Scouting in depth, but at a distance
The pandemic has changed everything, but scouts looking for the next class of NFL players face unusual challenges.
By Darin Gantt Dec 03, 2020

It was, perhaps, the most excited anyone has ever been to pull onto the campus of the University of South Alabama.

But for Panthers college scout Jeff Beathard, rolling south from his Tennessee home into Mobile recently meant a rare chance to watch a practice in person — to do his job in a way that resembled normal for the first time in months.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every job in America this year, but scouting is a combination of seeing things for yourself, tapping into close relationships to develop intelligence on the ground, and distilling that information to try to put together a full picture of a prospect. It's harder to do those things when you can't actually walk onto a college campus, or into a team facility, or talk to coaches and contacts you've known for years in a face-to-face setting.

"This is obviously not the best way to do this job," Beathard said. "But we also know this is how it's got to be."

Because of the public health challenges that everyone's adjusting to, the basic functions of NFL scouts are different than they've ever been.

For starters, these are true road warriors, guys who know where to eat in Interstate America, for whom the only number higher than miles driven is Marriott points earned.

Panthers executive director of player personnel Jeff Morrow — 26 years in the NFL and 23 with the team — estimates that in a "normal" year, he'd spend 175 to 180 nights in a hotel.

Each summer, Panthers scouts gather at training camp with the team for a week to develop plans, go over early information, and prepare for a long year ahead. Then they scatter to the four winds, hitting college practice two-a-days, a hard month spent going from campus to campus, watching and documenting every shred of intelligence they can gather. Seeing the way players are built, observing the way they interact, investigating the way they learn. That's followed by regular trips to more schools during the fall, and games every weekend, and a lot of weeknights in between. For four or five months, it often means six nights a week on the road.

At least, that's how it worked before the pandemic. Things are clearly not normal right now, and neither are their jobs.

Scouts can still attend college games in person, as long as there are games. But pre-pandemic, a week would normally be spent attending practices, wandering through college athletic facilities, watching film on large monitors, and talking to people on campus who see players every day and know them best.

That's not allowed now, having been replaced by a steady schedule of Zoom meetings, and filling in the blanks the best way you know how.

"The hardest part is not being in the complex," Morrow said. "It's very important to be in the building because it helps you get a real feeling for what's going on there. You get a vibe, a gut feeling about a player.

"You can talk to people all day and hear all the words they say, but you don't pick up the non-verbal cues, the way they interact with people, and all the little things that are important to know."


Instead of face-to-face contact, NFL teams are getting centralized information from schools. Representatives from all 32 teams are invited to sit in on Zoom meetings in which a college program will put its pro liaison, strength coach, or academic advisor on to give a general sense of each player in addition to the quantifiable details (background, stats, 40-yard dash times, etc.).

"We're trying to provide as much as possible, and to try to get them the same information they'd get on campus," said the University of North Carolina's Darrell Moody, who spent 18 years as an NFL scout before heading back to campus.

That information is good, and in the scouting business, information is the common currency. But now that everyone is given the exact same amount of it, it, by definition, has less value. That's where context comes into play, the ability to frame the shared information through individual lenses.

Jeff Morrow

"This year, to me, really underscores the benefit of having a veteran scouting staff," Morrow said. "From a college's perspective, they're not going to say a lot over the airwaves about their players that could in any way be construed as a negative. But if you're there in person, and you've been around long enough to build relationships based on trust, then you can find out a lot more about what guys are all about.

"If you have guys who have experience, and the kind of contacts to really get to know people at schools, then you have a much better chance of being successful this year."

For example, it was easy enough for the Panthers to scout Julius Peppers in 2002, when they had the second overall pick. It didn't take old eyes to see that he was a physical monster, capable of dominating on the basketball court as well as the football field at North Carolina, the kind of rare blend of size and speed that positioned him for a brilliant career which included 159.5 sacks.

Steve Smith was a trickier scouting process. The Utah-by-way-of-Santa Monica Community College wide receiver had a lot of raw ability. But he also had a lot of raw emotions when he was younger (some of which lasted well into his NFL career). So when you're scouting the 20-year-old version of a player, it becomes an art as well as a science.

You can look at a box score and see receptions and yards and touchdowns. You can look at film and see his short-burst quickness, and his instinct and ability to separate at the line of scrimmage. But you have to look into his soul to find out what makes him tick, why he appeared so angry at times, why his passions weren't always a controlled burn.

Steve Smith

"A lot was said about Steve at the time, positive and negative," Morrow recalled. "You'd hear a lot of things from people at schools, but we came away believing that the bottom line was that he was a good person, certainly not as bad as some people thought. He was a super-competitive guy, who didn't always channel it. That's not necessarily a negative, because you could tell football mattered to him.

"The challenge was figuring out if some of the traits you could see were innate and were always going to be the same, or whether it was a normal maturity question. When you're looking at guys in college, you have to keep in mind that they aren't finished products."

Morrow recalled conversations with Smith's coaches, which revealed many things about his personality. That football mattered to him deeply. That the best way to punish young Steve was to throw him off the practice field, to take away his ability to do the thing he believed he was best at doing.

Those conversations happened long before Zoom was invented, and they're the kind of shades-of-meaning understandings that are hard to pick up on at a distance.


Speaking of distance, that's another problem scouts are dealing with these days.

The NFL only recently relaxed rules to allow scouts to attend some college practices, but only if the schools conduct those practices inside their stadium, where you can socially distance from the scout next to you.

That's a step, but it's still not ideal. Not every college practices in the same building they play games in. And those that do don't always offer the best sightlines.

