John Lynch in his final pre-draft presser of 2018 came well prepared, as the GM took it upon himself to share some fascinating insight into the less-talked about dynamic that is scouting — and more particularly, how his San Francisco 49ers are built through a very collaborative process.
It’s something worth checking out, as by nature, it's a very closed-door process, and details are either scarce or offered up for the wrong reasons. But Lynch saw no harm in drawing a roadmap for the media, detailing his scouts' year-round process, where exactly the coaches come in, and how it all culminates for the 49ers on draft day.
The GM even offered up internal jargon used by the team, spoke on the roles of front office personnel, lent insight into the cross-functional nature between the staff and scouts, and really provided a great illustration of this strenuous filtering process that begins with the scouts and ends in a 1-on-1 with Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan.
Here is Lynch's scouting reveal broken down into nine phases — identified by the months he specified — while tying a knot on it, so you can see how the process loops and is really never-ending. So, please forgive the Tarantino-like timeline.
March-April: ‘The ABC’s’
“Starts really, like last March and April is when our scouts are out on the road, gathering the prospects and start gathering the initial lists. We call them the ‘ABC’s, but it’s a very preliminary list of where we ultimately are going to end up.”
For the scouts, they're mostly removed from the occurring draft. This time is essentially dedicated to prospect identification and unearthing early fits for the 49ers the following season.
May: ‘Summer Manual’
“Move on into May, and you get what we call internally, our ‘summer manual;’ basically the reports they put together in March and April.
“The NFS meetings are down in Florida. Josh Williams, one of our scouts, (Senior Personnel Executive) Martin Mayhew, Ethan Waugh, our college scouting director at those. Another look at all the players in a broad scope. And the evaluations really start in earnest.”
The NFS meetings Lynch is referring to are done by National Football Scouting Inc., which puts on the combine in Indianapolis each year. They hold the keys to a lot of information on prospects, of which they are in charge of inviting to the combine. You can read more about it in Robert Klemko's Q&A with president Jeff Foster at MMQB.
In essence, Lynch's team being on the ground there is again part of the early phases of data collection and prospect identification that perhaps contributes to the creation of their "summer manual."
July-September: Collaboration, Training Camp
“Then we come out for training camp. And all of our scouts are here, and they help us evaluate our own roster, including our draft choices.
"We used it as an opportunity since it’s still a new regime — we implemented a new grading scale and got the scouts on board with that. And really worked hard with our coaches to fine-tune the position-specific traits. What we’re looking for at each position.
"Kyle and his coaching staff have been incredible in terms of allowing our scouts in their meetings, so during training camp (National Scout) Justin Chabot, who cross checks the O-line, is in with John Benton and the offensive line. So he can hear how they’re coached, how they’re talked to, the type of things they’re looking for at each position.
So that’s incredibly valuable.”
This was a really interesting bit of information that speaks to the communication and clarity among everyone involved in operations. Coaches know better than anyone how exactly the system values traits like strength, agility, etcetera, and what they can afford to skimp on. This is how a player like Trent Taylor comes in and thrives as a fifth-rounder.
Despite being drastically undersized at 5-foot-8, the receiver had peak traits in areas that would him effective in this offense.
Coaches also need to be able to work with players' personalities, and in certain cases, know if they have the type of coach to take on a "difficult" but high-ceiling player. The human dynamic matters because coaches need to be able to connect with players to develop their talent. Scouts knowing the coaches on a more personal level will help them identify players that can excel in their position group.
August-November: In-Season Scouting
"Now here’s what you think of a scout, I’ll get you through Thanksgiving. They’re on the road, they’re grinding, they’re driving, they’re gone over 20 days a (month).. They’re out, and they’re really grinding. They’re putting in the work visiting various schools, talking to trainers, talking to the counselor who helps the athletes with their classes, talking to coaches, pro liaisons at the various schools."
This is the gritty and frankly harsh reality of college scouting Lynch is outlining here. Life on the road away from family; the non-stop attendance of college games (many of which are unglamorous); conversations with everyone at the schools before and after; and just the general head-down information vacuums these scouts become.
It's really a thankless job, but this data-collection period is critical to the 49ers' year-of draft.
December: HQ for Preliminary Draft Meetings
“In December, we come back here to 4949 and we have our preliminary draft meetings. This is really a focus on character. We’re not yet there on the players in terms of their play, in terms of the final report. These are really any alerts we have in terms of the character of the players. Scouts are here, coaches come up for some of it. Kyle is in on all of it. Some of the various coordinators come up, and whatnot."
This was another intriguing turn in Lynch's presentation. Character issues are not just something the team talks about on a per-prospect basis, but there is an entire month dedicated to it before they even begin ranking players. This does make sense, though, and would indicate that as early as December is when they begin to remove flagged players from consideration and not burn time on further evaluation.
