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Scouting 101: How I Grade NFL Draft Prospects

The NFL Draft is an inexact science, and as such, there isn’t a tried-and-true formula that you can follow for guaranteed success. So many variables can influence the success or failure of a prospect whether it’s ideal or inappropriate scheme fit, off-the-field issues, supporting cast or lack thereof; many factors can contribute to the “hits” and “misses” that occur each draft season. With so many variables to consider in the evaluation of an NFL prospect, where do you begin?

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Khalil Mack at the University of Buffalo — Photo by Chad Cooper

From personal experience I find that establishing criteria based on desirable traits for each position group, and then comparing prospects against those standards works best. Using the example of quarterbacks, I will explain how I use traits to guide my evaluations.

For quarterbacks, there are a number of traits that I look for and covet. Accuracy (to all levels of the field), arm strength (more specifically, zip), field vision, decision-making, poise, and pocket presence are among the traits that I look for when evaluating a quarterback prospect. Sounds simple enough, right?

Actually, it’s not so cut and dry. Defining these standards can be a challenge, but I’ve done my best to define each trait and establish baseline requirements.

Accuracy is one of the most important traits a quarterback can possess. Without accuracy, arm strength and all of the other quarterback traits, for that matter, mean very little. Short and intermediate passing accuracy are essential in projecting success to the next level, but without the threat of a vertical passing game the defense can crowd the line of scrimmage and make life difficult for running backs and dink-and-dunk passers.

“Grade the player, not the helmet.”

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Carson Wentz — Photo by Keith Allison

In general, I look for quarterbacks to have completed at least 60% of their passes in college — preferably in pro-style offenses — but I find that the eye test is the best way to gauge accuracy, because it allows you to see the circumstances surrounding their completions or incompletions. For example, you can see if they’re dinking-and-dunking their way to high completion percentages, if they’re throwing under pressure often, if their receivers are dropping a lot of passes, or if their mechanics are a cause of their inaccuracy.

As far as arm strength is concerned, I don’t care if a prospect can throw the ball 80 yards down the field, as that will likely never be required in a game setting; however, I am concerned with how much velocity a quarterback can generate on throws from different launch points to different areas of the field. Can they throw the ball 50+ yards down the field and hit the deep outs and opposite hash throws with good velocity? If the answer to that question is yes, then the prospect meets my baseline requirement for arm strength. If the answer to that question is no, then that prospect may not be considered NFL-caliber.

Field vision is also critical to the success of an NFL quarterback. Having the ability to read a defense both pre- and post-snap is important both for the quarterback to find open receivers as well as to keep defenders from keying on his reads. Many colleges run spread offensive systems that require simplistic reads, which can make the process of projecting their translation to the next level very difficult (see Mariota, Marcus). This can be especially problematic at the NFL level, as quarterbacks from these offensive systems are more prone to locking onto their primary reads, and in the process, telegraphing their intentions to attentive defenders.

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Aaron Rodgers vs. San Francisco in 2012 — Photo by Mike Morbeck

Decision-making is another trait that I find desirable in quarterback prospects. Does the quarterback take care of the football or does he force a lot of ill-advised, tight window throws which result in costly turnovers for his team? Looking at the context of interceptions is important in determining whether or not the quarterback was at fault, and if he was at fault, why the lapse in decision-making occurred. Was it simply a bad decision or a bad read? A late throw? Was it third-and-long and an interception down the field was as good as a punt? Did the receiver run the wrong route or did the ball skip off his hands? These are all things to consider when gauging a quarterback’s ability to make smart decisions with the football.

Poise is another important characteristic for an NFL quarterback. Is the quarterback willing to stand in the pocket and take hits? Does pressure severely affect that quarterback’s accuracy and decision-making? In high pressure situations does the quarterback crumble, or does he rise to the occasion?

Pocket presence is another common component of a successful NFL quarterback. Can the quarterback buy himself time in the pocket with subtle movements to elude pressure, while keeping his eyes downfield?

Quarterbacks with poor pocket presence have a tendency to take unnecessary sacks and fumble the football because of their poor feel for pressure. As NFL coordinators are much more apt to blitzing, it is absolutely essentially for quarterbacks to be able to maneuver in the pocket when their protection isn’t perfect to extend plays and keep their team in favorable situations.

Once you have developed a set of criteria, you can create a grading scale, which provides you the benefit of quantifying those traits and makes the process of comparing players at positions and across positions much easier.

If you are interested in the study of NFL Draft prospects, you can head over to http://draftbreakdown.com/ and sift through their large database of prospect video.

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