If you thought ESPN analyst Matt Williamson’s path to becoming a paid evaluator of talent was unusual, consider NFL Draft Scout.com senior analyst Chad Reuter. The Wisconsin native learned about the craft of personnel evaluation from a decade of interactions with NFL scouts and general managers. Although he lacks a football background, he managed to transform a hobby into a job because of his tremendous analytical skills, sincere passion for the game, and a veteran scout’s work ethic. In this multi-part conversation, Reuter and I spent a couple of hours discussing a variety of topics related to player evaluation. In this portion of the conversation, Chad and I talk about offensive line play, evaluating technique versus results, and balancing these two behaviors with the craft of projecting a player’s future in the NFL.
Waldman: Are there any positions you enjoy evaluating more than others?
Reuter: I’m an offensive line guy. I love watching the line. I think it is one of the more under-appreciated positions in terms of scouting because it is not just about the physical or mental characteristics of the player. There is also a lot of differences with what coaches want.
Waldman: What are things the average person should appreciate more about line play?
Reuter: I think its hard for me to know what other people don’t know, but I think flexibility is something that is under appreciated a little bit. Often in college football…and that reminds me, a more general thing to talk about later is how evaluating is not just what you’re looking at now, but trying to project what they are going to do.
Back to my original train of thought, I think the speed in which linemen have to react at the next level is something that people don’t take into consideration. Foot quickness and flexibility are very important.
That’s why it always surprises me that certain guys who look very stiff to me really make it. Their success can be attributed partially to arm length or the coaching of techniques that help them take a stronger angle off the snap, but I still think you need to be able to adjust to oncoming defenders.
It sounds simple, but when you’re out there in space you have guys coming from multiple directions. A lineman can’t just run straightforward and hit a guy that they see. They have to be able to have field vision and get a hand on that inside linebacker shooting through the gap to get that running back before the back has a chance to turn the corner.
Waldman: You have to be able to anticipate that.
Reuter: And remember these are 6’6” guys. You’ve got to be able to bend and be flexible enough to get a hand and take a guy out of the play before he goes inside-out on you and takes out the back. That sort of athleticism is really underrated. I think Bill Parcells has been one who places the highest degree of importance on intelligence for offensive linemen. And that’s something that some people don’t necessarily think about either.
Waldman: I learned a lot about offensive linemen just from watching tape with Chad Spann. He broke down the blocking schemes in his match up versus Toledo and you realize how often there is a difference between the design of the play and the execution of the play. Based on the reads of the defense the line has to adjust and the way they have to rely on each other requires great communication and understanding. One guy missing an adjustment can blow up an entire play.
Reuter: Absolutely. One guy doesn’t make the adjustment and it only takes one player on defense with speed to blow up the play. At the same time, a guy can miss an assignment and a defender not take advantage of it – in that case it doesn’t matter. We say how intelligent lineman have to be, but there are a lot of guys who lack that great intelligence yet have the size and they make it anyway. It is very scheme specific. I think generally speaking, flexibility and natural bend are things people really have to pay attention to.
Waldman: Was there a lineman who made it that surprised you?
Reuter: I was really shocked that Marcus McNeill is as good as he is. That dude looked like he had a piece of plywood under his jersey. It didn’t help that he had spinal stenosis, which also raised additional red flags. But he got good coaching, he had quick enough feet, good length. He’s an example why arm length is important in a lot of ways.
Like I said, you have to know when the exceptions come along. A guy like Mark Tauscher who has had a long career for the Packers is one of those guys. Not a great body. Not a great athlete. But the dude just doesn’t get beat. I think there is something to be said for that.
I think that over thinking is one of the worst things you can do as an evaluator. Eventually you have to say that the guy gets the job done. Maybe he’s not a first or second-round pick, but [if I were a team] I’m going to look at this guy in the fourth round. A great example of that was Daniel Kilgore a guard from Appalachian State who was a fourth-round pick for the Niners. Most people had him as a late round pick – we did. When a guy like that doesn’t have the great athleticism, but he doesn’t get beat and he plays with attitude those are the kinds of guys that offensive line coaches love.
An important part of the evaluation process is knowing when to get caught up it the technique of a guy and when to understand that he’s just a good football player. You don’t mess with that if he does what you need him to do for your team. You need to pick him earlier than people think.
Waldman: It sounds to me what you’re saying is that you need to strike a balance between technique and consistent behaviors.
Waldman: I think technique can be a part of what I’d call “consistent behaviors.” At the same time, a player may not have technique but he consistently gets the job done. However, you also have to balance that productivity with projecting him to the NFL.
A good example is a guy like Early Doucet. The jury is still out on him, but I when I looked at him he athletically he projected to the NFL. Behavior-wise, he made catches in traffic and in tight coverage. He also made plays after the catch.
But his technique as a receiver was rooted in body-catching and that’s a lack of technique that leads you to wonder if he’ll every be able to make those types of plays he did at LSU in the pros. Tight coverage in the SEC is still often different than tight coverage in the NFL. As is is the velocity and quality of a quarterback’s arm.
So these are things that create doubt – especially if one factors those three concepts of technique, productivity, and projection.
Reuter: Yes. The way I have always thought of it is technique vs. results. Like you said, you then have to project from there. It’s very difficult also to know if a guy takes coaching. You can ask coaches that he plays for and they’ll tell you, but sometimes those coaches aren’t at the top of their craft.
Projecting the future is a difficult process. A lot of people think that they can do it and not a lot of people are good at it. I’m not sure I would even put myself in that category.
There’s a superficial kind of scouting like I’ve said before. Looking at what a guy does on the field and reporting what a guy does on the field is not the same as scouting. You have to be able to project. Saying he does x, y, and z is one thing, but saying he can do it against grown man is another.
Sometimes the technique may be ugly but you think he’s good enough to get the job done even against grown men in certain situations. Again, that’s a whole other part of the scouting puzzle. Outside of the top 20 players who can fit with any team and pretty much do what you ask them to do, you also have to understand the role he’s going to play in your scheme.
You don’t draft Jacquizz Rodgers to be a guy who carries the ball for you 20 times a game. You draft him to do x,y,and z and he does more than you expect, great. But you have to understand his likely role. It gets very difficult. That’s why we’re wrong more than we’re right and anybody who tells you differently isn’t being realistic.