I think it’s accurate to describe Ourlads’ Dan Shonka as one of the ultimate practitioners of football evaluation. Shonka has 39 years of football experience as a player, college recruiter, college coach, and a combined 16 years as a NFL scout for National Scouting Service, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Washington Redskins, and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Last week, Shonka agreed to speak with me about scouting, players, and the NFL. The scheduled 60 minutes became two hours of football talk that flew by. Dan was afraid I got more than I bargained for, but I told him that I got exactly what I wanted – just more than I could have expected.
This segment of our conversation included war room stories about perhaps the greatest linebacker of a generation, a cornerback who had some great battles with Michael Irvin, a disruptive defensive tackle, and a backup running back from the University Texas whose first name is Anthony but went by a more holy moniker. Waldman: One of the former scouts I spoke with recently told me that the better teams tend to have a good balance with what a coach wants, but the GM doesn’t allow the coach run the draft room because they simply haven’t watched enough tape to know the players that always fit their schemes, something which the scouts have seen. However there are some coaches that do get to run the draft room and the results are mixed.
Shonka: And that happens. I used to wonder what they were thinking. The team would bring in a college coach who used to coach a position and now he has say on a player at his position, but he hasn’t seen the whole country. He hasn’t seen all the guys that over the top scouts do.
I talked to [former 49er, Cardinals, and Rams scout] Dave Razzano a couple of weeks ago when his son played at a Cooperstown baseball tournament that my son played at when he was 10 years old. We were talking about that. He mentioned that [Michael Silver article]. He liked [John] Beck too, and that’s three of us who liked Beck. He asked me if I liked him.
Dave was a very good scout. I knew his dad Tony. He came to Philadelphia while I was there as a consultant and I spent a lot of years with Tony. Dave knows players and sees stuff a little more black and white than I do, but that’s okay because you want guys with opinions. But if you’re going to say something about a guy you better know about him – good or bad.
Waldman: Do you have any war room examples on draft day?
Shonka: Here’s a great example: On the day of the draft, you’ve got your board set and you pretty much know the direction that you’re going to go and then you have a coach saying that he needs a receiver. But I always believed that you stick with your board and go with your best players.
Prior to one draft I had been to Florida State and worked out this big defensive tackle. The year before he had actually out-played a first-round draft choice. The guy was Orpheus Roye and I really liked him.
I talked to Orpheus at the Combine and asked him why he played so [poorly] his senior year. He says, “Coach I didn’t tell anybody. but I had a sprained ankle.”
So I called his trainers and asked if his story was true and they said, “Dan he had a high ankle sprain all year and he wasn’t the same guy he was as a junior.”
Anyway we had a receivers coach who really wanted this receiver who I can’t remember by name, but he was also from Florida State. I remember asking in the draft room, “We’re going to take a receiver who can’t catch – and I know he ran a 4.38, I timed him and I know he can run – but we’re going to take him over a 6’5”, 284-lb guy who ran 4.78 in the sixth round?”
Well, they took that receiver and passed on Orpheus Roye who I had as a first-round player as a junior. When he went to the Steelers that season he was on the kick off team! If you listen to your scouts you take Orpheus Roye, you don’t take a receiver who can’t catch.
Waldman: I remember Roye on kick off duty! That was pretty amazing. I know that former scouts like Matt Williamson have told me that watching for a team can be different than watching players without a team in mind.
Shonka: Here’s another good example of what happens when coaches look at tape. They are often looking at something a little bit different than scouts are. They are often looking at players and how they play within their scheme. Well I won’t tell you who the linebacker coach is, but he’s been in the league a long time and we got back from lunch and he said to me, ”Hey Dan, I looked at that linebacker you liked from Miami and I don’t think he can play. I like this guy at Oregon a lot better.”
I said, “I think you and I better go downstairs and watch him because this son of a gun is a really good football player.”
So we go downstairs and another scout is with me and he says, “Dan, he’s a coach now, he can get you fired.”
