Getting Into the Game

Preparing players of all ages for success at football’s highest level.

"With the first pick in the NFL draft …"

Each spring, players and fans eagerly await the words that kick off the annual player draft, the three-day spectacle where the next wave of college players find out if they’ll get the opportunity to join the league. Many fans know that the players have spent the majority of their lives to that point training hard for their chance, but few realize everything else that leads up to draft day — from a player’s perspective and from the league’s.

The path to a potential handshake with the commissioner on draft night begins the first time a player straps on pads and a helmet. But with more than 1 million high school players and only about 300 NFL openings each year, the odds are astronomical that a player will make it from high school to the highest levels of the sport.

The league and its programs are about more than producing on-field talent — they’re about developing people with the character and leadership skills to succeed, in football or elsewhere.

The NFL strives to foster early and lasting interest in the game, instilling respect for the game’s foundational values, including teamwork, commitment and leadership. Football can be a catalyst for greater personal development at every level of play.

For the NFL, it’s about more than just building the next generation of great football players; it’s about building the next generation of great leaders — on and off the field.

For those with what it takes to compete to be among the next generation of NFL stars, the league’s Football Development team works to identify and develop the next generation of NFL stars. That includes preparing kids for the game at every level, teaching them the game and giving them every opportunity to showcase their talents.

“For a young man, no matter how good, to ‘set his sights’ on making a career in the NFL without planning for an alternative way to make a living is as unrealistic as walking into a Las Vegas casino with $10 and ‘planning’ on a $50,000 winning.” — Chuck Conners, former director of player personnel, Miami Dolphins

College Player Development: The Next Rung

At the college level, the NFL wants to give student-athletes every opportunity to showcase their abilities, setting up players for success at every turn. The newfound challenges that come with balancing football and the rigors of higher education offer players a preview of the demands at the next level. To help ease the learning curve for student-athletes, the NFL works with the NCAA to provide the latest information about working within the rules to remain eligible.

After making the decision to permit underclassmen three years removed from high school to apply for the draft, the NFL developed the College Advisory Committee for team scouts to inform players where they are likely to be drafted — if at all. This protects players from making the decision to leave college too early and prematurely giving up both their college eligibility and the chances of improving their draft status.

In 2014, 44 of the 107 underclassmen who entered the draft went unselected and forfeited their remaining eligibility. The board counterbalances any hype that players may read and hear about themselves in the sports media by providing more realistic evaluations from the men and women who assess talent for NFL teams.

Each college team can have the board evaluate five underclassmen; any additional players are approved on a case-by-case basis. By limiting the number of players to evaluate, the NFL has been able to provide incredibly accurate projections of a player’s potential position in the draft.

The evaluation committee has correctly projected 73.7 percent of first-round picks, 85.4 percent of second-round picks and 52.9 percent of third-round selections. This degree of accuracy is made all the more impressive when one considers the number of players evaluated and the unpredictable nature of the NFL draft.

Above all else, the NFL wants student-athletes to stay in college until graduation so they have the opportunity to reach their full potential as players, and to develop a broad set of skills for life beyond football. Both the NFL and the NCAA want players to excel, and staying in school for the full four years is the best means to that end.


Of all the areas of NFL player development, scouting spans the entire process — tracking players all the way from high school to draft day. Scouting is integral to player development in the NFL — not only in turning up the best athletes in the game, but also in showing players how they need to improve to succeed.

Despite the ubiquity and magnitude of scouting in today’s NFL, its origins are far more modest. During football’s infancy, scouting didn’t technically exist — the first NFL draft was conducted using what amounted to a crowd-sourced list of players to choose from. As recently as the 1970s, teams relied on only one or two main scouts to cover the entire country.

Today, scouting is an exhaustive process — in terms of the number of players reviewed, in the myriad criteria used and in the ever-increasing demands on scouts. Tasked with identifying the brightest talents and undiscovered gems in college football, scouts evaluate thousands of players at hundreds of colleges and universities each year. They’re on the road more than they’re home, and must maintain an encyclopedic knowledge of every player they review.

Gone are the days when scouts would spot talent with only their eyes and a stopwatch. The scope and complexity of scouting constantly changes as teams increasingly rely on statistical data and advanced tracking tools, which allow scouts to collect more and more information. They now keep data on everything from body mass index to bench press repetitions to performance in certain game situations.

That’s not to say that there’s no room for subjective measures in evaluation — scouts still place tremendous value on intangible measures like work ethic and leadership. Each year, players see their draft stock rise based on the outcome of personal interviews and feedback from college coaches and teammates. Players’ value to the NFL goes far beyond their on-field performance — teams value the role that players have in building a strong locker room, and in contributing to the community.

“There’s not much breathing room for scouts when the season’s in swing. Each one is gone a minimum of 200 days a year. It takes a certain type of individual and, more importantly, a certain type of understanding family.” — Tom Boisture, former director of player personnel, New York Giants


The NFL Scouting Combine, with its combination of physical, mental and medical examinations, is the Super Bowl of the player development process. Each NFL team’s personnel department is put to the test, tasked with making crucial decisions that can shape the future of a franchise. Only about 335 players are invited to the National Combine each year, and those players who make it are truly the cream of the crop.

For those players invited to participate, the combine is a chance to measure themselves against the best players in college and prove their value to scouts from all 32 teams. Prospects get the chance to show how they match up with players from other programs, that they can transition to a new position or, in some cases, that they can play after an injury.

“One thing you can never forget is we play the game of football in full pads and at full speed. We don't play the game in our underwear, doing the long jump."


While fans focus on the on-field skills and measurements like the 40-yard dash, bench press and vertical leap, NFL teams value most what happens behind the scenes: player interviews with team reps and exhaustive medical examinations at the Indiana University Health system. These let NFL personnel see how a player works on physical, mental and emotional levels — all necessary to excel at the next level of competition.

The Scouting Combine is the ultimate four-day job interview for NFL hopefuls — an opportunity for elite college players to prove they’re ready and able to join one of the most exclusive clubs in sports as a professional football player. 


The NFL draft serves as the “final exam” to measure each team’s scouting acumen. Teams draw from thousands of scouting reports, medical evaluations and personal interactions and decide which players can turn around a struggling franchise or fill in gaps to make a good team into an exceptional one.

Before teams get a shot at drafting players, NFL Football Operations must verify players’ eligibility. This means compiling background information on every player entering the draft in one central database — an exhaustive process that calls for the Football Operations team to review applicable college teams’ media guides and contact coaches and administrators to verify information. Only after the research is conducted can the NFL draft process begin in earnest. 

The draft provides a chance for about 250 of the nation’s finest athletes to live out the dream they’ve been preparing for all their young lives: a chance to play in the NFL. Seven rounds of selections and an additional 32 compensatory picks awarded to select teams determine who has made the grade.

Tens of thousands of college players are left on the outside looking in. Those players left undrafted don’t need to abandon their NFL dreams. Thanks to the league’s legion of scouting events and player development programs, athletes will have networked with personnel and can still land on a team’s training camp roster or practice squad. 

Even if a player can’t find a fit with an NFL team, the player development process doesn’t stop. NFL Player Engagement provides players with peer-to-peer support to help them navigate the transition from the playing field to the next phase of life beyond football. PE works with them to identify opportunities in coaching, officiating and scouting that befit their unique skills and experiences.