With the 2009 NFL Draft this weekend, some of the Tennessee Titans top personnel evaluators took time out of their busy week to discuss their craft in a roundtable setting for The City Paper.
The informal discussion touched on a number of topics going back a few years, from working with coaches, the surprise success of Cortland Finnegan, even the pre-draft evaluation of Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones.
Those sitting around the table were 80-year-old C.O. Brocato, a 35-year veteran with the Titans, who serves as national supervisor of scouting; scouting coordinator Blake Beddingfield; East Region director of college scouting, Mike Ackerley; and veteran team scout, Cole Proctor.
The City Paper: You evaluate hundreds of players each year and you’ve evaluated thousands over your careers. Is there one attribute you look for that says, ‘This guy has a chance’ or on the other hand one that will immediately move you away from a player?
Ackerley: I think, first off, we all start with height, weight and speed. That’s where it starts. The first thing you look at, you want to see if he has the ‘measureables.’ If he’s got [them], then you go from there and you talk to the coaches. If the coaches recommended the guy or if our Combine recommends the guy, then you’ve got to follow-up and evaluate him. But it’s all going to start with the measureables. Maybe C.O. feels differently or Blake, but to me …
Proctor: I think you have to have those common denominators, but still you have to have that production. If a guy can do all those things and have all those measurables, and all those things and be a good guy, but does he produce? If he doesn’t produce in college, what makes you think he’s [going to in the NFL], unless he’s a receiver and they’ve got a terrible quarterback, and they’re running the wishbone, and he’s just running guys off. But if he’s got a quarterback and he’s a receiver or he’s got an offensive line, and he’s a running back, if he doesn’t produce, then he’s just a guy.
Beddingfield: I don’t care what business it is. You’re going to look at the track record, like he’s saying, the production. What is he bringing to the table, whether it’s a CEO you’re hiring, a manager of a store, a football player. What has he done? I think track record is very important.
CP: Do you ever get surprised by somebody, maybe a guy comes in here that you don’t think can play and he surprises you and makes the team and doing things you never thought he was capable of?
Proctor: I don’t think so, because we wouldn’t bring him in here if we didn’t think he could make the team. I think back maybe 15, 20 or 30 years ago, you’d bring in guys as camp fillers. We don’t do that anymore, because so many guys are retained in the off-season for the OTAs (organized team activities), we don’t bring in but eight or 10. We used to bring in 20, 25 or 30 free agents. Now we bring in 10, 11 or 12, and why bring a guy in if he’s not going to upgrade your roster in some way or have a chance to make the team.
Brocato: If you’re bringing in eight or 10, you’d better bring in somebody that’s going to help your roster. But still the problem with that is, it’s been cut down to where you can only bring 80 guys to camp — whereas before, we used to bring 120 guys to camp and you could pick up anything off the street. Now, you may luck up and find somebody like that. I remember one time, the strike was going on, and we signed a guy who was a fireman. And he came in and made our football team. (Laughter)
TCP: Do you remember his name?
Brocato: No, I don’t. I don’t remember his name, but he made our football team, and he wouldn’t have made it if the veterans would’ve been there. But he made our team, and once you make the team, it’s hard to get rid of those guys.
Beddingfield: I think the last player that we brought in that really didn’t have the track record or production in college that actually made it in the NFL was Drew Bennett. And that’s where scouting comes into play. Cole was the West Coast scout at that time, and he saw different attributes.
Proctor: He caught eight balls. He was a former quarterback, but he couldn’t beat out the guys in front of him. But in practice, he’s running around out there, catching the football and everything. He’s goes in and wins a slam dunk contest (laughs) — a white guy at UCLA. And then he runs in the L.A. Marathon and all that kind of stuff. We went back and worked him out, and he runs in the low 4.5s, so golly, why not take a chance?
TCP: You guys were the only team to offer him a deal, right?
Beddingfield: Yes, we were the only team that offered him a chance to compete.
TCP: Cole, tell how you found Cortland Finnegan.
Proctor: First of all, he was playing safety, and that turned a lot of people off, because automatically they thought, if he was good enough and fast enough and nifty enough, he’d play corner and not safety.
Ackerley: Plus, he didn’t have the size for safety.
Proctor: Right, he didn’t have the size. He was the best athlete they had on defense [at Samford]. Why put him over here [on one side]. A wide receiver runs [to the other side] and he’s got a perfect block every time, and he’s out of the game. Put him in the middle of the field where he has a chance to play both sides and make more plays. And they did that. I went [to Samford] and watched one half [of a game] his junior year, and I just saw a guy flying around making plays.
So I followed it up. He played against San Diego State and some other big team his junior year, and he had no trouble, no problem making the plays. I went down there and worked him out. The guy ran a 4.3-something, and he’s such a competitor and a great kid. I know even right down to the end, they said, “He plays safety.” So I explained the story to [then general manager] Floyd [Reese], and he was there in the seventh round, and we were looking for a guy, and Floyd asked me, and I said, “Yeah.” And he could return, too. So we pulled the trigger and got lucky and got a guy.
Ackerley: And made a lot of people mad because a lot of those teams he was talking about, they wanted to sign him as a free agent. Because every time you see those guys, they remind you, “We were going to sign him as a free agent.” Well, because of Cole, we were the ones that stepped up and drafted him in the seventh round. A lot of times you want to do that, because you don’t want to get in a bidding war for a player. If you draft them, they’re locked in. Fortunately, on our part, it paid off pretty good.