I said, “I don’t care! If this guy thinks a linebacker named Asher is better than Ray Lewis then I’m going to get fired!”
So anyway, I convinced him that Ray Lewis was better than that linebacker at Oregon. Later in the year, we played Baltimore during the preseason and Ray Lewis made like 15 tackles and that linebacker coach comes over to me and says, “pretty f–ing good, isn’t he?”
I told this coach that he was looking at a specific scheme that this guy can fit. I’m looking at a great football player you can coach and put him anywhere. The thing that comes out of it is that all the coaches I work for – and even now I have coaches calling me that I help out and stack their position reports when they go in for their meeting – is they don’t always know about the guys they should be looking at.
There’s one offensive line coach and his scouting department didn’t even have the guys on their list, but they ended up drafting them and I told him about both guys. He told me, “Dan, I don’t even have both guys on my list!” I told him that he better go look at them. He drafted both of them.
Waldman: I would think that coaches have relationships with other coaches, especially pro and college coaches, and that is factor in players they’re looking at.
Shonka: Dick Vermeil for example. When I was an area scout for the Chiefs Albert Haynesworth was my highest rated guy. I had my area, but I was the defensive line expert in Kansas City that year. And John Bunting the head coach at North Carolina that year had Ryan Sims.
I told the team that Albert Haynesworth is a pain in the rear. The guy is an ornery son of a gun, but nobody can block him. I told them Ryan Sims wasn’t even in the same class.
But because Dick liked Bunting and Bunting played for him at Philadelphia as a linebacker, Vermeil takes Sims. And Sims has been nothing more than a journeyman whereas Albert – and I don’t like him kicking Gurode in the head and all that and the stuff he did in Washington – but he was clearly the better football player.
Waldman: If you had a chance to head up any NFL organization’s talent evaluation program what would you change about the process or the system?
Shonka: I would hire probably some veteran scouts to just do film evaluation and then go to the Senior Bowl and the other All-Star games to “smell the players’ breath” so to speak. Because often times with the real good scouts you’re wasting their ability by driving, waiting in airports and things like that.
If you want to be a smooth-moving machine and get a lot of good opinions on players you’d hire these veteran scouts that have played the game – it doesn’t mean it makes you a great scout, but it helps you because you’ve been around schemes – or you’ve coached. But anybody that has a passion and can’t live without it has a chance to be a good scout. If you really love it, but you have to get somebody to open the door for you too.
That would be the thing that I would do. You’d want the younger guys to go get the height, weight, and speed. You really get that at the Combine and the all-star games. But the big thing I would do is have the experienced guys watch the film.
Still, everybody’s experience is different. You can have five scouts, six scouts, or eight scouts sit in a room and look at the same frickin’ tape and you’re going to get eight different opinions. Three of them might say this guy can play! And you might have five say this guy will never play in the league.
Waldman: It’s one of the reasons I use the process I do. While I have no coaching or playing experience, I worked in an environment where I had to learn how to evaluate performance.
You want people to understand what they are looking at in the context of the expectations that you set. You have to be able to define what “good is.” But with the way football is right now, that’s a challenge to get that intensive about the process itself.
I’m going to send you a post I wrote that presents that exact premise of having several people in the room looking at the same thing and each coming away with a different take. Up to a point I think you can get people on the same page with work, but never completely. If you define enough things clearly then people can get on the same page at least enough that they have a working knowledge of the expectations you have for them. And this creates a better starting point for evaluators to have a discussion.
Shonka: You want different opinions. Some directors want you to change a grade to reflect theirs, but I wouldn’t do that. I’d rather have us look at the report a few years down the line to see who was right.
Differences of opinion happen a lot. I was sitting with a colleague while we were at the University of Texas and I really liked this back up running back. He was a starter in the Sun Bowl and put up 200 yards, but he had an injury earlier in his career.
