How To Scout NFL Draft Prospects: 5 Steps To Analyze College Players Like A Pro

Last Updated: Apr 26, 2021

Today, I’m bringing you How To Scout NFL Draft Prospects: 5 Steps To Analyze College Players Like A Pro, in which I reveal my methods and a few techniques I use to help me along the way for assessing college football players. Are you interested in scouting college prospects like your favorite media personality? Do you want a better idea of how scouting reports get made in 2021? Well, you’ve come to the right place.

See all of our features at our full 2021 NFL Draft Preview Guide, with Marcus’ 3-round 2021 NFL Mock Draft, player scouting reports, bet tips and more.

First and foremost, the best piece of advice I could give someone who wants to get into scouting is that quality means so much more than quantity. Nobody cares if you watched 500 or 750 prospects. Instead, it’s about getting the evaluation right. Because the truth is, no one cares if you correctly nail the prospect, as that’s what you should be able to do. The only thing readers (or NFL teams) care about is getting the picks wrong.

Scouting, whether it’s at the college or the NFL level, has gotten a tad too complicated and many make it seem harder than what is. So here’s How To Scout NFL Draft Prospects in five steps.

How To Scout NFL Draft Prospects: 5 Steps To Analyze College Players Like A Pro

1. Gather as much information as possible.

The primary goal of a college scout is to be an information collector. Before I even turn on that film, I try to gather as much background information on the player I will scout. it will help reveal their individual story.

For instance, I’ll track down where a prospect played football in high school, which positions did they play, how highly recruited they were, etc. From there, I will reach out to former coaches, teachers, and principals to see how they did in class, what their attendance was like, and their general attitude/demeanor towards other students and staff. Believe it or not, a phone call or two is enough to turn you away from a player.

It’s also important for me to mention that I realize this isn’t always possible for “young” scouts. Connections with coaches, athletic directors, schools are built over time. If needed, this step can be skipped as a lot of information can be found on various websites.

It’s the scout’s job to recognize weaknesses, then determine which are correctable and which aren’t.

From there, it’s time to research everything possible from the college days. Some players will transfer from a smaller school to a bigger one, while others may do the opposite. Some players will play as a freshman. Others will have to wait their turn. Players often have injury histories that needed to be monitored, as well. These details may seem insignificant, but they all help build the bigger picture and eventually help with the overall report. Now that I have all the background information gathered, it’s time to turn on the tape.

2. Where Does A Prospect Win?

So often, young scouts (and veteran scouts, too) make reports too long and wordy.

A scouting report should be simple, easy to read and straight-forward. The first thing I’m looking for when watching a prospect is to see how he “wins" on individual plays and long-term stretches of games and seasons.

Let’s use a defensive end prospect as an example:

  • Does he end prospect win with speed around the edge?
  • Or is he a power player who uses his length and strength to bully offensive tackles?
  • Does he embrace contact or avoid it as much as possible?
  • Is he winning only with effort and hustle, or is he winning quickly from the edge with hand technique/leverage?

From there, it’s time to break down whether that translates to the pros.

Some prospects can get away with poor athleticism in college, but in the NFL, they will be exposed. So if a defensive end is running around the edges against bad offensive tackles and not winning any other way, his skillset might not be all that translatable. Or if a player is only winning with hustle, it might be because he doesn’t have the proper technique or requisite athleticism to create plays on their own.

Another tip that I cannot recommend enough: Watch as much tape/film as possible.

In the NFL, scouts and decision-makers will typically watch 2-3 games before writing up a prospect. That has never made sense to me. If the goal is to get these reports right and avoid misses, why wouldn’t you watch every single snap available?

For me, I want to watch all of the games and in chronological order. That way, it’s easy to see if a player is improving or regressing as the season goes along.

If you watch 8-10 games of a prospect (at least), you will have a great idea of how they win against several different opponents and if that skill is translatable.

How To Scout NFL Draft Prospects: Assess how a player "wins" in matchups and other events, like this 2014 Myles Garrett tackle. He's done pretty well for a pro, right? (Image: USA TODAY Sports)

How To Scout NFL Draft Prospects: Assess how a player “wins" in matchups and other events, like this 2014 Myles Garrett tackle. He’s done pretty well for a pro, right? (Image: USA TODAY Sports)

3. Identify potentially fatal flaws.

Every player in the NFL has a weakness or two, and that’s okay. There is no such thing as the perfect player or prospect.

It’s the scout’s job to recognize weaknesses, then determine which are correctable and which aren’t.

Some players have flaws that are easily correctable with coaching or their flaws are due to a lack of experience. Others have weaknesses in their games that aren’t likely to be corrected and could ultimately keep them from reaching their ceiling in the NFL.

If a player has a fatal flaw that I don’t believe can be corrected, I take him off my board or lower them dramatically into a role that makes sense.

For example, a running back that struggles to catch passes out of the backfield can no longer be considered a potential top-100 selection. But in the right role as part of a rotation, they could have some value on Day 3 if their running style is worthy of that pick.

A good recent example of this concept of a “fatal flaw" is wide receiver Laquon Treadwell from the 2016 NFL Draft.

Despite being one of the most physical receivers to enter the league in several years, he just wasn’t fast enough. Some receivers are able to get away with being “slow," but Treadwell’s combination of a lack of speed and quickness never allowed him to create separation.

Ultimately, it led to the Vikings releasing him after a few years, and he’s bounced around the league since then, never living up to his first-round status.

It’s also important to note that not every player that fails in the NFL has one huge red flag or flaw. Some fail because their strengths aren’t strong enough to warrant playing time. They might be adequate in enough areas, but with no special or elite traits, they don’t have the upside that the front office and coaches desire.

Fatal flaws can be rare, but deciding what is and isn’t fixable can be incredibly valuable.

