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Cowboys 2015 Draft: Scouting The Scouts

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Now that we are well into draft season, rabblerousr offers up his annual evaluation of the leading draftniks so that you, the BTB reader, can sift through the plethora of information (and misinformation) currently swirling about the Interwebs, and more clearly comprehend the delicate chaos that is the draft - and, heck, maybe you'll win your office mock draft pool.

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John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Now that draft season is officially upon us, we can look forward to a 60-day saturation bomb of player profiles, game splits, height-weight-speed ratios, 3-cone drill times, and the like. For draftniks like myself, that's the good news. The bad news is that, as the draft has increased in popularity to the point that it's just short of a national holiday, there are more and more (and more!) pundits who are claiming to have access to important draft knowledge. As we crawl closer to April, they begin to speak more loudly, and all at once--until their voices join in a cacophonous uproar.

What's the enterprising draftnik to do in the face of these countless "experts" who merely regurgitate what the majority of media outlets provide? In 2011, asking the same question, I thought it might be useful to subject the seemingly endless litany of draft Napoleons to a little of their own medicine - to grade the graders, so to speak. My purpose was to help BTB readers by rewarding the pundits who offered us useful information so that we could gain the most comprehensive understanding of the draft in the shortest possible time.

With all the voices out there, however, this is easier said than done. In fact, I took a hiatus from what had become an annual tradition last year, because, as with everything pertaining to the draft, the scouting landscape was exploding at an alarming rate, and I felt that I needed more time to understand all the emerging subcultures: the wizened vets; the fresh-faces Internet hotshots, the TV blowhards, the brilliant analytics guys...

Now that I have a better handle on things, I've come up with a new grading rubric. I want my top draftniks to be involuntary pedagogues - to teach me how to scout and evaluate players through the clarity and precision of their work. Therefore, I've rewarded evaluators who:

  • offer detailed scouting reports on each player
  • describe players clearly, while using scouting language
  • rank all the players at each position, not just the guys likely to be drafted on the first two days
  • grade and rank the entire draft class
  • focus on the Cowboys

My thinking in creating this rubric is that micro information is only useful if its placed in a macro context. And, if that context includes information specific to the Cowboys, it can only raise a scout's grade. Additionally, I believe strongly that a successful draft requires a strong third day, so I admire evaluators who are working as diligently on the fourteenth-best outside linebacker as they are on the top-rated wideout. From my top-ranked guys, I want thorough evaluations of some 250-300 prospects so that we have sufficient detail with which to judge the first of Dallas' two seventh-rounders.

Okay, enough blather. Here's Ol' Rabble's 2015 edition of Scouting the Scouts:

Camp Bodies:

Draft Insiders' Digest
NFL Draft Diamonds
Draft Ace
Football's Future
The Football Expert
NFL Draft Site
NFL Draft Geek

This tier consists of sites that function largely as news sources: they gather info, and offer some mocks and/ or player rankings. Draft Diamonds, for example, proclaims, "We are dedicated to the NFL and to provide you with the best NFL Draft News and updates." Seldom do they offer detailed scouting reports, however; these guys can be useful if you want to find some basic information on a specific player, but as soon as they switch from info to analysis, things fade.

Priority Free Agent:

The Huddle Report

The Huddle Report merits its own category, as it stands alone among NFL Draft sites. This is not to say that they trade in privileged information. No, THR's primary claim to fame is their own version of "scouting the scouts"; each year they compare all the various draftnik's "top 100" lists to the players actually taken and grade them accordingly, both by the year and over a five-year period. Sadly, their content is no longer free, which keeps them from getting a draftable grade in my book.

Seventh round:

Great Blue North Draft Report
NE Patriots Draft
Walter Football

These draftable prospects tend to offer more scouting evaluations that the above group; however, their prospect profiles tend to be cursory when compared to those of the higher-ranked pundits. Because they're not grading an entire draft, they don't make distinctions between players who might be clustered together in a similar grade range - and remember, contextualizing information is one of the key points on my grading rubric. I have found that the most useful of the three is Walter Football, run by a good bloke, Walter Cherepinsky. There, you'll find a LOT of information: mock drafts, player prospect rankings, general draft information, a nice mock draft database, power rankings and more.

