Thinking Like an NFL Scout - Defense

By John Harris
May 22, 2012

How would scouts see Luke Kuechly? Lance Zierlein looks at how scouts think about defensive positions.

There are different philosophies for different teams. It is clear that a study of two teams may unearth a great deal of differences in terms of the types of players that they would be looking for over the first two rounds thanks to these schematic differences.

However, over my years of covering the draft and talking to league personnel, I've found that many scouts and coaches have similar ideas of the physical or mental traits that they want from 1st round prospects from position to position.  While the prioritizing of these traits may vary, here is a general idea of the most important trait/traits that teams will look for from each position.

Defensive Tackle

Arm Extension

Do this experiment when you have some time. Get a buddy of yours to stand across from you. Fully extend your arms and grab up near his shoulders. Now, move him freely from side to side. Then, get up close to him and with your hands a few inches from your chest try to move him the same way. So much more difficult to get movement when your arms are in tight.

The simple physics is that when a DT can get “locked out”, he can thoroughly CONTROL the OL attempting to block him, as you did to your buddy initially.  And, in the end, that’s all that the DT is attempting to gain. If OL are allowed to get “into” the DT and the DT can’t get his arms extended, he has no possible way of shedding that block. Don’t stay blocked. Coaches preach that all day long and if a DT can get extended and keep separation, he’ll be able to win by stacking and shedding much easier. Like our experiment.

Overrated Trait:  Bench Press Strength

Defensive End

Edge Speed and Hand Usage

Ask any offensive lineman in the NFL which guys are most difficult to prepare for and without question, they’ll tell you it’s the edge guys with speed. Why?  Well, big guys can defend big. Meaning?  Meaning that if a guy is just big, an OL can just drop his lower half to anchor just a bit more and he can shut down that big rusher.

But, OL are always intimidated by speed. They have no counter to blazing speed other than to get a great kick start and drop from the line of scrimmage.  Then, hope they did it quick enough.  Speed is DNA; hand placement is learned. It’s the one aspect of a young player ’s game that consistently needs work. OL are quick too, well, the good ones are and DEs can’t always win with speed.

So how can they counter? Swim move. Spin move. Karate chop to get hands down. Those are only effective with proper technique and hand placement. Beat with speed, win with hands. Combine both and that DE is a 10x All-Pro.

Overrated Trait:  Height


Instincts and Lateral Agility

Scouts have seen it for years. The physical specimen at linebacker who can run a 4.5 and “crushes” the combine. But, put said athlete on the field and he can’t make a play.  Why? No instincts. He can’t “see” what’s happening and is lost. He goes from being a 4.5 speedster to a 4.8 paper weight, totally confused.

Take Luke Kuechly this year. He ran a great time in the 40, but he “looks” even faster during games because he is so instinctive, he understands what offenses are doing pre and post snap. His ability to see through the mass of moving humanity and find the football quicker than anyone else in this draft will keep him in the league for a long time.

Likewise, LBs are always faced with “trash” in front of them and if a guy lacks the lateral agility to avoid it, he’ll be picking himself up off the ground way too much. Getting in position to make a play

Overrated Trait:  Weight


Ball Skills and Fluid Hips

Make a play on the ball. You hear your buddy scream that at the TV every single week.  C’mon (insert name of defensive back here) MAKE THAT PLAY! The thing is that there are a select few that can, there are a select few that have the innate ability to understand where the ball is going to end up and knock it down or intercept it.  Darrelle Revis has that understanding. Deion had it. Those are two of the best. However, they’re not alone.

That said, you’d be surprised how many cornerbacks ran in the 4.4 range at the combine but can’t make a play on the ball.  Ever.  I give you Kareem Jackson of the Houston Texans.  His ball skills are below average at best, even though he ran a strong time in the 40.

Revis is also as fluid in his hips which helps him match cuts by the receiver easily. When does a CB run in a straight line? Hardly, if ever. He’s consistently changing direction to react to routes or a ball thrown. A CB stiff in the hips takes forever to transition to a needed change in direction.

Overrated Trait:  Run Blocking