The secretary’s name and place of employment remain a secret for Greg Gabriel even to this day, seven years after he departed his last NFL job as the director of college scouting for the Chicago Bears.
During the draft’s most intense moments, his valuable source was nestled inside the office of a college head coach. This was someone Gabriel got to know over his early years in the 1980s as a Buffalo-based Midwest scout for the Bills, National Football Scouting and, later, the New York Giants, where Gabriel was responsible for everything from Syracuse, New York, all the way to Nebraska, from Kentucky to the U.S./Canada border.
She would not give him groundbreaking information pertaining to on-field performance. An NFL scout can determine system fit, game speed, practical strength and intensity with startling accuracy. But she could point him in the right direction when it came to a few central questions that plague many in the business at this time of year:
Is he really a good kid? What is he like when no one important is around? Is there something he’s hiding from us?
“She was unnnnn-believable at supplying that kind of information,” Gabriel told me. “She was right on all the time. I would ask her, ‘What about this guy?’ And she’d say ‘Don’t touch him!’
“You find out over time if the information is valuable.”
On Thursday, NFL teams will begin a process that’ll result in the selection of 253 collegiate players — the culmination of years of research, interviews, tape study and evaluation. But a closer look at selection habits over the last decade reveals a bias at the core of Gabriel’s story: Some clubs develop a sweet spot or infallible source at certain universities and are able to trust the information far more than the banalities spewed by most college head coaches looking to ratchet up their draft stats. Most of those coaches are not particularly worried about saddling an NFL franchise with the next headcase, problem child or paper tiger.
The result? A higher number of players from a particular college program matriculating to your favorite pro team. With facts and alternative facts polluting the scouting landscape, NFL clubs often use the trust factor to break ties on the draft board and populate their roster. Investigating the roots of their decision-making process — and the decision makers themselves — can often lead to a better understanding of who they will draft.
“The draft is buyer beware,” one AFC general manager told me. “We’ve had schools that we simply won’t draft players from. At all. Just because we can’t get good information. The most important thing is information, so if you can feel really good about getting accurate information from a school, you feel good about drafting that player.”
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Why is all of this necessary? Many in and around the scouting industry today describe a sort of information bottlenecking at some of the biggest NCAA football powerhouses.
What was once seen as an advantage — Gabriel said coaches in the ’80s and ’90s used to love having scouts at practice because it meant players would practice harder — has now devolved into a blend of sensitivity, control and fear issues. At some universities, doors are only open for scouts on a handful of specific days. Pro liaisons employed by the schools will hand NFL team officials a sheet of boilerplate “frequently asked questions” about certain players and might not allow any further prodding.
Schools do not want to give out damaging information — medical or otherwise — that could harm the draft stock of their players. They do not want damaging information to leak out that could harm the reputation of the university. They do not want scouts influencing their players. It is a relentless tug-of-war with fair arguments to be made on both sides.
“That’s a pain in the ass to deal with when some schools are like that,” NFL Network analyst and former pro scout Bucky Brooks told me. “Kansas State was always tough to get information from because Bill Snyder was very protective of his guys. In the Southeast, it’s tough to get into a lot of those SEC schools because they have restrictions where they will only be open for a week to scouts.”
Brooks added: “If you’re trying to enhance your program, you want guys to go to the pros. You should be able to do anything and everything to help your guys pull it off. It actually helps if you’re able to tell your recruits, Look at how many guys we send to the pros; look at how many guys we send to the combine. I think it hurts when you don’t work with the scouts.
“Some coaches are notoriously paranoid. Some coaches think their guys will get distracted with scouts around in their ears. It depends on how paranoid or insecure the head coach is.”
Gabriel has it boiled down to one central factor.
“Recruiting,” he said. “In today’s world, they gotta try and protect their players. If word gets out that they’re saying negative things about their players — and trust me, a lot of them do — they have to be discreet about it. And that goes back to relationships. You have to have the right relationships.”
The standoff creates the need not only for Woodward and Bernstein-type deep throats within programs, but an almost-comical pursuit of the truth about a certain player. In the recent Ivan Reitman film “Draft Day,” this culminated in the last-second discovery that none of the hot prospect’s teammates attended his birthday party. He had no friends.
Reitman, apparently, was not far off.
“From a personal standpoint, I’ve spent weeks in cities and towns,” Brooks said. “I’ve dressed up [in disguise] and hung out at local taverns trying to catch the player being out and about to see how he acts. I’ve gone to local restaurants and asked bartenders and servers if they’ve seen a guy in there, how was he, how he interacted with the wait staff, What do you know about him? And I don’t think that’s uncommon. If you’re going to invest in a player, you need to know his background, and it’s worth spending a few days in his hometown to get a real assessment of what he is.”
Gabriel — who once worked for a head coach who wanted to know what his players were doing in their downtime and volunteered to enlist his own daughters, who attended some of the same bars and restaurants, in a small espionage network — talks about it with a stunning casualness.
“Any way you can find out about anything, you gotta do it,” he said.
For some scouts, the boilerplate information is enough. Like any industry that touts reporting or research tenacity, there are some who accept the surface-level intel and head out for a beer. And just like in many of these industries, those people do not last long.
