When it comes to evaluating college prospects, Bill Belichick and the Patriots go about scouting in a little different fashion than most. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
When it comes to the pre-draft scouting process, each one of the 32 NFL teams handles its business differently. Different metrics are used for evaluating prospects, certain qualities are sought out and particular playing styles are assessed as each team tries to find the right formula for success.
In Foxboro, the Patriots have distinguished themselves by ranking prospects in a relatively non-traditional fashion. Instead of putting a grade on a player by round — as most teams do at this time of the year — more of a priority is placed on how that prospect might fit into the New England system.
“They give their scouts a clear set of guidelines in what they are looking for,” according to Dan Hatman, who has worked as a scout for the Giants, Jets and Eagles and now is the Chairman of Scouting Development at The Scouting Academy. “In talking to scouts from New England, it might be the only team that I’m aware of with an internal scout school, for lack of a better term.
“When they go out on the road for evaluations, they are given a very specific set of player profiles. They are not giving players grades by rounds like other teams. Instead, they look at how guys fit into their roster.”
That would support the statements from Phil Savage last spring, when the former college and national scout under Bill Belichick in Cleveland said on Twitter that when he worked with Belichick, he didn’t feel an area scout could know the entire country enough to say “He’s a (second) rounder.” Savage added that Belichick didn’t want round grades, but instead to have the scout categorize a player as a starter, potential starter, backup or camp body.
Per Hatman, that directive can often make a scouts job easier.
“You’re using a defined system,” he said, “as opposed to trying to recreate the wheel every time in trying to figure out where a player could or should be selected.”
It’s just one part of the New England system stands apart from sizable portions of the league, according to Hatman.
“My understanding is that the expose their football personnel people to both coaching and scouting elements, with the idea that coaches are better coaches when they understand the scouting process, and scouts are better scouts when they they understand the coaching process,” Hatman said.
At this point in the pre-draft process, it is absolutely vital that all of the key elements of the franchise are in “lockstep,” to use Hatman’s phraseology. In the last year, there have been notable breakdowns between the front office, scouting department and coaching staffs with three franchises, Philly, San Francisco and Denver, leading ownership to make changes at one level or another.
Hatman said that one of the advantages to the setup like they have in New England — as well as a handful of other places where coaches have say over personnel decisions — is that you have “one voice” crafting your organizational philosophy.
“I don’t want to call it a dictatorship, but when you have one voice guiding the program, it can definitely help,” he said. “Everybody learns from that one voice. If he says, ‘Do you job,’ you know that he’s the man at the top, and you can do your one job and let him take care of the rest. There’s no jockeying for internal position, with the front office politics and such. There can be an advantage to that.
“In that environment, though, you still need a sounding board, a devils’ advocate. A guy who can question from time to time,” he added. “If you only have one voice, you can occasionally get into groupthink, and that can be a negative.”
Regardless, for all 32 teams, this stretch represents the culmination of a long road, one that began in earnest during the college football season, continued through the postseason all-star games and evaluation events like the Senior Bowl and the combine. Now, coaches and ownership take more of a role in the process.
“The role of the scouting staff really shifts based on the time of year and who is involved,” Hatman said. “In my experience, you get ownership much more involved and paying attention. You’re shifting from the evaluation stage to the valuation stage when you are looking at what you can get from a pick as a player. You’re integrating the coaching staff. There are more people involved in the process.”
Teams will hold private workouts, and each franchise is allowed 30 on-site visits. The workouts and the visits could be held for a multitude of reasons.
“You’re really trying to pin down how these guys might factor in your system,” Hatman said of the private workouts and on-site visits. “Take a guy like Bryce Petty at Baylor — this is a guy who is playing in a system that makes a lot of things easier on him. If I’m a quarterbacks coach, a head coach or a GM, I want to better understand how Petty will function in my environment. I have to go and work him out because I have no idea how he’ll fit in this system. You get him in your building and you get him on the board and see what he can do.
“When it comes to the on-site visits, there are a lot of different ways you can go. You can bring guys in you are truly interested in and work them out. You can bring guys in you want to smokescreen. And you can bring guys in you really want to vet physically, or if they’re special character guys where you need more than just the 15 minutes you get at the combine. The owners want to meet them, whatever. There are so many different possibilities.”