Secret life of NFL scouts: 'If you’re a star player, you should not be last in line' at practice

Editor’s note: Yahoo Sports reporter Pete Thamel spent nearly a year entrenched with NFL scouts in preparation for the 2018 draft. This is the fourth story of a 10-part series.

Secret life of NFL scouts

Part 1: How the Dolphins’ draft came together
Part 2: How GM, coaches work together in picking players
Part 3: Examining the player and the person
Part 4: What scouts look for at practices
Part 5: ‘We don’t want a team of exceptions’
Part 6: Why ‘workout wonders’ can become draft busts
Part 7: One grunt keeps tabs on all players, schools
Part 8: Memorable ‘Olympic marathon’ debate over Jordy Nelson
Part 9: Why scouts love visiting Nick Saban and Alabama
Part 10: The calm of Miami Dolphins draft night
Breaking down the 8 players Miami drafted

COLUMBUS, Ohio – At a program like Ohio State, every practice doubles as a job audition for the NFL.

On a steamy August morning, Dolphins scout Ron Brockington strolls the sideline of a Buckeyes practice wearing his scouting uniform of pressed khakis, a logoed polo shirt and gray running shoes. He’s among the scouts and executives from nine different NFL franchises on the sideline for practice that morning. The previous day, there’d been so many scouts — 16 — that Buckeyes strength coach Mickey Marotti couldn’t fit them all in his office.

Fall scouting, especially before the data from games clouds judgment, is the purest form of scouting. And for a savvy veteran like Brockington, who is in his 21st season, a day around a talented team like the Buckeyes is a lot like a scouting version of Christmas morning. There’s good access, a talented team, and coaches and staff who know exactly what scouts are looking for.

Brockington arrived in Columbus at 7:30 p.m. from scouting Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, the previous day. He finished the 12 reports from his Notre Dame trip around 11:30 p.m., skipping dinner to assure he’d get them all in. He wrote up everyone from eventual top-10 pick in guard Quenton Nelson, to undrafted free-agent linebacker Greer Martini. Just because Nelson is a star doesn’t mean Brockington spends more time on him, as each player gets essentially the same length report. Each one takes approximately a half-hour to write and even though it’s counter-intuitive, Brockington says the free-agent types take more time to write up because it involves more projecting and thought. The no-brainer stars like Nelson tend to flow when 90 percent of the information is positive.

After Brockington finishes off the Irish, he gets a quick jump-start on his Ohio State prep work. He stayed up past midnight arranging a chart to bring out to the field so he could efficiently take notes on 21 different Buckeye prospects. (Veteran OSU sports information director Jerry Emig said he gave up years ago asking scouts if they needed rosters, as they all arrive knowing exactly who they need to see).

Brockington, 43, has honed a refined process over more than two decades as an NFL scout. He considers this August morning the starting point. Brockington woke up at 6:30 a.m., grabbed the free hotel breakfast at the Fairfield Inn and bought a protein bar for lunch. He’d scouted Ohio State spring practice and watched a bit of film on the Buckeyes, but not too much.

“I don’t want the picture clear in August,” he says. “I want it fuzzy, and go from there.”

Notre Dame offensive lineman Quenton Nelson was taken sixth in the 2018 NFL draft by the Colts. (AP)

The first step in every scouting report is body typing, which is a lot like it sounds — extensive notes on a prospect’s body type. Are they as tall as listed? Do they look heavier? Are they stiff or loose, especially in the hips? Are they top-heavy when they run? Brockington says he learned from Dick Haley, a longtime NFL personnel executive: “A guy has to look like a football player.”

While this sounds jarringly simple, it can’t be overstated how important body typing is to the scouting process. Deciphering how a prospect moves beyond his height and weight is one of the primary values of seeing a prospect in person. Also, Brockington seeing a prospect move in person gives him a better idea if he fits the prototypes and paradigms the Dolphins set out for their roster.