“I was looking through some old scouting manuals the other day,” former NFL scout and current head of The Scouting Academy Dan Hatman told me. “If you were to break down what the area scout is responsible for most — for the retention of their jobs or possibility of promotion — one of the things that seemed paramount was having the background and character on a kid in your area cold. Whether the team is drafting them or not.”
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The most widely recognized coach-college connection in recent years has been between Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots and Rutgers University. Belichick’s son, Stephen, played lacrosse for the Scarlet Knights and was a long snapper on the football team in 2011.
In the Belichick era, there have been 11 Rutgers players on the roster — four of them were drafted. Belichick’s confidence in selecting players from Piscataway, New Jersey, is so well known that one prominent agent told me that, after signing a Rutgers player prior to a past draft, he simply said to his new client: “My work here is done. … You’re going to get drafted by the Patriots, win a couple of Super Bowls and figure it out after that.”
The agent, having not had any prior contact with New England about his client before making the claim, ended up being 100 percent correct.
Belichick’s most-utilized talent hotbed, though, has been Florida. He has selected five Gators in the draft since 2007, due in large part to his close ties with former Florida head coach Urban Meyer — another well-known connection throughout the league.
Since 2007, the Bills have drafted the most players from any one school — seven from Florida State — while the Steelers come in second with six from Ohio State. Over this decade span, the Cardinals took five players out of LSU, the Bengals took five players from Georgia, the 49ers selected five players from South Carolina and the Redskins picked five players out of Nebraska. The Tom Coughlin Giants picked three players from Syracuse (Coughlin’s alma mater) and had a rotating cast of Boston College Eagles (Coughlin’s first major head-coaching job). In the least surprising discovery from NFL Media Research, the Eagles selected players out of Oregon most frequently (five).
The Bills did not respond to a request for comment from NFL.com for this story, though it might be safe to draw a connection between their head of personnel, Jim Monos, and his eight seasons as a Southeast area scout for the Saints, when he would have gotten to know the Seminoles’ program quite well. The Steelers, citing a roller-coaster week for their entire staff, could not make general manager Kevin Colbert available, either, though it would not be a stretch to connect their staff’s deep Pittsburgh-area roots with those of Meyer, who was born in Ohio and rolled in similar areas for years, eventually returning to become Ohio State’s coach in 2012.
While some of these connections are obvious, there are preferences that end up becoming significant, too. The Cardinals’ personnel staff, for example, seems to share an affinity with defensive backs coached by now-Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis. Tyrann Mathieu, Patrick Peterson and Brandon Williams all were molded by the highly regarded coach known as “The Chief.”
“You always feel good about [picking] those guys because you’re getting a quality, well-coached, fundamental player. You know the guy you’re getting them from,” Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians told me at the NFL Scouting Combine in March. “You still have to look at talent, though. John’s lucky. He’s coached a lot of talented guys.”
Because of the nomadic nature of modern head coaches, assistants and personnel people, the source network is different than it might have been even 20 years ago, when it wasn’t as common to fire someone after just a few seasons. So while certain teams might draw heavily from one school, it could be one direct link that connects them to several places over the years.
“I wouldn’t say it’s schools as much as people,” Chargers general manager Tom Telesco told me. “The longer relationships you have with certain coaches, the better information you may get. It’s really important for us. The colleges have their jobs to do, but we have our job to do and we’re very respectful of that. Information we get from colleges, that stays in house to help us make decisions and not for public knowledge. We try and hold that trust together. But the longer you’re in this, the more coaches you meet and know for a long time. That does help the process because those are big decisions we make on players.”
The most mind-boggling aspect, given the clandestine reputation the NFL community has gained over the years, is how spread out and different various source networks are.
“We all have contacts at various universities, whether it’s (Titans coach) Mike (Mularkey) and guys he’s coached with or people in my scouting department,” Titans general manager Jon Robinson said to me. “If someone is really helping me out with a particular piece of information about a player, you take everything and you take all the information. You exhaust all the resources possible. You can’t rely solely on that person, though; you have to get a lot of opinions before you make a decision.”
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One of the reasons mock drafts and the entire draft analyst industry garners chuckles from those still inside the business is because of how fruitless the pursuit really is.
Only a few people in each organization are privy to the complete book on a player — and all 32 teams might have different chapters and footnotes on the same person. The Patriots’ director of player personnel, Nick Caserio, said the team only has draftable grades on 50-75 players in this year’s class. The Browns’ personnel head, Andrew Berry, said Cleveland has 175 draftable players. The Cardinals have roughly 120.
“How do you parse through it?” Hatman said. “Who do you trust?”
But beyond that, industry folks laugh because they have an understanding of just how vast the landscape is. At this very moment, one team’s scouts could be congratulating themselves on another year with thousands of evaluations, man hours, travel miles and expensed Jimmy John’s sandwiches between pro days. But somewhere along the line, one of their competitors heard back from the secretary, the academic advisor (another favorite scouting source), the head athletic trainer, the bartender or the valet. One person they might have missed.
What do they know that you don’t?