During the offseason, NFL fans become infatuated with the idea of building the perfect roster. By early January, half of the league’s fans are tuned into the biggest names hitting the market in free agency as well as the upcoming NFL Draft. With the Senior Bowl and Scouting Combine on the horizon, fans everywhere click on "team needs" articles, mock drafts, and any piece of content that plays out one of the dozens of scenarios for their favorite NFL team.
But what happens when free agency passes and the draft is in the rearview mirror?
Do the scouts simply pack up and go home?
Does a team's entire focus shift toward its own roster and the upcoming season?
The resounding answer to those questions is, "No." The scouting process is a never-ending one, a year-round chase of talent to keep building your team toward the greatest goal there is - a Lombardi Trophy.
Every personnel department in the NFL ultimately has the same basic structure. Under the direction of the lead decision-makers at the head of football operations, the scouting staff is essentially split into two groups, a pro side and a college side. The college scouts, whether they work in the building year-round or spend a majority of their time on the road, evaluate players preparing to enter the NFL from the college ranks. Their reports are typically due at the end of the college season as the team starts to build their initial draft board. Your pro scouts, on a similar token, are responsible for evaluating the players across the rest of the league. Their reports on players are factored into acquiring players in free agency or through trades, as well as into scouting reports on a weekly basis for game-planning purposes during the season.
During the fall, there’s a lot of work to do for all of these scouts. The long hours don’t stop after the final whistle, however, as the midnight oil is burned long into the offseason, and even into the summer leading up to Training Camp.
Before July arrives, however, there’s the period of Organized Team Activities and minicamps around the NFL. Even though there’s no contact allowed on the practice field during this time of year, there’s still plenty of evaluating being done inside many film rooms at each team facility.
“During the spring and early summer, we’re getting ready for the upcoming season,” said Dwayne Joseph, the Eagles’ director of pro scouting. “We’re doing what needs to be done to prepare our scouts for when they return for Training Camp.”
After the NFL Draft, pro scouts will begin their offseason analysis of teams around the NFL. Each scout is assigned a handful of teams, and they are responsible for knowing that team from top to bottom, writing reports for each player on the 90-man roster all the way up through the end of the preseason and into the regular season. When a player is released or if one is made available for trade, Howie Roseman and vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas have a report at the ready on that player’s most recent performance with detailed notes on how that player can help the Eagles' roster.
The end of the draft doesn’t mean that college scouts can put their feet up either. Evaluations on the next group of prospects have already begun. Shortly after the draft, meetings are held by the two main scouting services around the NFL, BLESTO and National Football Scouting. Each team has one scouting assistant assigned to either service, and the pool of scouts work collectively to gather as much information as possible on the upcoming class in the months leading up to those meetings. Early "grades" are created by these services and distributed to all of the participating organizations, and help serve as an early baseline to help give personnel people around the league a snapshot of the upcoming class. These grades from the services are far from final for most scouting departments, however.
“After those meetings, we earmark the players who are most intriguing to us," said Anthony Patch, the Eagles' senior director of college scouting. "The service is invaluable, but that’s just the beginning. We want to get eyeballs on the players for ourselves, so we make our lists and identify the prospects who are a priority for us in terms of our evaluations heading into the fall.”
Go behind-the-scenes during Night One of the 2017 NFL Draft as the Eagles select DE Derek Barnett.
The college staff creates the priority lists of prospects, and now the true collaboration begins.
Throughout the year, scouts on both sides of the department serve as cross-checkers for the other side. A college scout may watch some NFL teams and write up his own reports on that roster, and conversely, the pro scouts will watch a list of college prospects at a specific position as well, giving the team another set of reports heading into the season from both sides.
Assistant director of player personnel Andy Weidl sees this process of cross-checking as having multiple layers of positive impact.
“It gives us more reports and gives us more sets of eyeballs on any one player,” Weidl said, “but it also gives you a chance to self-evaluate. It’s how you get better as a scout, how you develop professionally. It’s something we did in Baltimore (Weidl was there from 2005-16) and we think it’s an effective tool.”
It’s easy for a scout to be locked in on your area of focus, whether that is the college or the pro game. By opening it up, the entire department can become more familiar with the direction of the game and the quality of talent needed to be successful in the NFL. The scouts can also continue fine-tuning their own individual evaluation process.
It’s common practice for pro scouts to become involved with college prospect evaluation after the end of the season, but by introducing the pro side to these players now, the reports created by those scouts next spring will be much more in-depth.
Joseph absolutely sees the value in these early college film sessions as the director of pro scouting.
“We get a fresh look at guys now so that when the season is over and we go back and do our cross-checks we have a good snapshot already,” Joseph said. "It gives us a good library for what’s to come later this fall.”
Now that "spring scouting" is in the books, personnel departments around the league get a much-needed break before Training Camp. When the veteran players return to Philadelphia, the entire scouting staff will make the trek back to the NovaCare Complex as well. In the first few days of practice in July, every organization has their scouts evaluate the talent on their own roster before NFL preseason games begin and college camps open around the country.
“We get a primary position to cross-check and a secondary position to evaluate and rank,” Patch explained. “We are only there for a few days or so. We meet as a staff before we leave camp, share our thoughts, and then we go our separate ways. College scouts have to start hitting schools on the road shortly afterward. Pro guys continue their evaluations of other teams’ rosters, and the process continues.”
Being at Training Camp for only a few days may seem like a small sample size to go off of, especially since there’s no full contact until after the scouts leave town, but thanks to modern technology the scouting staff can watch daily practice film whenever they want to on the road. They can keep up with players as much as possible while also focusing on writing their daily reports.
The grind of the season begins. By December, all of the college scouts will have to get their final reports in on the senior class. Pro scouts will have reports written on all of the upcoming free agents set to hit the open market the following March. The cross-checking gets underway. The college scouts will watch and evaluate upcoming free agents. The pro scouts begin their process of rewatching the same players they studied in the spring, except now with a watchful eye on how they may have developed after another year at the college level. The wheel continues to turn, all with the main goal of bringing a Super Bowl to Philadelphia.