Spy for the NFL – Become a Pro Scout!

Mar 27, 2013; Columbia, SC, USA; NFL scouts record notes during the forty yard dash during pro day in Columbia. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

If you can’t make it in the CIA, then consider a career as Pro Scout in the NFL.  You will have plenty of opportunity spy on your opponents.

NFL Extra Points Visa Card recently had an event at the Saints facility that included a chalk talk by one of the Saints Pro Scout–Terry Fontenot.  It was amazing to learn the lengths to which clubs go to recruit and retain the best talent while playing their cards close to the vest.  This dynamic includes the research required to evaluate the present talent on opposing teams; it also includes learning the tendencies of these same players to help the Saints win games.  So, not only are other team’s players evaluated to put valuable intel in the hands of our coaches and players but when players from other teams become available, these scouts are ready to place a grade on the player if a roster spot opens up.

Terry Fontenot’s Saints Bio details his career track, and during his talk he provided other personal details.  His route to the NFL is very typical.

Terry was a four-year letterman at safety for Tulane from 1999-2002.  He served as a captain of the Green Wave in 2001 and was a member of the 2002 Hawaii Bowl Champion team. He graduated with a degree in business and organizational information technology.

Terry started his career with the Saints in 2003 as an intern on the business side of the club in the Marketing and Community Affairs Department.  After this, he worked with the player development program which assists new players with financial issues including entering and exiting the league as well as family issues.   He spent a lot time running errands.  Even though he did not write any player assessments in his first year, he spent a lot of time studying film.

Promoted to his current position in 2006, Fontenot has held multiple positions in the scouting department, including as a pro scouting assistant – where he helped evaluate free agents, track player movement, studied film and aided in the planning for the NFL Draft – and as an assistant in player personnel.

Terry Fontenot enters his ninth season in the club’s player personnel department and seventh as a pro scout. His responsibilities include evaluating and rating current professional players and preparing the club for acquisitions through free agency or the waiver wire as well as assisting in the team’s yearly draft preparations and the detailed weekly advance scouting of upcoming opponents.

In 2012, he was selected by the club to attend the Stanford Business School’s Executive Education NFL-Stanford Program for Managers, an educational program and honor known across the league as an important training ground for promising executives.

As a pro scout, Terry travels constantly to watch players on other teams since he is scouting the pros for talent and tells.  He and his fellow pro scouts are constantly writing up the athletes that will become available in free agency as well as other possible player cuts—basically ready to provide a street board for Sean Payton or Mickey Loomis on who will become available, how talented they are and their possible fit with the Saints.  Players in the NFL are cut everyday, and pro scouts are looking for those who have the most potential and are in the best shape.

During the season, the pro scouts meet with Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis after a game to determine if any Saints player is injured and who is available on the Street Board.  The Street Board is the pro version of the Draft Board. But not only are they scouting for possible acquisitions but they are also going to the games of upcoming opponents for two weeks prior to our game.  For example, they will be at the Arizona games with the Rams and Lions before we play them on September 22.  They are looking for player and formation tendencies.

After these spy expeditions, they will meet with the coaches on Monday to give them the intel.  The coaches then use this information in game planning.  This does not negate the matchup battles a player must win but assists the players and coaches in learning the tells of the opposing players.  Players are not static. They change; they grow; they get injured—but they have tendencies.  Smart players learn their own tendencies and change them or use them to send out false signals.  The Saints are constantly self-scouting to rid themselves of tells or use them wisely.  Again, even if you know what a player will do or what a formation likely entails, you still have to win the match up battles.

Some tendencies scouts notice are:

  • The body language of the QB on pass plays vs run plays
  • Wide receivers who leave the huddle early and don’t tighten up their gloves when they aren’t getting the ball or who ask a lot of questions when they are getting the ball
  • Tight ends who stand narrow when the ball is going to them and settle back into a wide stance when they are ready to block. 

The pro scouts not only share these tidbits with coaches but players also.  On Wednesday morning, they share their scouting reports with the players before the coaches go over the game plan.  These are the little nuggets of scouting gold.  And it is this information as well as personal film study and coaching info that triggers the signals Vilma and Lofton are shouting out as middle linebackers when they see something.  Drew Brees will get information on who is the more aggressive safety likely to bite on play action, who is the most undisciplined corner, which defensive end will run reverses or which nose tackle does not have an anchor.