Sixth Round:

Charles Davis (NFL.com)
Bucky Brooks (NFL.com)
Daniel Jeremiah (NFL.com)
Todd McShay (ESPN)

This round is reserved for talking heads who may or may not be good scouts (heck, Daniel Jeremiah was a scout for the Ravens); they are clustered together here because they talk extensively about the draft and team needs, and offer useful mock draft exercises, but don't compile scouting reports or top-to-bottom positional rankings. Nor do they tend to go very deep; most of the information in which they trade concerns players who are likely to be first or second day picks. And remember, I want more than a sentence on the Cowboys' future seventh-rounder.

Fifth Round:

Mel Kiper (ESPN)
Gil Brandt (NFL.com)
Dan Kadar (Mocking the Draft)
Greg Gabriel (NFP)
Matt Miller (Bleacher Report)

These cats distinguish themselves from the previous group by the amount and quality of useful information they provide. All five men are knowledgeable football guys who talk or write about the draft intelligently, and have the ability to assess a prospect with varying degrees of accuracy (like you, I'll take Brandt over Kiper any day and twice on Sunday). However, while we can get good information on a given prospect from these gents, they offer only a limited number of scouting reports and don't generate comprehensive positional rankings and/ or complete draft boards. As a result, each is like a tasty plate of food that leaves me wanting more.

Fourth Round:

MockDraftable
Draft Breakdown
Fanspeak

At the top of day three, we have a troika of sites that help us to be better amateur scouts. MockDraftable offers a lot of nifty data, complete with a very cool "spider graph" visualization of each prospect's measurable percentiles. Go to Draft Breakdown to watch game tape on a vast array of prospects, and stay for the great articles. Fanspeak offers a realistic mock draft simulator; play it enough times and the draft's patterns begin to emerge (for example, a defensive tackle that fits the Cowboys' position profile will almost surely have to be drafted in round three). Spend time with all three and you'll find yourself well equipped come NFL Christmas draft day.

Late Third Round:

Russ Lande (GM Junior)
Nolan Nawrocki

Filling out the late third round are a couple of lions who have lost a few teeth. Lande worked for the Rams and Browns, then for The Sporting News and the National Football Post, and is now the College Scouting Director for the Montreal Alouettes. Nawrocki learned at the feet of the great Joel Buschbaum before taking over as the draft writer for the now-defunct Pro Football Weekly. Last season, he authored the draft profiles at NFL.com; now, he's an independent contractor. One of the reasons both men have bumped around so much is that neither one's evaluations are particularly sound. I find that their grades often differ radically with those of NFL teams much more than those of the guys ahead of them on this list - and not in a good way.

Third Round:

Scott Wright (Draft Countdown.com)
Scott Bischoff (New Era Scouting)
Rob Rang (CBSSports.com/ NFLDraftScout.com)

This tier is comprised of individuals who operate as pro scouts, offering detailed prospect profiles, often of almost every draftable prospect, complete positions rankings and a comprehensive big board. Most have been at the game for a while now: Wright has been scouting and evaluating players for almost twenty years; Rang has over a decade of player evaluation under his belt. Like the pros, the men on this list spends hours evaluating tape and grading players. In a sense, each runs a one-man war room. Which, as you'll soon see, is why they're not ranked higher.

Late Second-Early Third Round:

Lance Zierlein (NFL.com)
Josh Norris (Rotoworld)
Matt Waldman (RSP.com)

Another tier made up of scouts who generate detailed prospect profiles, positional rankings and the like. What distinguishes them from the late third rounders is the quality of their assessments, and the uniqueness of their point of view. To my mind, all three men represent a new wave in scouting, dominated by a desire to find new evaluative methodologies and ways of knowing and understanding prospects. Indeed, Norris' "Process the Process" podcast (available on iTunes; both Zierlein and Waldman have been guests) is a must-listen for anyone interested in introspective scouting. Wait, am I "scouting the scouts that self scout...?"

