even though he played in a pass-friendly spread, I assumed he was poised to be a first-round prospect in 2015. The scout disagreed; he doubted that any team would give Petty even a first- or second-round grade. I cited several games where the QB had excelled, his gaudy numbers, his NFL physique ... but he wasn’t buying it. “You’re not seeing the game like a scout,” he told me.
I’ve covered the NFL in various capacities over 15 years, and yet I still didn’t have complete access to the hidden code of player evaluation. Which is precisely what led me to the Scouting Academy, and one of the most accomplished mentors in the business.
At 65, Jerry Angelo has been counseling talent evaluators for three decades. When he was the Buccaneers’ director of player personnel in the 1990s he oversaw five men who would go on to hold general manager jobs. In his 11 years as the GM in Chicago, Angelo received piles of résumés from people looking to get into scouting and realized the demand to break into this side of the business. He hooked up with NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein to develop a product to teach player evaluation and in ‘14 joined forces with former NFL scout Dan Hatman, who was developing the academy. The idea: an online course for aspiring scouts where former NFL coaches and execs would teach personnel evaluation. Angelo’s philosophies would serve as the academy’s backbone.
Last October, the Scouting Academy invited me, along with other media members, to an office at NFL Films in Mt. Laurel, N.J., where we’d sit in on the taping of one of Angelo’s lectures. Our role, he explained: Ask questions that would be used as part of his online curriculum—and in the process, I hoped to learn to think as a real scout would. I felt like Luke Skywalker first encountering Yoda, seeking tutelage in the ways of the Force.
During a break in filming one of Angelo’s day-pupils reached out to a friend, an NFL director of pro personnel who years ago had trained under our instructor. Jerry asked what the former student was up to and heard back that he was watching four different college games on his couch.
Angelo thought this was funny. “We call that ‘TV scouting,’” he teased. “I didn’t realize our friend had become a man of leisure.”
For Angelo, watching games on TV is akin to turning off the coaching tape and flipping over to Legally Blonde on TNT. It’s not totally useless, but certain positions can’t be properly evaluated without the all-22 footage, especially players involved in the passing game.
“What we’re doing [with this class] reminds me of the early days in Tampa,” Angelo said at one point. “We didn’t have as many resources as most teams, but we’d sit around and share what we’d learned. We started to see things the same way even though we were using our own intuitive skills.”
One of the challenges Angelo faces at the academy is boiling down 35 years of experience into digestible lessons. He recalls a study he once did of all the successful NFL QBs to find out what made them special. “I came up with three traits they all have,” he said: “Toughness, accuracy and poise.” He illustrates each—Ben Roethlisberger for toughness, Joe Montana for accuracy; Tom Brady for poise—and warns that what you see on tape is what a player probably is. “You can’t make a quarterback more accurate. Either the player has it or he doesn’t.”
NFL Films executive producer Greg Cosell, considered one of the media’s premiere tape analysts, asked Angelo if scouts should look for a “litmus test” throw—a downfield pass every NFL quarterback has to have the arm strength to make.
“I wouldn’t put the deep ball as one of the top three traits,” Angelo warned. “Sometimes it ties to arm strength, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s anticipation, ability to get that ball off with good timing, scheme. ... I’m not minimizing arm strength. I’m just saying let’s not overrate it.”
The Scouting Academy isn’t the first online course of its kind—National Football Post, Sports Management Worldwide and ProEdge Sports offer courses with well-respected former NFL evaluators—but it hopes to distinguish itself with contributions from Angelo and NFL talent evaluators like Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and former pro scout Louis Riddick. Angelo’s football roots extend back to Bo Schembechler, for whom he played defensive tackle at Miami (Ohio). After coaching at Colorado State and Syracuse, Angelo transitioned to scouting in 1980 by begging his way on staff with the Cowboys, the NFL’s top personnel department at the time.
Back then, personnel departments were far more lean. “You could go on the road visiting schools for a week and not see another scout,” Angelo says. “Today you’d see at least half a dozen every day. Teams might have had six full-time scouts—now most teams have at least double that.” At the same time, one shouldn’t confuse scouting with the tech sector. Jobs are difficult to land and almost everyone has to start at the intern level, which can pay less than $20,000 per year.
Nonetheless, interest is growing. Fifty-three students enrolled in the academy’s inaugural course last fall, and 79 more—including four former NFL players—signed up this spring.
The bulk of the Scouting Academy’s course is made up of positional modules—deep dives into every type of player—where one of the main goals is to improve a prospective scout’s ability to describe talent and expand his football vocabulary. After leaving Angelo’s film sessions I enrolled in the online class, where one of my early assignments was to describe a series of sacks by Eagles outside linebacker Connor Barwin. Hatman, a former scout with the Giants, Jets and Eagles, challenged me to look deeper than I was accustomed. “How did Barwin get to the quarterback?” he asked me over email. “Did he win with intelligence? How quickly does he get off the ball? How much ground does he gain on the first step?”