Brocato: If we’d tried to sign him as a free agent, we probably wouldn’t have signed him, because we wouldn’t have given him enough money.
Beddingfield: Sometimes the free agent makes more than the seventh-round draft choice, money-wise.
TCP: When you watch and evaluate players, I’m sure there are times you go to bat for a player you really like. Do you take it personally when that player doesn’t fulfill expectations?
Ackerley: From my point of view, most of our scouts are ex-coaches, or they’ve been in football a long time, and they’re all competitive. If you go to bat for a guy, then you want that guy to do well. And when that guy doesn’t do well, at least I feel like, “Man, where did I screw up? I screwed up because this kid’s not doing well, and I saw something and it’s not there. So where did I make my mistake? I think you’re always going to feel a little bit down when a guy you feel that strongly about doesn’t make it.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a first-rounder or a free agent. It doesn’t matter, because you have the same problems with first-rounders. Look at first-rounders that wash out every year, and if you’re one of the guys that graded him real high and gave him that first-round grade and vouched for him in the room and in your draft meetings, and he comes in and your not what you thought he was going to be, you’re always going to be disappointed.
Proctor: That’s not what you told me last year. You told me it was the coaches’ fault. (Laughter).
Beddingfield: There’re a number of different factors. Maybe he just doesn’t fit the system we brought him into. Maybe he had an injury that really derailed his career. There are so many factors that come into play on that. But it is disappointing.
Brocato: That’s what hurts more than anything. When you put your name on the line, and you watch the guy in his years of playing in college, and he comes here, and it just changes. He doesn’t do anything, and then you’re mad at yourself more than anything. At least I am.
Ackerley: I think that a lot of teams that have success or are pretty stable year after year after year, they have a good relationship between their coaches and their personnel people. Their personnel people know what they want to run their system, and if you’ve got that, if your scouts understand that, then you increase the chances of you getting the kind of guys that can come in and make your football team. It’s when you veer off from that and say, “Well, this guy can do this, or he really doesn’t fit this,” that’s when you start running into problems.
Sure, we’ve had a couple of down years, but we always come right back. One of the reasons is that Jeff [Fisher] has always fostered a good relationship and good communication between the coaching staff and the scouts. And as a result, I think we do as good a job as anybody of recognizing the guys that fit what we do.
TCP: What does it take for you guys to completely red flag somebody or is there a spot where the risk is worth the reward. Obviously, the current name out there is Percy Harvin. How are those factors weighed in?
Beddingfield: I think that’s more up to the head coach and the general manager really. It’s ultimately their decisions to maybe take a player off the board completely and just eliminate him. As scouts we try to find out on the information possible on a kid, and does he have a long history of problems off the field. It goes back to that track record. If he has a long history of it, he’s probably going to be a risk.
Proctor: You’ve got to grade the talent. We’re not doctors. We’re not at the top of the chain. Give him the grade as you see him and then let the powers that be say, “No, we don’t want to touch that guy because of this.” Now, we’ll tell all that stuff. We’ll give our opinions like, “I like this guy in the first round, but I’d have a hard time bringing him in.”
TCP: I hate to bring the name up, but ‘Pacman’ Jones — obviously the right pick in 2005 talent-wise, but the character issues came into play, some of which were not known at the time.
Beddingfield: No question.
Ackerley: As scouts, you rely on the information you get from the people you’re getting it from. And if for whatever reason, you don’t get the straight scoop, regardless of how many times we go in there and how many times we talk to them, if these people don’t shoot straight with you, then you’re going to have a tough time.
That was some of Pacman, too. …From my point of view and the information I got, he was an OK guy. He was a live wire and all that kind of stuff. We knew that, but he wasn't the guy that was causing all the problems that he ultimately ended up causing. And kids change, too. You put a couple of dollars in a kid’s pocket… more than a couple dollars; you put a lot of money in a guy’s pocket — and that changes a guy.
TCP: How animated is it in the ‘war room’ on draft weekend?
Ackerley: In my opinion, if it’s animated on the weekend, then you haven’t done your job beforehand.
Proctor: It’s quiet. But it’s all done. We’ve done all this. We’ve done all this since the pre-draft meetings and the Combine and all-star games and all that stuff. It’s quiet. There’s not much going on in there.
Beddingfield: We’ve spent the last nine months studying for the test, and the test is coming up on Saturday and Sunday.
TCP: In all your time here, what’s the biggest ruckus you’ve ever seen raised in the room? Can you tell us?
TCP: I’m sure you’ve already survived whoever it was that was involved.
Brocato: I know he’s not here.
TCP: How is Mike Reinfeldt’s draft system different than Reese’s was?
Beddingfield: I think it’s very similar. It’s the same scouts and the same process.
Ackerley: It’s one of those deals where if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Brocato: I think the big thing with Mike was that when he came, everything looked OK to him, so he wasn’t going to change everything up just because ‘I’m the new general manager.’ Some guys will do that, and say, “I’m the big man, and we’re going to do this this way and that way.” But Mike was sharp enough and smart enough to know just to let it swing.
TCP: You’re in a position where you don’t necessarily need to find an immediate starter from this draft. How good a spot is that to be in, given that many say this isn’t a strong impact draft?
Beddingfield: I think the best drafts are when you can pick the best player available and let them grow into the system. Them not having to be an immediate starter, that’s very important, and that’s kind of where we’re at right now.
Proctor: The worst thing you can do in the draft is reach. If you’re in the second round, and you’re taking a bottom-of-the-third or fourth-round guy, that’s reaching.
Check out Terry McCormick's NFL Draft coverage.