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The Essence Of Scouting

Posted Apr 25, 2011

Evaluators like Boyd make best assessments, but success not guaranteed

Scout Malik Boyd works on player evaluations recently at Cards' headquarters.


Michael Adams isn’t the first player that comes to mind when the Cardinals are brought up. Neither is Brandon Keith.

They are a couple of recent names Malik Boyd will bring up, though, because in his line of work, they are success stories. The Cards’ scout – his duties are as cross-checker for the western half of the country – is part of the underbelly of the upcoming NFL draft, the unseen engine that helps make the whole process work.

Guys like Boyd should be able to sort out players like Larry Fitzgerald, who went third in the draft. It’s finding guys like Adams – an undersized cornerback playing at Louisiana-Lafayette yet has stuck around for four years already – and Keith – a starting offensive tackle after being a seventh-round pick from Northern Iowa – that stick out.

They are “wins” in a business that makes it difficult to really know ahead of time if the right call is being made.

“Scouting, I wouldn’t call it a science,” said Boyd, who came to the Cards in 2005 after working for the Colts. “It’s very subjective. You may have seen two or three of his best days, and I may have seen him at his worst. We’ve got to try and be realistic, give him his best day in court so to speak. What can he bring to the team?”

Even with the vast information gathering, accuracy in scouting and drafting is relative. Cardinals’ top scout and director of player personnel Steve Keim compares the job to golf: A person can get good at golf. But he will never master it.

“All you can do is make your best educated guess when you do this,” NFL Network analyst and former general manager Charley Casserly said. “We all know we are guessing at the end of the day, no matter how much work you’re doing.”

Keim shakes his head at the idea just anyone can be a scout. You have to be a people person as well as have an eye for talent. And you have to understand you are judging the human element.

“Look back at every first round the last 10 years and see all the busts, there is nobody who is not humbled by that,” Keim said.

Boyd got into the job once he wanted to get back into the NFL. He played one season – for the Vikings in 1994 – but didn’t make the Vikings the following year or the Saints the year after that. He got into high school coaching but realized he liked the idea of working on the personnel side of pro football.

Making contact with his former defensive coordinator Tony Dungy, Boyd eventually served a scouting internship with the Vikings and then was hired by the Colts (then coached by Dungy) in 2003. He got to the Cardinals in the summer of 2005 as an area scout and was promoted in 2008.

Boyd jokes he’s been scouting, “from the time you’re playing pickup games in the neighborhood and choosing who you want on your team.” The intensity of the process is the fun part.

“This is a projection,” Boyd said. “Can this guy do it? At what level and to what degree? … That can be stressful. You can’t get too many wrong.”

That’s the rub. Former NFL general manager and NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi theorized that any team hitting on 75 percent of its draft picks is doing an excellent job. That’s not an easy number to sustain. There are so many variables involved in a draft pick.

For a scout, it’s making sure any miss is sorted through. Why did it happen? More importantly, try not to let it happen again. The idea is to have many more Steve Breastons, Tim Hightowers and Daryl Washingtons than Cody Browns or Buster Davises.

“Every player we have missed on here, which I am a part of, when you are part of that miss, you take it personal when it’s a guy you pushed for or are high on that player,” Keim said. “That drives you because it never leaves. The players seven or eight years ago that didn’t pan out, they are still in your stomach and in your memory. But that’s how you grow.”

The scouts gather in Tempe or Flagstaff (during training camp) at various times over the year, from October and December to again in April, May minicamp and August. Keim calls it a close-knit group – there are eight men in all involved in college scouting – bonded not only by the job but the knowledge they essentially live their lives on the road.

By this time of year, most players of note get at least three looks from the scouts, and that doesn’t include the input made from the coaching staff. Next is the draft, when Boyd and his brethren watch their work play out for tangible results. As Keim points out, the team’s fate rides on the scout’s analysis.

“I don’t like to overanalyze,” Boyd said. “I call it tainting the process. You have to believe what you see.”
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