The Science Of Alchemy: An Honest Look The NFL Scouting Process

We've known for years that made-for-TV scouts like Mel Kiper, Jr. and Todd McShay are completely full of crap. How do we know? "Well... Just look at them!" And as Chris Brown explains at the New York Times, that's often the best way to describe the scouting process, in general.

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"How do we know so-and-so is better than so-and-so?" ... "Well... Look at him!"

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Truth be told, for all the numbers thrown about during the draft process, scouts rely on the "eye test" far more than they'd ever admit. None of this is an exact science. It's alchemy masquerading as chemistry. But this isn't the scouts' fault, really; it's the nature of the game:

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Although football has seen a bit of its own statistics revolution, most of the “new stats” are centered around fantasy football and the enjoyable but ultimately unhelpful attempt to compare players of one era to another. The kind of data that would help a team on draft day — i.e. would definitively show that a team should draft one offensive guard rather than another, to say nothing of why they should pick the right guard over an inside linebacker — is beyond anything we have available, at least right now. Football, despite having plenty of statistics, is in many respects unquantifiable.

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And yet, despite the inane analysis from scouts, year after year, "high first rounders are better than low first rounders, who are in turn better than second rounders, and who are better than third rounders, and so on." So if the scouts are all a bunch of false prophets, how does the scouting community continually get it (mostly) right each year?

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It's a delicate relationship, but one that deserves the nuance afforded by Brown and the Times. It's much easier to call NFL scouts ignorant than explain at once why they're ignorant, why they're necessary, and that, all things considered, they get it right.

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Does that make sense? Well, neither does the NFL Draft.

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