2023 NFL Draft: For Shrine Bowl, prospect background research is paramount

At the Week 4 check, the Shrine Bowl is cruising toward the 2023 NFL Draft. Paramount during this time of year is character evaluation.

The march to the 2023 NFL Draft rolls forward for the Shrine Bowl staff. Here’s the latest conversation between Shrine Bowl Director Eric Galko and Pro Football Network, where the importance of character evaluation and background research is a defining topic. For the Shrine staff, it’s not just about scouting players, but scouting people.

2023 NFL Draft: Bryce Young, Will Levis open a door to prospect preference

Our latest conversation with Galko covered a wide variety of topics, but it felt natural to gravitate to the quarterback position after Week 4’s happenings. Hendon Hooker put on a show against Florida, while Anthony Richardson also flashed more promise. Will Levis and C.J. Stroud had strong outings against their respective teams as did Bryce Young.

It’s easy to be drawn to the QB position, but even more so when that position becomes a headlining topic in the media. Earlier this week, ESPN’s Mel Kiper released his early positional rankings — in which he had Kentucky’s Levis over Young for the QB2 spot behind Stroud.

It’s an interesting question for Galko — whether such an opinion is warranted or reflected in NFL circles — but Galko lives far from the world of draft media.

For Galko and the Shrine staff, it’s not about having takes and backing them up. It’s about building up to succinct conclusions and grades on prospects, using the prerequisite study. Because ultimately, if an evaluator does do the work, it does all come down to preference. That’s one thing Galko emphasizes early.

“I’ve thought for a while that Bryce, C.J., Will, and Anthony Richardson — if he can make the strides we think he can make — things will be okay with all of them,” Galko said. “It’s going to be fun to debate, but I’m not sure we’ll have a grand, obvious answer or hierarchy. There are people in the league who thought that Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Trey Lance could all be good for very different reasons. Situation matters a lot in relation to talent. So I think from that standpoint, I can make an argument for C.J., Bryce, Levis, and others.”

Preference is especially important — Galko says — for NFL teams as well, both from a standpoint of cultural fit and schematic fit. That’s why it’s important to go team by team and see which QBs might accommodate a team’s positional needs more. Because Stroud, Levis, and Young are all different QBs, who can be successful in very different ways. So true to his form as a diagnostic evaluator, Galko sits on the fence when asked about media rankings.

“I think it’s totally okay, by the end of the year, to have a 1a, 1b, 1c at QB, and they’re letter graded by preference.”

Character: An underrated and under-observed factor in media

Talent and schematic fit are two factors that strongly dictate NFL draft tendencies for teams, both for QBs and prospects at other positions. There’s a third factor, however, that is sometimes relatively unattainable to media evaluators, but perhaps the most important — character and background work.

Naturally, Galko pays a great deal of attention to character when evaluating prospects. He’s in a unique situation, with an event to organize for NFL teams and prospects alike. And with experience running that event — an event that works with Shriner’s Hospital to help children in need — the importance of character and background work is always at the front of Galko’s mind.

“I’ve learned in a very serious way that an invitation is not just a piece of paper to be given to players. It’s an opportunity for this player to be something more than what they are for NFL teams. For us too, we’re married to that player forever. They’re on the website, and in the history books. So we do as much homework as we can.”

This is where contact with NFL evaluators and local scouts can be the most beneficial for Galko and the Shrine Bowl staff. There is a mutual desire, within both the NFL and the Shrine staff, to find out as much as they can about available prospects. It’s the job interview portion of the job opportunity, but it sometimes gets glossed over by the play on the field.

“I think a lot of times in scouting, we want to give round grades,” Galko explained. “But if you think about it, these are all HR reps going out there, trying to find good employees. If I can get a superstar employee, great. That’s a first-round pick. If I can find a regular guy who can be in the building, be a good person, add value, and work hard, that’s still a good pick. It helps NFL teams to share that information with us too, because they don’t want to evaluate a player at the Shrine Bowl who won’t play in the NFL or will have a failing medical grade.”

There’s a caveat for Galko and the Shrine Bowl, of course. They’re working on a different timeline than the NFL. The NFL has until late April 2023 to make their selections. The Shrine Bowl essentially has to draft these prospects in October and November. With the time they have, Galko makes sure the Shrine staff uses it as best as they can. A priority for him, in the background check, is exploring positive character. But it goes beyond that.

“There are a lot of small things,” Galko said of positive character. “I like to dive into those more and see what the evidence is. Some players are just special human beings and people. That’s what I like to figure out early on, on the positive side. And not to go negative, but there have been players that we were considering, and we’ve done our homework, and they are no longer, despite being good players, going to be considered for the Shrine Bowl. I take character and background very seriously. We’re going to do our homework.”

2023 NFL Draft
Sep 17, 2022; Knoxville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Volunteers defensive lineman Byron Young (6) rushes around the end during the first half against the Akron Zips at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, it’s never lost on Galko that the Shrine Bowl is dealing with young men, some of whom are still growing and still maturing on varying timelines. For Galko, the character evaluation process is also about discerning who’s grown and who might deserve a chance to prove they’ve done so. He cites Arizona State’s Jack Jones as one example from the 2022 NFL Draft cycle. Jones had a suspension for a team conduct violation on his record, but the Shrine staff did their homework and deemed Jones worthy of an opportunity in Vegas.