We also know prospects with hazy backgrounds and somewhat alarming pre-draft processes can make it through this gauntlet, as we saw with Reuben Foster and Joe Williams in 2017. If the talent stands out to them, exceptions have been made, even as early as the first round.
January: Pre-Draft Scouting, Rank/Grade Meetings
“In January, we hit the road. The evaluations are ongoing. The All-Star games, the Shrine Game, the NFLPA game, the Senior Bowl down in Mobile, we’re out and about there. And then we have meetings here (in Santa Clara) prior to the cross-check.
“Each scout takes a position. Martin Mayhew took the corners, Justin Chabot took the O-line, (Area Scout) John Stevenson took the safeties. And all the work that we’ve done and the grading we’ve done, they go through and cross-check with one position group, and we re-rank them in terms of their grades at that point.”
When it comes to allocating scouting responsibilities, the 49ers divvy up entire position groups by individuals. Lynch did say they have collaborative meetings on positions, but the original reports come from individuals rather than a small task force of position-specific scouts.
But it's not done blindly. Mayhew being the one to evaluate cornerbacks this year makes sense, as he was a defensive back for Florida State that went on to have an eight-year NFL career, in which he captured a Super Bowl with Washington. Cornerback is also a top need and Mayhew is a high-ranking executive with the team.
Chabot, who oversaw OL, has been a National Scout for the 49ers for 15 years, and was once a star offensive lineman for Northwestern. Stevenson, who took the safeties, was a defensive player for Georgia Southern and then briefly in the CFL and NFL.
VP of Player Personnel Adam Peters is also heavily involved, as is Keena Turner, who is now a Senior Advisor to the GM.
January also marks the first real sign of player rankings, which is beneficial to have as part of the scouting department's overall findings for the coaching staff.
February: Coaches Return for Draft Meetings
“In February, coaches are kind of back from their vacation. They’ve coached a long year. They go on their vacation. Now we bring the coaches in, and along with the scouts, they get really their first look at these prospects. And they start to see the reports, and each position group comes in. And they say, ‘Let’s take a look at Leos and stack linebackers today.’ So before we go to the combine, they have an idea of what they’re looking at."
The coaches don't look at a thing draft-wise until February after they've had time to process the previous season. This is when they're briefed on everything, and receive the details in the comprehensive reports they did not have the time to research themselves.
This period also sounds like one of the more collaborative between the 49ers' coaches and scouts, but also the one where the scouts have the floor, since they hold the information.
March-April: Scouts’ Final Evals, Handoff to Front Office and Coaches
“While our scouts are out at workouts, and private workouts and pro days, our coaches and us, the front office, we’re in here. And the coaches have taken the grades that we have, and now the coaches prioritize their list, how they have them ranked."
The handing of the baton from scouts to the front office and coaches happens in the March-April timeframe. With the 49ers' upper management having the bulk of the information they'll need, they can begin evaluating and forming decisions, as the scouts finish off workouts and pro days and begin to look ahead to next year.
But this is where it's assumed that Shanahan, along with the top coordinators and positional coaches like Robert Saleh (DC), Richard Hightower (S/T), Bobby Turner (RB), and Jeff Halfey (DB), begin to influence the rankings. Lynch, Peters, Mayhew and Turner, as well. And with that collective informing the positional rankings, the board is formed.
April (Draft Week): Lynch, Shanahan Finalize Rankings
“And that’s really what goes on to get us to this place, where we are this week. And this week, all the group meetings are done. This week is really about Kyle and I. We always have a lot of time together, but this is the time where all of a sudden the coaches have spoken, the scouts have spoken. Now he and I speak.
“We say, ‘Okay, we’ve got these guys all ranked here. If we have a pot of four players, how are we going to divvy these guys up? How are we going to rank them?’ So Kyle and I really spend a lot of time this week—we’re always talking. This week Kyle and I really put our final iteration of our board as we go into the draft.”
After the scouts and coaches have had their say, the 49ers implement their final filter, and it's the head coach and GM. This is where the 49ers' board is set once and for all. And Lynch talks about this fondly. He seemed almost excited that this is the moment where the decisions he and Shanahan come to directly influence the future of the franchise.
Lynch also proposes this as the time where he and Shanahan conduct mock situations to prepare for potential scenarios where they'll have to choose between two or more players they like. From these scenarios, they may also gain insight as to finalize more concrete round-by-round strategies and project trade opportunities.
And it is in this stage Lynch and Shanahan determine who they most want to make members of the 49ers, based on heavily-vetted information collected over the previous 12 months.
Media courtesy MMQB, San Francisco 49ers