2023 NFL Draft Scouting Notebook: What is ‘truth’ in scouting?

This week's PFN Scouting Notebook studies how to find the truth in scouting, especially when looking at the 2023 NFL Draft.

The 2023 NFL Draft will be here before we know it as we’re already into Week 3 of the college football season. Pro Football Network’s Scouting Notebook returns with a look behind the truths of scouting, especially when looking at the 2023 NFL Draft.

2023 NFL Draft: Finding the “truth” in scouting

Ian Cummings: We recently had a chance to speak with Shrine Bowl Director of College Scouting Shane Coughlin, learning more about his process as an evaluator. Within that discussion, Coughlin gave a lot of great insight, but one phrase in particular stood out:

“The more times you jot down a new trait or a new observation, we’re getting closer to the truth.”

The entire conversation with Shane and Director Eric Galko was eye-opening, as it always is. But I want to dwell on and expand on the concept of “truth” in scouting — a process that is so often seen as subjective.

Every cycle, you see scores of evaluators come out with different prospect rankings and clashing big boards. It gets to a point where an objective truth in scouting seems very difficult to come by.

So what is this truth? And how does the objective flow into a process that’s widely accepted to be subjective? I think the important focus here — and it’s something that Shane touches on — is not finding answers, but instead asking questions.

As an evaluator, you’re going to have an assortment of traits that you’ll be evaluating at each position. With these traits, there naturally comes questions to answer. For offensive linemen, how is their pad level? How fast are their feet? What about their weight transfers? Maybe for a safety, you want to know how they sink their hips and transition in space. Or for a cornerback, how they track the ball and time their extensions at the catch point.

The combinations are vast in number, but all this is to say: You’ll have a lot of questions to ask for each individual prospect. And every single rep might provide an answer for at least one question. As you increase your sample size and watch more games and more reps, you’ll chip away at your questions until you have no more. This is the point where you have your truth on a prospect.

Obviously, there are going to be ways that you and other evaluators differ on how you synthesize that information. Maybe you think an offensive lineman has enough natural knee bend to fix pad-level issues that consistently show up. Maybe another evaluator worries about his balance and ability to sustain leverage through reps a bit more.

No one is ever going to be on the exact same wavelength, because there are so many different avenues for alternate perceptions and open interpretation, not only in trait identification, but in trait projection to the NFL level as well.

The important thing is that every evaluator has an assortment of questions they ask about prospects, both on and off the field. Once you have the answers to all those questions, that is your composite truth, and that dictates how you rank and evaluate their stock.

In a way, it does feel like a trick question. There might not be a concrete, objective truth on a prospect within a scouting lens, simply because perceptions differ so much. But the tape is a static entity. It doesn’t change no matter who watches it, and if you watch the tape asking the questions you need to, you’ll eventually arrive at a truth that is reasonable, identifiable, and actionable later on in the draft process.

So why is the focus on asking questions instead of finding answers? On the surface, they seem like the same thing. But in my opinion, if your focus is on finding answers, you might rush to find those answers, and you might not ask the right questions or the most comprehensive football questions.

If you’re asked to evaluate a lineman’s pad level, and you’re focused on asking questions, you can ensure that you ask all the questions you need to within that sphere. Because it’s not just about pad level. It’s about how he manages his pad level through reps. It’s about how he aligns his center of gravity. How his pads adjust at contact and on lateral moves.

For every trait, there are dozens of situational intricacies to explore. And I think sticking with a constant “asking questions” mindset frees you up to explore those intricacies to the fullest. On the flip side, if you rush to find answers, your observed truth as an evaluator might not be as pure as it can be.

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