ESPN analyst Matt Williamson is a former NFL scout for the Cleveland Browns. He agreed to talk about a variety of topics in a three-part interview at The Rookie Scouting Portfolio. In Part I, Williamson discusses an emerging NFL offensive trend with personnel and then explains the difference between scouting for a football team and a media conglomerate. In Part II, Williamson tells the story of his ascent to football’s biggest stage despite never playing the game. In this final installment, Williamson discusses his role with the Browns, his transition to ESPN, and the resources he uses to continue learning about the game and its players.
Waldman: What were your responsibilities with the Browns?
Williamson: I was equal parts NFL and college scout. I was in charge of the NFC West. I had to have a grade on every player in the NFC West at all times and be on top of all of the player movement for that position.
Then I had 20-25 schools: Penn State, Maryland, Marshall, West Virginia, Pitt, the New York area. More or less anywhere you could drive six hours from Cleveland. You put a circle around Cleveland – more east than anything – and that’s where I was. Then I was crosschecking on a lot of the other stuff, too. Everyone had their own region.
Waldman: You were there for the 2005 NFL Draft. Were you a part of that process?
Williamson: That’s the year we selected Braylon Edwards. We picked third in the draft. The war room leading up to the draft was amazing. I did speak my mind a little too much, but oh well.
Waldman: Why do you think that?
Williamson: Every GM or head coach is different. Some want more conversation about players in the war room than others. It’s something you have to get a feel for.
But it did surprise me how bashful some guys were. I mean, all of our reports were due well before we sat down to talk about these players so everyone knew what you thought of the player.
Speak your mind. The only way to be great and be able to sleep at night is to say what you think. You do that well on the air.
Waldman: Thanks. Without getting into too much detail, what was the basic scouting system like in Cleveland?
Williamson: It’s a standardized report that is entered into their system They still have them. I’m sure they can access my scouting report on DeMarcus Ware, Shawne Merriman, Pac-Man Jones, and all the guys I went to see.
Waldman: What were some of your favorite parts of the job?
Williamson: Like I said before, the war room leading up to the draft was great. So was game day. The intensity of it and being on the sideline was unbelievable – I really miss that. I also learned a lot from having the chance to drop into position meetings whenever I wanted.
Waldman: How did your time come to an end in Cleveland?
Williamson: Butch Davis got fired and he was who hired me. Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel quickly took over and a lot of the people involved with hiring me were all let go. We were a bad football team.
I was there two days after Kellen Winslow got picked until the day after the Braylon draft. They brought in their own guys. Such is life. I don’t take it personally.
Waldman: How did you wind up at ESPN?
Williamson: When I got let go I collected unemployment for a couple of months, helped my uncle with his contracting company to make some money on the side, and then I started writing articles for Scouts, Inc.
They were looking for guys and I got paid $20 per article. They gave me a ton of work and I liked what I did. I was a grinder. I worked really really hard and they liked what I did so they kept giving me more.
In that fiscal year, Scouts, Inc. was bought out by ESPN-Disney. I signed a five-year deal with them and I’ve been with ESPN-Disney ever since. My role has grown immensely during those five years.
Waldman: How does scouting college prospects differ from your previous work as a college recruiter who evaluated high school players?
Williamson: Recruiting is so much different. You’re looking at 16-year olds and their bodies are going to change immensely. If you get a kid who is 6-5, 240 lbs., he’s a really good athlete, and he’s interested in being a football player, take him.
By the time he’s 20, he’s going to be 290 lbs., eating steaks at your place , and in a real weight program. He’s going to be a something: a three-technique base defensive end, a left tackle, a guard.
You can’t do that when scouting at the pro level. You can’t just look at the kid and say, “he’s big…”
Waldman: Is there a position that you feel is difficult to scout?
Williamson: Of course quarterback, but also specialists. Kickers and punters to me are like impossible. I learned a lot about that when I was with the Browns. When we were recruiting nobody did anything with them except the special teams coach.
If the special teams coach wanted someone then fine, take him. If that player didn’t work out then the coach was held accountable.
With the Browns, you had to go to all of these schools and write up the kicker and the punter. I learned a lot in that process and a lot of it is weather-related, too. If you’re in Cleveland, we don’t want to look at some kid that went to San Diego State.
You’ve got to show me that you can kick in Cleveland, in Pittsburgh, and in Buffalo in the AFC Championship Game. You have to show me some previous history that you’ve been able to do it. My primary job right now is NFL scouting so when it comes to kickers and punters nowadays, I don’t even try.
Waldman: Are there players you really liked coming into the league who haven’t worked out yet but you believe their time will come?
Williamson: There are a lot of players coming out who I was wrong about. I’ve been right more than I’m wrong, but I think every scout can tell you those stories. I can probably come up with 50 players in the league who I liked, I still like, but we just haven’t seen it from them yet.
I think a guy like Lamarr Houston is going to be a terrific football player – one of the best defensive linemen in the league. I think we’ve seen a little of that from him already. I could give you a long list of breakout players for every team that people don’t know about.
Waldman: What’s your advice to people who want to become more educated about the game?
Williamson:There are so many good resources out there now. It’s mostly websites with me. The only thing that I listen to are podcasts. Every time I’m in the van taking the kids to and from school I’m listening to a podcast.
It’s getting better and better and better. There’s a lot of quality there. There’s wonderful sites out there. You can name tons of them and some of them are even fantasy-oriented like you guys.
I think there is a lot to learn by reading, watching, and tweeting and all of the things that weren’t around when I was in the business 10 years ago. But you can’t let it cloud your own judgment either.
Waldman: How do you maintain clarity with all of this available information?
Williamson: Now you have to filter the information, which is now really hard for me because I have become more of a name. People want to reach out to me and show me their new product. I have only so many hours in the day and I need to filter the information I read. Are these people good or not.
And when they are good, you have to remember what you saw on tape and if you disagree with 9 out of 10 people you still have to stand by your view.
Waldman: With so many people covering football – be it the draft, news, or fantasy football – there’s also a lot of redundancy of information.
Williamson: There is a ton of recycled information out there, and frankly I’m not ashamed to say that it happens with all of us. It’s unavoidable at times. Not every idea is going to new and original. But you can’t plagiarize either.
Waldman: Is there someone specific who you respect that people should follow?
Williamson: Greg Cosell is somebody that I look up to in this business.
Waldman: Between studying players, making podcast, writing articles, and following your contemporaries, it doesn’t sound like you’ve slowed down much from your time organized football.
Williamson: I’m an addict. I don’t care about anything else. I don’t know who the vice president is [Author’s Note: If you’re reading this Williamson, let me introduce him to you.]. I’m always reading about football. That’s all I ever do. There is no free time.
When someone asks me how many hours a week I work the answer is really zero. But if I were actually to figure out how many football hours I log per week I have no clue because I do it all the time. If I go on vacation I print out 100 pages of stuff to read.