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 first 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
WEST POINT, Texas – On a chilly October night, somewhere between Houston and Austin on Highway 71, Miami Dolphins national scout Matt Winston feels the steering wheel on his pickup truck begin to shake uncontrollably. He carefully veers the car to the breakdown lane and exits into the darkness, a blanket of stars providing the only dim glimmer of light.
A quick peek reveals a full blowout of the back right tire, leading to a futile attempt to dislodge the spare from beneath the rental four-door Nissan Titan. As Winston lays on the ground beneath the truck to scout his options, a succession of 18-wheelers speed past on their fly routes west, and Winston’s truck shakes correspondingly as each passes by.
Somewhere around 9:45 p.m., after flipping through the vehicle’s manual and attempting every possible angle to crank the spare from beneath the truck, Winston calls a tow truck. The decision offends the sensibilities of his West Texas upbringing, and leads to an idle hour of the sing-song tick-tock of the emergency flashers providing the only soundtrack between passing vehicles. The lights on the flashers intermittently pierce the blackness – disappearing and reappearing in a hypnotic rhythm.
After hanging up with the tow truck driver, who is in no apparent rush to amble over from Bastrop, Winston can only chuckle at this quintessential scouting predicament. He recalls a line made famous by a salty old Dolphins scouting executive named Ron Labadie, who’d greet any sob story from the road with a simple answer: “Scouting is a bitch.”
Welcome to the life of an NFL scout, an existence that’s as anonymous as it is misunderstood. Winston and the nine other members of the Dolphins college scouting staff are the foot soldiers in the annual personnel chess game – the NFL draft – that’s become one of the biggest spectacles in sports and fuels a billion-dollar industry.
As the draft has evolved into a three-day event with multiple prime-time television slots, it has become arguably the second most anticipated date on the American sports calendar behind the Super Bowl. It provides a collision of America’s two biggest sporting obsessions – the NFL and college football – all shrouded with a veil of the unknown and the possible. It also holds a fascinating duality – one of the most scrutinized events is also one of the least understood, as the process to an NFL draft coming together is as unknown as the scouts themselves.
Starting in July, the Miami Dolphins granted Yahoo Sports unique access to their scouting staff for the 2017 season. In the build-up to the 2018 NFL draft, Yahoo Sports sat in on meetings, roamed the sideline with scouts during college practices, attended a college game with executives and spent all three days of the draft in the team facility. This included dinners from Los Angeles to Mobile, Alabama, and, of course, a Wednesday night in October stranded on Highway 71 deep in the heart of Texas. (The tow trucks from Bastrop don’t come quickly, Yahoo Sports learned.)
Along the way, a portrait emerged of a job that’s as consuming as it is thankless. As the Dolphins endured a humbling 6-10 season that saw their quarterback tear his ACL, a star linebacker go AWOL and a viral video of their offensive line coach snorting a white powder during a video love letter to a model, the scouts grinded anonymously to compile volumes of work that may be read by two dozen people.
Stuck in the NFL’s middle class with one playoff appearance the past nine seasons, they’re chasing an ideal that they’re reminded of each time they return to the Dolphin facility and type in the WiFi password — “Perfection1972.”
“It’s such an imperfect process,” says Brandon Shore, the Dolphins’ senior director of football administration, of the scouts. “Their ability to be comfortable with it is fascinating to me. Most people work in a black-and-white world. The sheer volume of work and background and conversations to do it right. It never ends.”
Over the course of the season, the Dolphins’ 10-man college scouting staff will grade 1,504 players, write 3,960 reports and visit 256 colleges from Ohio State to Tarleton State (Stephenville, Texas), Alabama to Dubuque (Iowa). They’ll ultimately interview 532 prospects in person at various pro days, the NFL scouting combine and All-Star games. The scouts, coaches or personnel staff will combine to visit 98 college pro days for on-campus visits and workouts. And, finally, they’ll whittle all that information down to the franchise’s eight picks in the NFL draft.
The winnowing process from 1,504 players to eight draft picks and 12 free agents is so thorough that Dolphins Great Plains area scout Chris Buford wrote 352 reports from his area this year. The Dolphins didn’t pick or sign any of those players, which is actually viewed internally as a compliment to Buford in scout circles for not inflating any grades.
The scouts themselves are a diverse lot. There’s a fired NFL GM who has been pilloried in the New York tabloids. There’s a former equipment manager once tasked with cleaning up the feces of Bevo, the oversized University of Texas mascot. There’s the director of college scouting, who rose to that position from jobs that included intern, light bulb changer and department secretary. All of their information will be organized and input by a 27-year-old former Arena League intern who works in the dark facing seven screens in his windowless office.
After nine months and dozens of interviews, the secret life of scouts looks vastly different than most fans could have envisioned. Much like the blinking emergency flashers on Winston’s truck, each interview, practice and encounter shined light to an unexplored world. The scouts embrace their role — low on glamour, light on sleep and comfort in the inherent imperfection.
“You get paid to write football and tell people your opinions on players,” Winston says as he waits for the tow truck to arrive. “There are long days and short nights and the grind can wear you out. It’s still better than anything else. I could be selling insurance or have some basic 9-to-5 job.
“This is much more interesting.”
With the Dolphins’ picks made and the current draft cycle complete, Yahoo Sports over the next three days will look at the people behind the process.
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