Second Round:

DRAFTTEK
Optimum Scouting
ESPN/ Scouts, Inc.
Ourlads

The fat middle of the second round sees us move from the individual to the collective: groups of scouts that operate more or less as an NFL scouting department. When developing something as complex as position rankings or a draft board with as many as with 300 players' names, its critical to have multiple voices to eliminate blind spots and bias. On our recent Combine review podcast, Optimum Scouting's Alex Brown, who covers the Big 12 and SEC, told us that he most enjoys the time when he gets together with his fellow area scouts to discuss (and to argue over) players they have seen. This necessary give-and-take can elevate the quality and accuracy of evaluations made by multiple scouts over those made by a single scout. And that's why I give these services a higher grade...

Late First-Early Second Round:

Bryan Broaddus
John Owning (Bleacher Report)
Marcus Mosher (All 22 Breakdown)

At first glance it might seem a bit odd to lump Broaddus, a former NFL scout, in with two relative newcomers at the "bend" - that liminal space between the first and second round - but on closer inspection you'll soon realize that all three fulfill the same function vis a vis my rubric. In many respect, this group belongs in the fifth round, since none of them offers comprehensive draft boards or detailed profiles for 300+ prospects. But what they all do is to concentrate on Cowboys-centric questions, focusing their respective microscopes on players at Dallas' positions of need, or collegians who fit the team's position profile requirements. And, since all we really care about is the Cowboys, that's good enough to get picked late on day one or early on day two.

First Round:

Mike Mayock (NFL Network)
Tony Pauline (TFY Draft Insider)

Two very different prospects here. Mayock, the household name, vs. Pauline, who won top honors in the 2013 version of this post. Mayock joins the NFL Network's other talking heads, but I respond positively to his game, thanks to his passion for scouting and the keenness of his insight - as do other football nerds, I'd imagine. Pauline uses league connections developed over the years to compile and distribute valuable real information; as a result, I pay extra special attention to his player rankings and list of top players. I expect both men to come off the board anytime after pick 10...

Blue-chipper:

Dane Brugler (CBSSports.com/ NFLDraftScout.com)

In 2013, Pauline was my surprise winner. This time around, he's unseated by Brugler, who consistently provides deep insight in what I find to be the most comprehensive - and outside the group-think box - player rankings available anywhere outside of an actual NFL war room. I'll give you two examples from his 2014 Draft Guide: he was perhaps the only scout who accurately assessed Anthony Hitchens (granted, he had him as a 6th rounder) and was the only one, anywhere, who had a scouting report on Davon Coleman (who he had as his 19th-ranked DT, right ahead of Ken Bishop).

Moreover, Brugler has been a regular guest on the Draft Show at The Mothership the last two years, and I've noticed that his evaluations tend to have just a touch of Cowboys-centrism to them; the way he sees players tends to cohere with that of Dallas' scouts just ever so slightly. A man who offers the deepest, most comprehensive analysis anywhere, with a Cowboys twist? That's what I call a blue-chipper, lads.

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How should you use the info these guys generate? Here's what I do: as I amass information on draftable college players, I use our second and third-round NFL scouting types as sources to build my knowledge base, and employ the first rounders to establish my conception of how players should be graded and where they should be slotted. Come draft weekend, I watch the draft on the NFL Network, so I can listen to Mayock (and tune out the Cowboy-hating Chris Berman and the blowhard Kiper), alternating between ESPN/ Scouts Inc., CBSSports and The Mothership's live war room feed on my computer, with Ourlad's print guide by my side.

That works for me; you've got to find whatever way is best for you. Developing a system is half the fun.

Happy Draft Season, everyone!