Out of the 2023 NFL Draft, Byron Young of Tennessee is another name that comes to mind for Galko. Young, who turns 25 early next year, has had a tumultuous football journey. He was a retail manager before trying out at the JUCO level, and that opportunity led to where he is now — producing for the Tennessee Volunteers. Things didn’t come together for Young right away, but Galko says his journey and progression are signs of his maturity.

“What he’s overcome, what kind of person he is,” Galko said of Young, and what his unique background says about him. “What kind of guy he is off the field.”

But the inverse is just as important for Galko and the Shrine staff. Not just identifying high-character players or players who’ve since matured, but also not making mistakes in the identification process. In Galko’s words, every player who comes to Las Vegas represents not only the Shrine Bowl but also the Shriner’s Hospital for the week that they’re present.

It’s a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of constant cross-checking. It means saying “no” to prospects who have red flags as much as it means saying “yes” to prospects who deserve it. But for the ultimate goal of Galko and the Shrine Bowl staff, all that careful evaluation is worthwhile. Even right down to the minute details. Even if a prospect has good character, do they have the mental makeup to handle adversity?

“You don’t want to punish a player for a short-term issue, short-term injury, short-term question. But it’s really important to know who that player may be.”

Do NFL legacy prospects have an advantage?

As the seasons come and go, more and more NFL draft prospects with NFL parents come into the fold. Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. is one of the best-known legacy prospects on the collegiate circuit — not yet eligible for the draft. In the 2023 NFL Draft cycle, names like Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. and Stanford’s Kyu Blu Kelly sit atop the list.

All told, the ratio of legacy prospects to non-legacy prospects is fairly small. Most NFL draft prospects don’t have an NFL father. For those that do, Galko says it can indeed be a hint as to how quickly players adapt and acclimate to the professional game. For Galko, however, that’s only part of the equation. He brings up an example from the sport of basketball: Steph Curry and Dell Curry.

“I think every evaluator, across all sports, saw the Steph Curry-Dell Curry thing. It’s a great example in assessing character. Why would Steph be successful? He was with his dad. He saw how his dad operated, and [Steph] is a good person. That’s a huge, huge advantage.”

The leap to professional sports is hard, even for prospects who’ve played football their entire lives. Professional football is an entirely different spectacle, and the integration to the professional game comes after an 18-month span that includes the college season, the pre-draft process, the NFL draft, and training camp. You only get a break after the first season.

For young players, it can be a lot. It can be overwhelming. Having family experience helps, but the onus is also on the player to respond to that adversity effectively. Galko says that Dell Curry’s influence on his son Steph was clear, but that Steph also had the intangibles to take that information and run with it.

“That’s what we learned as general evaluators, looking at the Steph Curry situation. He knew exactly how to handle himself as a pro, because he saw it for 10 years watching his dad. It’s hard to think there isn’t a conclusion to draw from that. We care about bloodlines quite a bit. Backgrounds are really important to us, and athletes that have NFL parents, that also check other boxes — high character plus NFL dad — is much more impactful for us than just having an NFL dad.”

At the end of the day, an NFL legacy is a high bar to clear, too. Many more parents come from various degrees of athletic backgrounds. Maybe the father played intramural sports. Maybe the mother played college basketball. Every degree of that background — large or small — can help a young prospect integrate into a higher-level competitive environment.

Shrine staff using Week 4 checkpoint to double-check

With Week 4 now in the rearview mirror, Galko and the Shrine staff are now at a landmark of sorts. With four and half weeks behind us (counting Week 0), Galko says now is the time to re-assess, before surging ahead toward invite season. In their staff meeting this week, Galko says re-assessing was indeed a prime focus.

“Let’s make sure that all players are accounted for,” Galko went down the list. “Checking stats and analytics. I think, this time after four weeks, is a chance for us to take a step back and say ‘Okay, let’s not get lost in the week to week.’ Go back and watch the film. Maybe you didn’t catch that Week 1 or Week 0 game — go back and watch that now. Who’s playing really well? Let’s give those guys a second look so we know them inside and out. Who’s not playing that we’re surprised to hear about? Let’s learn more about that.”

As big as the Shrine Bowl staff is, there’s a ton of ground to cover, and it can be overwhelming no matter the entity. Right now, Galko is relying on his full staff to filter through the class and make sure prospects don’t get lost in the periphery. But this is also what the preseason scouting process is for: To prepare the Shrine staff so they aren’t working from behind at this point.

Galko says, even in the heat of the 2022 season, he likes how the Shrine staff prepared and progressed to this point. Things are moving in the right direction. All that’s left is staying the course.

“We’ll be transparent about where we miss. But so far, we feel good about where our preseason scouting left us. Still a long way to go. We’ve got a couple more weeks before we put things in the mail. We want to make sure we take advantage of those weeks as much as possible.”

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