Secret life of NFL scouts: 'We don’t want a team of exceptions'

Editor’s note: Yahoo Sports reporter Pete Thamel spent nearly a year entrenched with NFL scouts in preparation for the 2018 draft. This is the fifth story of a 10-part series.

Secret life of NFL scouts

Part 1: How the Dolphins’ draft came together
Part 2: How GM, coaches work together in picking players
Part 3: Examining the player and the person
Part 4: What scouts look for at practices
Part 5: ‘We don’t want a team of exceptions’
Part 6: Why ‘workout wonders’ can become draft busts
Part 7: One grunt keeps tabs on all players, schools
Part 8: Memorable ‘Olympic marathon’ debate over Jordy Nelson
Part 9: Why scouts love visiting Nick Saban and Alabama
Part 10: The calm of Miami Dolphins draft night
Breaking down the 8 players Miami drafted

PHILADELPHIA – On the second floor of Del Frisco’s steakhouse, just a few weeks into the preseason, Dolphins executives Mike Tannenbaum and Chris Grier explain why the NFL draft looms as a “chronological continuum.”  

The term comes from the endless variables that can impact what they’ll ultimately decide to do in April 2018 – performance, injuries, free agency, market and need. And just three weeks after the initial scouting meeting at the start of training camp, the Dolphins’ continuum had spun off its axis. For much of the season, it didn’t stop spinning.

In a span of three weeks, the Dolphins had a string of serious injuries that diluted the roster and dimmed many of the expectations they’d built by reaching the playoffs the previous season. The headline injury that haunted Miami came when star quarterback Ryan Tannehill tore his ACL and underwent season-ending surgery. But plenty of others popped up, as six Dolphins missed all of 2017 on the injured reserve. A crucial free-agent pick-up, left guard Ted Larsen, suffered a biceps injury that kept him out until late November. Second-round pick Raekwon McMillan, who’d wowed the team brass early in camp and earned a starting role, was injured on a freak play during punt coverage in the preseason opener. Defensive back Tony Lippett, who’d started 13 games the prior year, tore his Achilles in August.

The Dolphins had high hopes last season for linebacker Raekwon McMillan (52), unfortunately he never saw regular-season action due to a knee injury. (AP)
The Dolphins had high hopes last season for linebacker Raekwon McMillan (52), unfortunately he never saw regular-season action due to a knee injury. (AP)

The Dolphins’ gory 2017 training camp showed glaring needs in the NFL change snap to snap, never mind day to day or month to month. Asking Dolphins scouts and brass about their needs for the 2018 draft before the 2017 season is a bit like trying to plan where an eighth grader will go to college. Sure, there’s some basic ideas and ideals, but ultimately too many variables to do so with any conviction or practicality. While the chaos of the 2017 season played out, Dolphins scouts operated on parallel plane, unaffected by the transactions, injuries and roster tumult.

The Dolphins signed Jay Cutler to replace Tannehill and patched together the secondary, linebacker corps and offensive line the best they could. But the freak nature of the McMillan injury lingered at the table. He was considered the prototype of the Dolphins’ draft machine working at the highest level.

“This was a guy who was everything we believed in on and off the field,” Tannenbaum says. “A total culture fit. There’s nothing in this guy’s background that points to him being injury prone, going back to high school. It’s pristine. And then he gets hurt covering a punt on his first play in pro football …”

His voice trails off and he sighs: “But that’s what we signed up for.”

As they discussed the process that went into picking McMillan, Tannenbaum ordered appetizers. Grier drank a Coke and abstained from nibbling, not wanting to fill up before his ribeye.

Tannenbaum’s love of appetizers is well known throughout NFL circles, as he so adored a spinach dip at the Houston’s near the old New York Jets facility on Long Island that he can still recite the code – C-SPIN – the waitstaff punched in to order it. The oversized plates of calamari and onion rings sum up Tannenbaum’s preferred organizational ethos.

“We created a structure here where it’s always about the best decision, nobody is looking for credit,” he says of the front office and scouting staff. “And it comes down to two traits that they all have, they have a true passion and they’re a selfless and very egoless group.”

Tannenbaum credits Grier for spearheading the McMillan pick, as he’d initially held a lower grade internally – a third-round value – than the 22nd pick of the second round where Miami took him. Ultimately, Grier felt comfortable advocating for him in a higher spot because the Dolphins’ research on his character, scheme fit with his physical prototype and his productive career at Ohio State. Both Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and strength coach Mickey Marotti raved to Grier about McMillan as a player and leader. Grier also credited the area scout, Ron Brockington, for doing the background diligence that made selecting him in the second round an easy choice.