“I’m not sure,” I squeaked. “He beat his guy, hit Eli and the Giants’ QB went down.” At that moment I figured I’d be better off judging a sack dance than the sack itself. (Starting off with a simple reeling-in-a-fish move was derivative; transitioning into “Gangam Style,” however, was inspired!)
But after watching a few games, patterns began to emerge. “Displays quickness and ability to fool linemen, bend around the corner,” I eventually wrote of Barwin’s pass rushing. “Effectively switches from speed to power; has a knack for finding the QB and finishing on sacks."
Hatman pushed me toward more detail and offered some of his own thoughts on the plays I’d dissected. On a sack against the Rams: “Wins with his hands inside.” Against the Panthers: “Crafty about the timing of his late (or add-on) pressure.” And against the Giants: “Good inside spin and knack for finding the QB; wins with nuances that can rarely be taught.”
Nuance. The most difficult part of scouting—and the most challenging to your confidence—Hatman explained, is expanding from a basic description to a more informed one. “A decision-maker needs to know where a player wins and loses,” he said. “We teach our students to avoid generic statements—they don’t impress decision-makers or help you stand out.”
As the course advanced, the instructional videos (roughly 14 weeks worth of them) slowly helped me expand my vocabulary for describing players, and I learned how NFL schemes could impact performances. Riddick taught me to watch how a linebacker gets off his spot—in other words, his ability to process the lineman-tailback-fullback triangle, diagnose the blocking scheme and take a first step toward his responsibility. Phillips explained how he looked for a defender’s ability to “come to balance”—diagnose, react, reposition—and make a play.
Former Bucs offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan taught me to watch a receiver’s ability to stay on the “red line,” an imaginary boundary halfway between the sideline and the numbers. A wideout wants to maintain an outside cushion where the QB can place the ball, away from the defender. If a receiver is pushed off the red line toward the sideline, the QB has nowhere to throw and he’s failing as a deep runner.
After four weeks of slogging through required reading and watching all-22 video (accessible on NFL'com’s Game Rewind), these terms came to life. I wasn’t about to send my résumé to the NFL, but my terminology was growing and I was starting to see the game in a new light.
But a scout is ultimately judged by his writing.
The academy requires that students write several player evaluations. Naturally, I wanted to take on a quarterback—or, as Angelo says, “the only dang position that anyone seems to care about these days.” Typically the Scouting Academy uses NFL players as its subjects, but I asked for an exception. I wanted to get another look at Petty to see if I could finally see him through a scout’s eyes.
I started by first jotting down Petty’s college as Baylor and his height as "6-3."
Wrong. “Use proper College shorthand: TXBA,” Hatman corrected me. And the height “should be 6030—the first digit is feet, the second two are inches and the fourth is eighths of an inch.” Two petty mistakes right out of the gate.
Under the heading of best, I wrote that the QB had “good size, quick release, NFL-level arm strength, physical toughness. He’s not fast but has good instincts as a runner.” Under worst, I noted that “he played in college spread; inconsistent accuracy; struggles if first read isn’t available”—my new film-watching skills put to use.
For my pro projection I wrote that Petty “has the size and passing ability to be a starter; will need time to learn to play in a pro system.” Hatman weighed in with three important elements to a successful projection: “One: Ask yourself, What kind of player can he be? A starter? A backup? One you win because of, with, in spite of? Two: What systems or schemes can the player have the most success in? Three: Where could he struggle?”
In the summary section I wrote about Petty’s physique, his running ability (20 TDs in two seasons) and his fighting through a back injury (the same one that sidelined Tony Romo). Hatman pushed me to focus on writing “snap-to-finish”—start with his pre-snap reads, then his drop mechanics, post-snap reads and decision-making, then move on to accuracy and arm strength. “It helps paint a mental picture for the reader,” he explained.
I went on: “Throws in rhythm. Can make throws to all parts of the field. Good touch.
But, I noted, “he breaks down if first read isn’t open and will hold on to the ball too long or throw the ball away. His accuracy falls off with defenders at his feet; he misses throws in batches if line is struggling. Fails to set his lower body and at times throws only with his arm.”
I was on a roll. “Can extend plays but is prone to make poor decisions on the move. Won’t let plays develop under pressure and over-throws open receivers downfield. Will have to learn to read the field in the NFL and make better decisions under duress. Best fit with a team that uses spread concepts. Could develop into a quality starter, but might take time to learn pro style—like Alex Smith.”
Six months ago, I didn’t understand how Petty could, with such prolific numbers and that arm, be drafted anywhere besides the first round. He still might go higher than some analysts predict—he opened up some eyes during the passing drills at the combine. And more importantly, you can find those same throws on tape. Besides, Angelo adds, teams do funny things when it comes to quarterback. But I’ve remembered my teacher’s warning not to overrate arm strength, so at least I can see why some scouts don’t think he should go during the first two days of the draft. If I worked for a team that asked for a projection of what round Petty should come off the board, I’d be comfortable with the second.
At least that’s how this scout sees it.