“For me, it’s the lower base,” Brockington says about scouting linemen. “Hips, quads, those areas need to be thick with some kind of mass to them where it shows they can handle power or play with power. Again, it goes back to, ‘How you look in the uniform?’ If the back of your pants are saggy or don’t fill out, there’s no way you can generate power.”

He also closely studies linemen’s calves: “I’m a big calf guy too. I like certain positions to have some kind [of] calves. If you are a lineman and you have straight calves … ” He pauses to show his disgust: “Come on!”

Quarterbacks and tailbacks get judged if they appear too frail to withstand the pounding of an NFL season. (It was amazing calling around to scouts on Lamar Jackson during the 2017 season — not those in Miami — and how many discounted him just on body type. The thought was he’d be too frail to thrive in the NFL, as so few quarterbacks have that physique).

After analyzing the bodies of all the Ohio State players on his chart, Brockington moves on to capture the intrinsic value of watching a player live in practice. Brockington locks onto offensive tackle Jamarco Jones (he would end up as a fifth-rounder in the draft for the Seattle Seahawks) in a series of line drills: “How physical he is? Is he creating movement? What’s his temperament? Once he finishes his drill, what’s his demeanor? Is he goofing around with friends? Is his head down if he got beat?
“The other thing for me is in an individual period, how do you line up? If you’re a star player, you should not be last in line. I want a guy who is first in line, good energy.”

There’s certain things that watching practice live affirms. Brockington recalls seeing Ndamukong Suh dominate on game film at Nebraska and being wowed when he played just as aggressively in practice.

“You need to hear the pads hit and see how competitive he is in drills. You can’t get that on tape.”

There are other nuances that don’t translate on film, either — the velocity of a quarterback’s throw and the tightness of the spiral. Also, scouts always scrutinize the speed the ball flies off a kicker’s or punter’s foot.

The background information is just as important. Midway through practice, Ohio State director of player personnel Mark Pantoni sees Brockington’s Dolphins logo and strikes up a conversation. They chat enthusiastically about former Buckeye Raekwon McMillan, the Dolphins linebacker who has become the breakout star of training camp. They sound like two proud football uncles, as there’s a hint of pride in both of their voices — Pantoni was part of his recruitment out of high school — as they recall his high character and love of football.

Brockington enthusiastically agreed that having such a positive experience in scouting McMillan means the Dolphins would be open to taking more Buckeyes in the future.

“The information, work ethic and culture was right,” Brockington says.

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer watches players run drills during Ohio State’s pro day in March. (AP)

The information comes primarily from Marotti, who has trained enough NFL players that he and Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer have combined to see their football alumni account for more than $700 million in NFL salaries.

He’s trained everyone from Tim Tebow to Aaron Hernandez to the record-setting 10 Buckeyes taken in the first three rounds of the 2016 draft. When scouts like Brockington crowd into his office during visits, Marotti prides himself as a truth-teller. Just saying someone is a “great kid” wastes both his time and the scouts. He has a list ready with draft-eligible Buckeyes and the seven underclassmen players who could declare that he said the NFL has deemed OK to talk about as potential draft picks.

“My integrity is on the line,” Marotti says. “I say a lot. I tell them the truth. If you are a good worker, I say you are a good worker. If you are not a good worker, I say you aren’t a good worker. The players know, it’s transparent.”

The core of scouting, especially the early trips, is information. And by the time Brockington exits and scarfs down his protein bar on his ride home, his process has begun.

Dolphins scout Ron Brockington recalls seeing Ndamukong Suh dominate on game film at Nebraska and being wowed when he played just as aggressively in practice. (Photo courtesy of Miami Dolphins)

“The perfect report for me is I would go to a practice, then video and then background,” he says. “If I can follow that up with a game [he’d later attend the Big Ten title game], then I feel like that’s going to be my best evaluation. I would feel great with that sequence.”

After practice, Brockington heads back to his home in Indianapolis, where he settled in to write 17 Ohio State player reports. The picture for this crop of Buckeyes, after a Christmas morning of scouting, just got clearer.

Next: ‘We don’t want a team of exceptions’

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