I was with the Eagles then and it was at that time I wrote up Priest Holmes’ report, which is also in the same section of Ourlads’ with the Kurt Warner report I mentioned earlier. I said to this colleague that he might want to take a look at this running back. I told him that he might not be the starter because of Ricky Williams, but if he looked at this runner’s sophomore tape he’d see that this kid is an outstanding player and although he’s had some injuries he’s a helluva running back.
I told him that he kind of reminds me of Kimble Anders because Kimble Anders was at Kansas City at that time. That guy said to me, “[Priest Holmes] is nothing like Kimble Anders,” and he was exactly right – he was a lot better.
Another time I was sitting with another colleague in Arizona because I was at the University of Arizona the day before and I was watching tape. I generally like to watch tape by myself because I tend to take it a little slower. Some guys go in and I swear they look at three offensive linemen at once.
I can’t do that. I like to take my time, look at these guys, and look at as much tape on them as I can. And if I see something that I really like about a player then I look at even more. Anyway, I was sitting with another colleague and we were the only two in the room and I said take a look at this linebacker.
There’s a great one as a sophomore and that was Lance Briggs. He was super, but there’s a senior linebacker who I think is a really good linebacker. He’s active, competitive, he’s always around the ball and he looked at him for half a tape and he said, “This guy will never play,” and that was Antonio Pierce. I signed Antonio for the Redskins.
I think that’s the thing that’s frustrating because sometimes you have to evaluate the evaluator…
Waldman: And that’s the name of the post I’m sending you…
Shonka: That’s the thing. It’s about doing the work. Eventually those who don’t do the work get fired. You have to do the work and stand up for who you like. When I was with Philadelphia I have another story about a player and this one I stood up for. I absolutely loved this corner out of Notre Dame. Nobody liked him like I liked him. Our secondary coach didn’t even like him…
Waldman: Bobby Taylor?
Shonka: Yeah, it was Bobby Taylor. And what I’m going to tell you is that it was my first or second draft with Philadelphia. Kansas City called and they really wanted this receiver that we had – Victor Bailey – he played at Missouri.
We didn’t want him. He always had pulls and he was always hurt and he was one of those players who was a real good athlete, but not a real good football player. For some odd reason Kansas City wanted the guy.
Well we go through the first round and six corners were taken. So I go over to Emmitt Thomas who was our coordinator and I tell him that my best corner is still out there. Emmitt said, “You know, Bobby’s so tall and he has to really work to bend to make tackles.”
I said, “But Emmitt, the number one thing about this guy is that Bobby is ultra competitive and I’m going to tell you that’s the guy who is going to match up with Michael Irvin. If we’re ever going to beat Dallas we’ve got to have somebody who is going to take care of Michael Irvin.”
So we go over to Ray Rhodes and Emmitt tells Ray that my corner is still there and Kansas City wants to make a trade for Bailey and give us the 50th pick in the draft and we might still be able to get Bobby Taylor.
Ray says, “Let me check with Mr. Lurie,” so he goes and talks with Mr. Lurie and they say go ahead make the deal. We get Bobby Taylor and after Thomas gets through coaching him – a great coach by the way – Taylor makes three Pro Bowls. I tell you what, go back to the stats and he shuts down Michael Irvin nearly every game.
That was the thing, see. A lot of people didn’t realize how competitive Bobby was. It was kind of funny because he would always make these great plays like the Florida State game when FSU was a big favorite. Bobby blocked a punt and ran it in for a touchdown. Some people just have that knack to make the great play at the most opportune time.
The other thing that threw people off with Bobby is that he was very shy, very quiet. But boy was he competitive, holy cow! He averaged 25 points a game in high school basketball. But he was a very shy guy and he was that way in Philadelphia. People didn’t think he’d come up and knock you on your ass in run support, but he was 6’3” and he’s gotta bend. Still, he’d grab you and throw you down. The bottom line was he was making the play.
Tomorrow: Shonka conducts a mini seminar on what techniques can or can’t be learned according to positions on the field.