Making the Grade

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Making the Grade
by Warren DeLuca

Every year the football news drought of the post-minicamp, pre-training camp period is broken by the leaking of the scouting combines’ rankings of the top senior prospects for the next draft. Aha, we think, we’re getting a peek at who the real scouts have put at the top of their draft boards for next April.

Maybe, maybe not. The combine rankings give fans insight into who may be among the top players in the draft, but that’s about it.

The scouting combines are organizations to which NFL teams subscribe in order to share scouting information. There are currently two combines:

BLESTO (an acronym for Bears, Lions, Eagles, Steelers Talent Organization) is headquartered in Pittsburgh. The Texans, Bills, Dolphins, Browns, Steelers, Jaguars, Cowboys, Giants, Bears, Lions, Vikings, and Falcons subscribe to BLESTO.

National Football Scouting, commonly called “the National,” is based in Tulsa. The Jets, Bengals, Titans, Broncos, Chargers, Chiefs, Eagles, Packers, Buccaneers, Panthers, Saints, 49ers, Cardinals, Rams, and Seahawks subscribe to the National.

It should come as no surprise that the maverick Raiders do not subscribe to either combine. Neither do the Patriots, Ravens, Colts, or Redskins. The team affiliations with each combine are fairly stable, but it is not unheard of for a franchise to switch or drop out completely. For example, the Eagles, a founding member of BLESTO, now subscribe to the National.

Just because the Texans and Cowboys both subscribe to BLESTO, it does not mean that Jerry Jones gets to thumb through Charley Casserly’s scouting notes. Each subscriber provides a scout, or scout, to the combine, with each scout assigned to cover a certain region of the country. The idea is that by pooling their scouting resources, the subscribers cut down on expenses and more effectively cover the country.

The combine scouts fan out each spring, attending spring practices and junior days (which are similar to the pre-draft pro day workouts held on campuses, but for the seniors-to-be in the programs). The scouts then meet, usually in Florida, and each one presents his report on the players he observed and a grade for each. Another scout typically provides a second opinion on each prospect. Each subscriber franchise receives this information.

So why should we take these rankings with a grain of salt?

First, the most obvious reason – these lists only include seniors. Every year, underclassmen that come out early have a major impact on the top of team’s draft boards. In the 2004 draft, five of the first ten picks were underclassmen, and a total of 15 were selected in the first round. Any list the only includes seniors is incomplete at best.

Second, April 2005 is still a long way away, and a prospect’s stock can rise or fall (or rise and fall) dramatically during that time. At this point in 2001, neither combine included a quarterback among its top ten seniors. BLESTO’s top quarterback was Indiana’s Antwaan Randle-El, and the National had Illinois’ Kurt Kittner. As it turned out, David Carr and Joey Harrington were two of the first three players to have their names called in that draft. Both players’ torrid senior campaigns certainly raised their profiles in the eyes of the scouts. Randle-El was selected as a wide receiver/punt returner in the second round, and Kittner lasted until the fifth. The next year, neither combine had Carson Palmer in its preseason top 25, but Palmer’s Heisman-winning senior season earned him the top spot in the draft. The postseason all-star games, workouts, and interviews can also play a significant role in determining a player’s draft ranking.

Third, while professional scouts give these grades, they are not the same people who will be calling the shots on draft day in war rooms around the NFL. Subscribers use the combines primarily as a means of collecting basic data (physical measurements, timings, physical test results, background information, and a brief discussion of football playing ability) on prospects. Each team’s area scouts use that data as a starting point for evaluating the players in their respective geographic regions, and the higher-rated prospects also fall under the scrutiny of personnel directors and general managers. The combine reports are the first step in the evaluation process, not the ultimate analysis.

The subscriber teams are reportedly becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of information that they receive from the combines. For example, many an eyebrow was raised a year ago when both organizations rated J.P. Losman higher than Eli Manning.

One reason behind the combines’ questionable performance is that the combine scout position is basically an entry-level job in the field. While most combine scouts have football experience, such as having worked as a college graduate assistant coach or an NFL personnel department intern, for many it is their first scouting job. The combine scouts who produce the best work product tend to be either promoted to area scout by their own team or hired away to fill area scout openings for other franchises, taking the experience and know-how that they have acquired with them.

The recent on-field success of most of the non-combine franchises has also caused owners to question why they are spending a reported $100,000 per year, plus the cost of providing scouts, on combine membership.

The seniors who made the lists are not necessarily the players who will be at the top of any team’s draft board next April. However, being listed on one of these rankings means that the players each made a strong impression on at least a couple scouts, so they probably possess special qualities that will earn them extra attention throughout the evaluation process. Carnell Williams Carnell Williams Home

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