4. Find scouting data thresholds that hurt a player’s outlook.

Now that I’ve watched the tape and created a tape grade — typically a 0-10 scale — it’s time to use some athletic testing numbers and college production stats to eliminate potential busts.

Testing numbers are extremely important in the scouting world, but they are often misused. Frequently, you’ll see a player run a blazing 40-yard dash and believe that is helping them rise up the draft board.

While that may be the case in some instances, testing numbers shouldn’t be about raising up prospects. Instead, it should be about crossing them off.

This is where I differ from many NFL scouts and media scouts. Thresholds are vital to my process as they help eliminate players from consideration.

Allow me to give you an example. One of the most predictive thresholds out there is a 40-yard dash time for cornerbacks. Running a fast time doesn’t mean a prospect will be a great cornerback in the NFL, but a slow time will almost assuredly mean they won’t be.

Here is a chart of every cornerback who has run a 4.61 40-yard dash or worse at the NFL Combine since 2000. As you will see, there aren’t many hits.

How To Scout NFL Draft Prospects: Consider how significant a player's flaws can be. For instance, the cornerbacks on this list posted slower 40-times, and most failed in the pros. (Image: USA TODAY Sports)

How To Scout NFL Draft Prospects: Consider how significant a player’s flaws can be. For instance, the cornerbacks on this list posted slower 40-times, and most failed in the pros. (Image: USA TODAY Sports)

Of all these cornerbacks, only Josh Norman (4.61), Bashaud Breeland (4.62) and Brandon Browner (4.63) have had any sustained success in the NFL. Others have been productive (Levi Wallace, Terrance Mitchell), but nearly every other cornerback on this list hasn’t panned out in the NFL.

Another way to use thresholds when it comes to scouting is production.

If a player isn’t productive in college, that typically means they won’t be productive in the NFL.

Let’s look at the top 30 wide receivers last season in receiving yards, and you will see that of those 30 players, 26 of those receivers had dominator percentiles (percentage of the passing offense a receiver accounted for in a given college season) at or above 50 percent.

How To Scout NFL Draft Prospects: Consider an offensive player's college role and how often he was the focal point of his team's system. (Image: USA TODAY Sports)

How To Scout NFL Draft Prospects: Consider an offensive player’s college role and how often he was the focal point of his team’s system. (Image: USA TODAY Sports)

The four players who didn’t reach the 50th percentile in college dominator rating (Tyreek Hill, Terry McLaurin, Marvin Jones, Cole Beasley) all fell out of the top 50 picks for one reason or another.

Should you draft players by their college production (in this case, their dominator rating) alone? No, of course not. But this should be used as a filter to help weed out prospects who don’t deserve top-100 consideration.

Allow me to give another example at a different position. One of the most predictive measures for success in the NFL for defensive linemen coming out of college is tackle for a loss statistics. All of the best pass-rushers in the league dominated in college, and that’s not all that surprising.

The magic number that I have for first-round EDGE rushers is 1.4 tackles for loss per game in their best college season. Pick your favorite EDGE rusher from the 2020 season, and you’ll see that they almost all hit that number at some point during their college career.

But again, you shouldn’t be drafting players based on their production alone. Instead, it should be a qualifier. Almost all of the best EDGE rushers in the NFL were productive in college.

However, there are hardly any non-productive college players who turned into stars in the NFL. The only great example of a player who overcame poor college statistics is Danielle Hunter of the Vikings, who tested as a freak athlete. And even then, he was just a third-round pick out of LSU.

I use tackles for a loss paired with an athleticism threshold to eliminate players from first and second-round grades. If a player was productive in college but doesn’t have NFL average athleticism, it’s very unlikely they will “hit" in the NFL.

The opposite is also true. If a player has great athleticism but only average production in college, why should we assume they will suddenly be a better player in the NFL? I will concede I am more willing to gamble on these types of players vs. good production/average athletes, but these are still players that shouldn’t be given top-50 grades.

So to conclude, testing numbers and college production shouldn’t tell you who to draft, but instead, who not to draft. Occasionally, there will be a player or two who slips through the cracks, but 99 percent of the time, you will be right to avoid players that don’t meet your thresholds. Create strict thresholds as it will help you eliminate misses.

5. Summarize the player and his NFL role.

Once I have gathered the background information, studied the film, and applied testing/production thresholds, it’s time to summarize the player.

My summary is often two or three lines, describing how the player wins and what type of role they would thrive in once drafted. If applicable, I will give a player comparison that factors in size/athleticism and role in the NFL.

Here is an example of the final line on my scouting report on CeeDee Lamb from the 2020 NFL Draft:

“CeeDee Lamb checks all of the size, speed, production boxes of a starting wide receiver in the NFL. He wins by having a huge catch radius and is dangerous after the catch with the ball in his hands. He could start as an X receiver in the NFL, but his future might be as a slot receiver who can make plays down the field. He’s not quite as polished as a route runner, but Lamb could have Reggie Wayne-like career in the NFL with his ability to win on the outside and in the slot.”

At the end of the day, a scouting report should be fairly simple. Just tell the readers what a player can and can’t do and how that projects into the NFL. Anything more than that is just noise.

Use Marcus Mosher’s tips on How To Scout NFL Draft prospects when reading our 2021 NFL Draft Guide, which is chock-full of player profiles and more preview content.

Read Marcus’ 2021 NFL Draft Round 1 Mock, too.

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Marcus Mosher

Marcus Mosher is an NFL analyst at The Game Day, residing in Erie, PA. He covers the NFL from a betting and fantasy perspective, producing written and video content. Marcus currently hosts multiple football-related podcasts and is a managing editor at USA Today’s Sports Media Group covering the Las Vegas Raiders. He has previously worked at The Athletic and Bleacher Report.

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