Not only do the scouts need to know about the first teams but they must be aware of the abilities and tendencies of the 2nd and 3rd team players as well.  For example, they will tell a coach when a 2nd team players comes in–he may be big but he moves slow so the coach will get Junior Galette over there on a match up.  Or the info may be—he is a skill player but not very strong or powerful so Will Smith will step in to bull rush the guy.  The pro scouts have to know the entire roster including practice team players.

The Saints use a color-coded grading system as follows:

  • Blue – Elite
  • Red – Pro Bowl caliber players
  • Yellow – Solid Starters
  • Green – Good Backups
  • Grey – Poor Players
  • Brown – Camp Players

They use the color codes to show the likely starting line up so players can easily see schematically where weaknesses are likely to occur.

The Saints, and in fact all teams, are constantly trying to gather information.  For example, teams read news articles, listen to radio shows, and player interviews to learn more.  They monitor twitter feeds for information.  Recently, when Victor Butler went down, within 3 minutes there were player agents on the phone to the Saints.  The CIA has nothing on the NFL.

There is some overlap with the college scouts.   The pro scouts help to cross check evaluations especially if there are divergent evaluations on the same player.  Teams do not rely on one evaluation to draft a player.  There will be multiple reports on each player drafted.  Pro scouts do have areas of expertise the team relies upon when looking at players at certain positions.  They will also jump in and do college visits as the draft nears.

During the draft, not only is there a draft board for the Saint but there are also draft boards on every other team to see what their needs are.  This is needed to know when to trade up or down.    Additionally, there are free agent signings occurring constantly that affect how a team will draft.  Thus the boards are constantly updated.

Even during the draft the team is positioning itself for those quality players who will go undrafted.  If it is deemed likely a player will be undrafted, the team will have established a relationship with the player so there will be a high likelihood the player will lean toward the Saints.  Sean Payton will get on the phone to talk with these players to help recruit them.  Additionally, the fact the Saints have a history of signing undrafted free agents helps the team attract quality.

After the draft, the college scouts are involved in preseason scouting.  There are 90 players on each team during preseason.  When the cuts come, there may be players that will be brought in from other teams.  The college scouts are evaluating players from other teams during the preseason because of their familiarity.  Recent reports are needed on all of those players who came in from the college ranks.  If there is a player the Saints like who gets cut from another team, the Saints are positioned to bring him in.

Sean Payton tells the players during preseason to not get comfortable because they are not just competing with the Saints players but also the entire league.  Scouts are watching everywhere.  (Perhaps this explains the guy who was giving me the stink eye during mini camp while I was recording my thoughts!)  The players are encouraged to ball out because even if their present team cuts them, another team is scouting them and could bring them in.  Lance Moore and Dave Thomas were brought in this way.  In fact, the Saints learned about Lance Moore’s abilities by listening to local coverage during preseason.

Bringing in as many good players as possible to compete helps coaches evaluate the player since they are playing against other, good players.  It is an effective way to determine the ability of a player.

The Saints are excited about their draft and free agency choices.  The Saints look for players who will handle adversity. They build by acquiring players who are tough, smart, have high character, and are dependable.   They bring these players in and then focus on talent evaluation.  They start with a solid foundation.  This dynamic attracts players who may have been offered more money such as Curtis Lofton and Keenan Lewis but who would rather play for a certain type of organization.   Additionally, the team must be careful to make good decisions that help in the current year and will not place them at a disadvantage in future years.

As for this year, there is a different level of intensity.  Sean Payton is looking at all aspects of the organization for improvement.  Even the dining facilities are being improved.  The Saints are constantly staying ahead of the curve in every possible way and are always looking at new ideas.  For example, they watched how the 49ers weight trained during the Super Bowl while they practiced at the Saints facility to see if there was anything to learn.   There is 36 slogan at the team facility this year to encourage players to attend all of the offseason workouts to be the biggest and best conditioned athletes on the field.  The philosophy for endurance and speed is different from the Eagles’ philosophy but one is in place.  It is a guarded secret.

What about the defense?  The Saints are excited about Rob Ryan.  The players are having a lot of fun working with him.  There is a lot of laughter emanating from his meeting rooms.  The team has been positioning itself to transition to a 3-4 defense for years including the acquisition of players.  Sean Payton has always had difficulty with 3-4 defenses because of the versatility it brings.

The Saints players and coaches are exuding a new level of quiet confidence.  The first six games of the season should tell us if the confidence is warranted.

Topics: New Orleans Saints, NFL, NFL Pro Scout, Terry Fotenot

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