Secret life of NFL scouts: ‘If you get the person wrong, you always get the player wrong’

Editor’s note: Yahoo Sports reporter Pete Thamel spent nearly a year entrenched with NFL scouts in preparation for the 2018 draft. This is the fourth story of a 10-part series.

Secret life of NFL scouts

Part 1: How the Dolphins’ draft came together
Part 2: How GM, coaches work together in picking players
Part 3: Examining the player and the person
Part 4: What scouts look for at practices
Part 5: ‘We don’t want a team of exceptions’
Part 6: Why ‘workout wonders’ can become draft busts
Part 7: One grunt keeps tabs on all players, schools
Part 8: Memorable ‘Olympic marathon’ debate over Jordy Nelson
Part 9: Why scouts love visiting Nick Saban and Alabama
Part 10: The calm of MiamiDolphins draft night
Breaking down the 8 players Miami drafted

PLANTATION, Fla. – When Adam Engroff walks through the Dolphins’ facility, he’ll run into the veteran maintenance guys who remind him of when he used to change light bulbs around the building. Engroff’s first job with the Dolphins came as an intern in May 1999, cataloguing an endless inventory of mundane items like phones, chairs and weights.

Engroff was in his early 20s at the time, not long after he’d graduated from Kansas State. He lived in a 900-square-foot apartment in Pompano Beach and had little plan and fewer options in chasing his dream of working in the NFL.

“I just got married, my wife was expecting, and we had a baby due in three or four months,” he says with a laugh. “And I had no money.”

Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki, going through drills during his pro day in March, checked off all the right boxes for the Miami Dolphins. He was the team’s second-round draft pick last week. (AP)
Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki, going through drills during his pro day in March, checked off all the right boxes for the Miami Dolphins. He was the team’s second-round draft pick last week. (AP)

Nearly two decades later, Engroff is the franchise’s director of college scouting, in charge of evaluating and helping catalogue an entirely different kind of inventory. From changing light bulbs to helping change left guards, Engroff’s chase to evaluate future Dolphins has taken him to 3,778 nights in Marriott hotels. That translates to more than 10 years he has stayed in Marriott properties, good for more than 7 million points. Engroff’s wife, Beth, points out they’ve essentially spent more time apart than together during their 20-year marriage.

In his nearly two decades with the club, Engroff has risen up the ranks from intern to scouting coordinator to area scout for nine years, national scout for four more and, eventually, his current title for the past two seasons. Over those two decades, the job has evolved. With video of players so readily available, the thrust of the task has evolved from evaluating the player to evaluating the person.

“As a younger scout, you’re more concerned with finding the next superstar,” Engroff says. “But you learn if a guy doesn’t have the makeup, the work ethic or the intelligence, it doesn’t matter how talented he is.”

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In 2016, Engroff evaluated more than 450 players, a massive undertaking. As adept as the Dolphins need to be evaluating technique, fit and potential, they also need to become experts on the people. Scouts, at their essence, are reporters as much as they are evaluators, as the word “sources” is used in the Dolphins scouting department as much as it is in the movie “Spotlight.”

They learn players’ family background, their nightlife habits and whether the player is seriously dating someone. Engroff says the most important interview on all of his campus trips is the strength coach, as he gives insight into work ethic, toughness, punctuality and reliability. Scouts also scour the building for anyone else who can offer insight — trainers, managers and assistant coaches all can help the puzzle of the person come together. Engroff even went to the Manhattan Beach Tennis Club this year to speak with UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen’s youth tennis coach to better understand Rosen as a competitor.

“The background has become as important as the report itself,” says Terry Bradway, the Dolphins’ senior scout, whose 37 years of scouting cover both the USFL and the NFL. “It’s important to know if a guy can learn or not.”

The three biggest questions Dolphins scouts must answer about prospects: Do they love football? What’s the player’s work ethic like? How do they learn?

“If you get the person wrong,” says Chris Buford, the Dolphins’ Great Plains area scout, “you always get the player wrong.”

There’s no cheating the process to answer those questions. Engroff’s job running the college scouting department is emblematic of the reality of the scouting life — even when you’ve climbed the food chain, there’s no way to scale back on the hours, travel and output required to be thorough. And the most important answers aren’t readily available on sheets at the scouting combine or scouting tape.

Adam Engroff, the Dolphins’ director of college scouting, knows his way around a Marriott or two. (Photo courtesy of the Miami Dolphins)
Adam Engroff, the Dolphins’ director of college scouting, knows his way around a Marriott or two. (Photo courtesy of the Miami Dolphins)

“The player, no matter how talented he is, if he can’t learn, the coaches don’t trust him and don’t want him on the field,” Engroff says.  

Engroff’s schedule for 2017 is already mapped out in July. On Aug. 12, he’ll be at Iowa, one of 12 different summer camp stops. On Sept. 19 he’ll be at San Jose State, one of 15 school stops that month. On it goes, from Western Michigan to Wyoming, all the way until a Nov. 20 double-dip at Washington State and Idaho. Essentially every day is another stop, another hotel and another late night typing up reports. The schedule is predictable, the results aren’t.

Engroff’s areas of focus are the Dolphins’ areas of need, which heading into the season are essentially every position but wide receiver. His job is to evaluate — in person or on film — every player who the Dolphins have given a sixth-round grade or better.

“I just look everywhere,” he says. “If there is a tackle, we go look at the tackle. We go look at defensive ends. I’m not going to see a small corner or somebody who doesn’t fit our prototype. Or I’m not going to see a short receiver who can’t run but is a good football player and has a good grade.”

Engroff has worked over the years for coaches and executives that include Bill Parcells, Nick Saban and now Adam Gase, quietly earning a reputation as one of the most diligent and understated scouts in the NFL. He won Parcells over by pushing to sign former Hawaii receiver Davone Bess, who ended up as a key contributor and part-time starter for five seasons from 2008-12. He considers Gase the easiest coach he has scouted for, in part because the organization’s vision on what it’s looking for is succinct and aligned.

“Do you have a clear vision of what this guy is going to be?” Engroff says. “If he’s your fifth receiver, he’s got to play special teams. If a wide receiver is talented with tons of upside, but he doesn’t have great work ethic or doesn’t like special teams, there’s no fit for him.”

While the vision is clear, there’s no cheating the process of putting together the full portrait of the player. Engroff’s span of time with the organization has seen losing seasons, playoff seasons, savvy drafts and embarrassing busts, the typical range for a career where imperfection is part of the job description.

The Dolphins are stuck in the NFL’s middle class, as they last won the Super Bowl after the 1973 season and last reached it following the 1984 season. Spending most of the past two decades chasing New England in the AFC East, perfection is limited to the office WiFi password and an annual champagne pop. The road to build back there, as Engroff’s travels have shown, is long and complicated.

Next: What scouts look for at practices

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