The preseason has now become the new Week 17 of the regular season when your team has clinched a playoff spot and you’re not willing to risk injury of any key players heading into the playoffs. The 2021 season includes a 17th game on the schedule and partially because of that, and the fact that rosters are thinner than ever because of having to release players to get under the salary cap, teams have decided that exposing key players to possible injury isn’t worth the risk.
To that end, when watching a preseason game, we have no idea which teams are good and in particular, which units within teams are coming together, or not. A third unit offensive line vs a starter or two on the defensive front can be futile when trying to project how the regular season might go. Therefore, expectations for all of us, including team decision makers, are somewhat blurry.
Here is what I do know though. Pro scouting departments around the league have never been more important to discovering players from opposing teams. Because teams are holding out starters with more regularity than ever before, the opportunities are there for others to show what they can do. With these playing opportunities comes career altering, live action and resume creating video, for a number of players.
If I were a GM, I’d see this as a golden opportunity to evaluate. The GM and his scouts just might be able to find a fourth offensive tackle or a fifth receiver who can also help an organization out on special teams. I would have all hands-on deck scouring film, even more so than normal, and challenging scouts to earn their keep.
Normally, a team would play most of these guys in 8-10 plays at the end of a preseason game. With starters on the sidelines from the get-go, these players now might get a quarter and a half of evaluative tape. That’s a big thing. The other dynamic in this Covid world is you can’t rely as much on college reports as you have in the past for analyzing these players. Some players, opted out and didn’t play for their college program in 2020. So, our last report will have a 2019 date on it. That shelf life is “a thing”. So is rust for players who have not seen live action in two years. The development of some of these players between Week 1 and Week 3 should be substantial.
As an NFL GM overseeing a scouting department this year, I might double down on exposure by employing an extra set of eyes or two from outside our building, or from the college side (college scouts) of the department. It most certainly could produce dividends.
Most NFL teams consist of a three- or four-person pro scouting department. Increasing the manpower temporarily makes a lot of sense. I would treat this preseason with the same detail and stacking process that is used every year for drafting purposes. Stacking players and their evaluations from preseason in an order that fits the needs and systems of a team should take on added importance this year. Week 3 of the preseason this year will potentially provide as good of an evaluation window as ever before for young, talented, prospects. I would surely identify the opt-outs and track with more detail their plight through the preseason this year.
With a 16-man practice squad being in place again this season, there should be plenty of room for teams to upgrade their own talent provided they are organized and willing to pull the trigger on either a waiver claim or offering an incentive to acquire a player (who clears waivers and is on the street). I think the key for each team is to build a consensus on particular players who may become available within your scouting staff, and I emphasize… throughout the preseason. Confident and competent staff that can identify schemes that fit within a targeted pool of guys who might be available, can actually provide a good boost of talent infusion before the season begins.
You might be shocked to know that some teams don’t aggressively do this. They seem happy with the guys who they have trained in camp and just sit on their hands with no interest in improving the back end of their rosters.
Lots of unknowns exist for team builders, but being true to “the film” is a first step in continuing to get better. The next step is to hope your decision makers have the propensity to actually act on the evidence. Nothing frustrates a scouting staff more than having done all the work, having built a consensus within your scouts, and then having their thoughts presented up the food chain only to have it dismissed for a reason that makes no sense. Maybe it’s because an assistant coach has a “friends and family plan” with regard to who he’d like to have on the practice squad or there is a bias towards keeping a particular player because he was with our team last year. The bottom line that I always liked to adhere to is to never stop the process of improving our roster, even if it’s at spot No. 65.
This is a great opportunity to steal a player or two outside your own building. Let’s see who has the wherewithal to make it happen.