Scouts speak of "body type" when evaluating players, a trait that goes beyond a players' height and weight. Think of the difference between a merely huge person and Panthers defensive tackle Derrick Brown. Picking up a sense of a players' mass — or the width of their, well, mass — is best done from a proximity few are comfortable with right now.

"When you walk up on a player, you can feel their size," Beathard said. "Now, even if I'm sitting in the front row of a stadium, that perspective is different when you're six feet above him."

It's not often he's that close.

Kidd-Brewer Stadium

Appalachian State has had enough prospects in recent years that NFL scouts aren't a rarity. For a recent game against Arkansas State, 14 teams were in Kidd Brewer Stadium to see players first hand. But they were on the seventh floor of the press box there, high above the field, with a beautiful view of the mountains but a less clear look at the players.

"It's hard to get a good look at body type from up there," Appalachian's director of player personnel Andrew Blaylock admitted.

Again, being in the building at all is a luxury right now for scouts. They're also faced with the reality that colleges have their own programs to run, and their own priorities. College coaches are no different than their NFL colleagues, in that seasons become tunnels, in which the only focus is on that light that's immediately in front of you. Schools with more resources and bigger facilities often have separate practice fields and don't want to disrupt their routines to accommodate the NFL's ability to grade their players.

That creates challenges for the players being scouted as well.


While all scouts will tell you they look at everyone this year, there will inevitably be guys who slip between the cracks.

In general, there's a sense that players from larger programs could fare better than smaller-school prospects. Likewise, players with obvious measurables are easier to spot than guys whose value includes leadership and instinct.

At Appalachian, they have wide receiver Jalen Virgil, who has earned national notice for his speed and strength, without having eye-popping stats. He once ran a 10.29-second 100 meters for the track team, posted a 40.5-inch vertical jump, and bench pressed 405 pounds, but he has just 14 catches in six games this year. There's also a 6-foot-even center named Noah Hannon, who has started for four years but would be of much more interest to the league if he was an inch or two taller.

"The way things are now with the NFL scouts, it probably hurts our guys more than others," Blaylock said. "We haven't had as many scouts here to watch practice in the past, and we have a lot of guys who make a name for themselves by how tough they are and how hard they work. You see that when you're here, but it's harder to see on tape."

Blaylock said there have been a handful of scouts through to see practice this year, many of them stopping through Boone on their way from Knoxville, Tenn. to Blacksburg, Va. Players notice the difference.

"When our players see NFL personnel at practice, there's no doubt it's a boost," he said. "Guys go harder when they know they're being watched."

For some players, there's no chance to be seen at all.

Longtime agent David Canter is representing a prospect this year named Michael Strachan. He's a 6-foot-5 receiver from Division II University of Charleston in West Virginia. He caught 78 passes for 1,319 yards and 19 touchdowns last year. He caught none this year, since his school didn't play this season because of COVID-19.

"He's an amazing kid, and physically, he's off the charts," Canter said. "But he didn't have a season this year. He has no film in the last year.

"He has the kind of athleticism that will jump out at you. God-willing, if there's a Combine or an opportunity, he'll get a chance to show what he can do."


Yeah, about that.

No one's really quite sure at the moment what the pre-draft process is going to look like once the bowl games end.

College all-star games, where scouts convene to see prospects up close, to measure and study their movements against equivalent competition, may or may not happen at all, at least in the format scouts recognize. The 2021 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and the East-West Shrine Bowl have already been canceled, leaving the Jan. 30 Reese's Senior Bowl as the last of the traditional stops in the scouting circuit.

Most scouts expect there to be some kind of an event called the Scouting Combine, but no one's certain what it will entail. It's reasonable to expect fewer boots on the ground at the event, cutting into the amount of research you can do, from watching drills to doing interviews.

Yetur Gross-Matos

"We're not going to have a regular environment, but no one's sure what it's going to look like," Morrow said.

Each spring, colleges have pro days, where scouts come in to see each school's prospects at once. They didn't all happen last year since events started getting shut down in mid-March. Panthers general manager Marty Hurney was in Oregon watching quarterback Justin Herbert when the call went out to bring scouts in off the road.

With the rates of COVID-19 infections rising across the country, colleges aren't sure when or if they'll be able to host those events this year.

Blaylock said Appalachian hasn't scheduled theirs yet, and he's encouraging as many players as possible to keep training on campus as if there will be one, without being sure of the when or the how.


So for the moment, NFL scouts are enjoying what could be the last month of access to actual football.

Between weekend trips to see games, they're watching tape at home and writing reports. In a sense, holing up at home has its advantages. A number of evaluators have said they're weeks ahead of where they'd normally be this time of year since they were able to file reports on players who opted out or didn't play for other reasons.

But that also requires dealing with the kind of work-from-home distractions that many other industries are adjusting to.

"It's hard watching 11 hours of tape a day at home sometimes," Beathard admitted. "I mean, sometimes, it's just life, with the wife here and a 21-year-old boy walking in and out, and the dogs barking in the background.

"You've just got to be focused and stay disciplined about the work, which isn't always easy."

Robert Haines, who covers the East Coast for the Panthers, will file around 450 reports on individual players. They're due Monday, though the scouting process is constantly evolving and information will be added all the way until the 2021 NFL Draft -- which is scheduled for the weekend April 29-May 1.

Once that paperwork is done, the scouts will have a series of meetings, where the intelligence they gathered all fall will be dissected, and sorted, and collated.

There's much more work to be done through the winter and spring, but at the moment, they're still wondering exactly how that work is going to be done.

Like everything in the world of 2020, the future is day-to-day, even in a business in which you're building for something that may not arrive for months or years.

Jeff Morrow
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