Greg Gabriel: A look at the NFL scouting process in the fall

Go inside how NFL scouts evaluate players during the college football season

Published:
NFL coaches and scouts gather in a corner of the Dunlop Training Facility during Florida State's NFL football pro day in Tallahassee, Fla., Tuesday, March 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)
NFL coaches and scouts gather in a corner of the Dunlop Training Facility during Florida State's NFL football pro day in Tallahassee, Fla., Tuesday, March 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser) — Mark Wallheiser

The Bears' former director of college scouting, Greg Gabriel has over 30 years of experience in NFL scouting and he'll be breaking down the top NFL prospects to watch this college season and other NFL news each week here at Pro Football Weekly. You can follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe

Over the past two months or so, NFL scouts having been hitting college campuses for practices and games to get a good look at the players who will be part of next springs Draft class. Over the years I have been asked numerous times how scouts know who to look at when they make school calls especially in the early part of the season. It’s a very good question but the answer isn’t short.

The Scouting Services

Most but not all NFL clubs belong to one of two scouting services. The services are National Football Scouting and Blesto. National Scouting is based in Indianapolis and is headed by Jeff Foster while Blesto is headquartered in Jacksonville and run by Tom Modrak.

The purpose of these services is to create a prospect list for each of their members. It is basically a starting point that club scouts use when they make their school calls in the fall.

The scouting services create their prospect lists in the spring. While club scouts are going to Pro Days and getting information on players in the draft, the scouting service scouts are busy looking at the upcoming seniors. The Blesto and National scouts usually have an area and are responsible for every school that plays football in that area. In the spring, these scouts watch tape, talk to some of the coaches and weigh, measure and sometimes time the seniors to be. If allowed, they will also administer the Wonderlic test to each of the players.

Once they get all the pertinent information, each scout writes a report and grades each player. He also makes a master list for each school that lists all the seniors both graded and ungraded. These lists have all the important information such as height, weight speed, Wonderlic score and grade. Generally speaking, this original list has only one scout’s opinion, as it’s not a final grade. It’s a beginning grade to be used as a starting point. There are seldom cross checks done in spring evaluation of juniors.

While the scouting service scouts spend a majority of their time at the major schools, they are also responsible for the small schools. With these schools, they often talk to a coach to find out who that coach feels is a legitimate NFL prospect. If the coach recommends a player or players, then the scout will make a school call to watch tape, talk to the coaches and get measurables. Just as with the big schools, he creates a master list with graded and ungraded players.

The scouting service scouts have until about mid-May to create the lists and write reports on each prospect. These lists are then presented to the member clubs at a meeting around the last week of May.

When a club gets the prospect list, they often separate the players on the list by level. Some clubs have the players listed by A, B, C and D levels. The area scout for each club will go into each school and look at all the graded players regardless of grade. That scout will also talk to the coaches and support staff to find out if there are any players who may be NFL prospects who aren’t on the original list. In many cases, especially at the major schools, there are new prospects who aren’t on the original prospect list. Often these are players who are getting their first chance to start or may be coming off an injury.

The coaching staff may not have wanted to recommend the player in the spring, but once they see him in action in the fall they pass along the name for the clubs scouts to evaluate.

Clubs often send more than one scout into schools with highly-rated prospects. While the area scout will look at all the players, the cross-check or “over the top” scouts look at only the best players. If the area scout feels the scouting service rated a player too high or low, he relates that information to his club so that the other scouts making a school call have the right information.

It’s important to remember that the grade a service scout puts on a prospect in the spring is only a start. I have seen many times in the past where a player goes into the season with a low scouting service grade who turns out to be a premium-level draft choice. The opposite is also true, as players who looked good as juniors, don’t play as well in their senior year.

Underclassmen

The scouting services only write up the upcoming seniors during the spring. An underclassman is never on the early prospect lists. Underclassmen are also not on the fall scouting service lists. The scouting services don’t grade underclassmen until they are officially in the draft.

When club scouts make a school call, often the pro liaison will inform them that a certain underclassman may be coming out. If that is the case, he may answer questions about that player. A rule of thumb is that scouts are never to ask about underclassmen unless someone from the school brings up the player/players. That rule comes directly from the league office, as the league wants the relationship with the colleges kept smooth.

Often during the fall, word gets out that certain players are entertaining entering the draft. This may come from the media or the agent community. If a player is thinking about leaving school early, he may have his parents or a trusted friend do research on certain agents. Once this happens, it’s hard to keep it quiet, but still a scout can never bring up the underclassman’s name when on a school visit.

The scout can discretely watch tape on the player and watch him in practice, but is to keep his thoughts to himself. Once that player officially enters the draft, then scouts are permitted to openly ask questions about that player.

As the college season goes on, top players separate themselves from the pack, so to speak, and often these players are heavily scouted. The reason being is these players will usually make up the players taken in the premium rounds. It is always interesting to see that players who many didn’t think much of in August, turn out to be excellent players in November. Often times this is because the player matures and his hard work has finally paid off. It’s what makes scouting the intriguing profession that it is.