“Chris identified him as a guy who would be a good fit for what we’re trying to do going forward and we were lucky to get him where we got him, and he was the perfect value for us,” Tannenbaum says.

Tannenbaum is a natural as an orchestrator and facilitator. A big reason he agreed to grant Yahoo Sports access for this project was to give his scouts credit and public attention for their work. In an NFL culture where NFL teams keep scouts almost exclusively anonymous, he wanted them recognized. The Dolphins don’t block their front-office members from interviewing for jobs that would be considered promotions, a tactic that’s common in the cutthroat NFL.

“Philosophically we want to promote and develop from within,” Tannenbaum says, “and I believe one of the ways you get the most out of people is when they believe you have their best interest at heart.”

Part of team owner Stephen Ross’ and Tannenbaum’s reasoning for elevating Grier to the general manager job from director of college scouting in 2016 was the confidence that came from their philosophical overlap, which included heavy influences from Bill Parcells.

Miami ‘s Charles Harris is an exception to the Dolphins’ prototype. (AP)
Miami ‘s Charles Harris is an exception to the Dolphins’ prototype. (AP)

The Dolphins examine the positional prototypes each season with head coach Adam Gase and his staff – typically the bigger the better to stave off injury. Linebacker is a good example for the bigger and beefier preferred by the team brass, as the Dolphins outside linebackers include 6-foot-3, 250-pound Chase Allen, 6-foot-3, 240-pound Kiko Alonso, 6-foot-3, 245-pound Stephone Anthony.

“We’re totally aligned in the kind of guy we want, and we both believe in prototyping,” Tannenbaum says. “What it does is keep the ball in the fairway.”

That’s not to say the Dolphins won’t pick a player who is considered an exception to the physical paradigms the franchise sets. Speedy receiver and kick returner Jakeem Grant, for example, is 5-foot-6 and 161 pounds. First-round pick Charles Harris, the Dolphins’ top selection in the 2017 draft, is just 6-foot-2, and perhaps a few inches shorter than the ideal. The prototypes are guides, not laws, but they are typically followed.

“We don’t want a team of exceptions,” Tannenbaum says. “But we know if he is a good player, and they’re three inches shorter, that’s OK but we know we’re going to an exception.”

NFL scouting isn’t done to address a specific need, but it’s best thought of as an initial foray of compiling information into a massive database that’s used by the organization for the next decade. For the nearly 1,500 players the Dolphins don’t draft, the area scout’s initial report becomes the first chapter of their professional story. (The information is transferred to veteran pro personnel guru Anthony Hunt, who tracks moves on the pro side). Later in the summer, more than 1,000 players are cut from the 32 teams as rosters trim to 53 and those initial college reports will be the guide for those players without extensive NFL résumés and film.

The background remains crucial, as five years from now the Dolphins will use area scouts’ on-the-ground notes from trainers, strength coaches and other sources as the first step in evaluating a player’s character in the free agency research process. (Tannenbaum said when researching Alonso for the trade, their first background started with reports from the scouts who wrote about him while in college at Oregon).

So when asking about how Tannehill’s injury impacted draft preparation, the answer is that it really didn’t. That’s not cliché executive speak, but rather instructive to the totality of the scouting process.

“At the end of the day, we have to be prepared for every scenario,” Grier says. “For us, we were going to be looking at all the quarterbacks, just like any other position. We’d have been investigating all those guys no matter what.”

The ultimate cautionary tale of being sure to do all your homework came for the franchise during the 2016 draft. That year, at the NFL scouting combine, Tannenbaum remembers busting Grier’s chops about bringing in star offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil for an interview.

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

“At the time, the Tennessee Titans were on the clock [with the first pick], and everyone knows they want to take Tunsil,” Tannenbaum says.

But the most bizarre night in the history of the draft unfolded with video of Tunsil smoking out of a bong mask going viral, among other oddities.

Tunsil free-falled out of the top 10, which at that point led Tannenbaum to bring in Matt Winston, the area scout who’d worked the most on Tunsil, into the draft room. Winston told the group, which included owner Stephen Ross, that there weren’t any glaring character red flags. The Dolphins drafted Tunsil, which turned out to be a solid pick for the franchise.

“Never in our wildest dreams did we think that was going to happen,” Tannenbaum says. “Chris did an unbelievable job making sure we were prepared.”

Next: Breaking down the 8 players Miami drafted

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