Once upon a time, it was the least-regarded department of every team's football operations. "Pro Personnel" was little more than a place for collecting phone numbers of players who had been cut by other teams, and pro personnel directors operated out of offices that resembled closets.
Back then, there was no true forum for free agency. Players left teams for only two reasons: retirement or release.
Prior to today's salary cap/free agency system, scouting money was spent almost solely on college players, as teams relied on the draft as its means for acquiring talent. The 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers, for example, won Super Bowl XIV with a completely homegrown roster. No player on that team had ever played on any other team.
Consider the rosters of today. Twenty-seven of the 53 players on the roster with which the Jaguars finished last season spent time with at least one other team in the league. In other words, 50 percent of the players on the Jaguars' 2004 roster are products of pro personnel.
Yeah, pro personnel is a big player in the scouting business these days. Not only is it producing a lot of players, it's producing a lot of players who are taking up a majority of the team's salary cap, and that's what makes pro personnel most important.
"In today's NFL, pro personnel has become very, very important. Teams are spending millions of dollars on free agents. You can't have what you had in the old days, when you would just write a report on a guy," Jaguars Director of Pro Personnel Charlie Bailey said.
These days, pro personnel is about scouting all of the pro leagues: Canada, Europe, Arena football. It's about finding those bargain players every team's salary cap needs. Mostly, pro personnel is about making sure the money spent on expensive free agents is spent wisely.
Bailey is two weeks away from his most important time of the year, March, which is to say free agency. His rankings are complete and he's waiting only for teams to make "franchise" decisions on players that would effectively remove those players from his list. Those decisions must be made by Tuesday, Feb. 22. Other names on the list will sign long-term, 11th-hour contracts, then the Jaguars will look at what's left and decide where they'll spend their money.
Make no mistake about it, the Jaguars have some money to spend. They're going to be about $22 million under the salary cap on March 2, the first day of the new league calendar year. It is also the day teams must be under the new year's cap, the day free agency begins and the first day of inter-league trading.
"Free agency is another means for improving your team. Terrell Owens took Philadelphia over the top. You always want to go after guys who can upgrade a certain need for you," Bailey said.
"We have a philosophy about how we approach it. If it's a need player and we really want him, we pursue that player. To have $22 million, I have to give Paul Vance credit. That's a great salary cap job. But we're not going to be careless spending," Bailey added.
How will the Jaguars spend their money? We'll find out after the start of free agency, but we may not have to wait long for our information.
"This is a good free-agent crop. When you do a thorough job of evaluating, you know who the good players are and they don't have to be the popular players. We understand who the good football players are," Bailey said.
The system that allows the Jaguars to have identified those players is year-long and elaborate. In understanding the pro personnel procedure, let's begin by defining who its subjects are.
All football talent who have been drafted, signed as free agents or whose draft eligibility has expired falls into the domain of pro personnel. That means all players in the NFL or other leagues, and all former pro players who are believed to still be capable of playing the game, are maintained in the Jaguars' pro personnel files.
"The most important evaluation is that of your own team. The process starts in training camp. Each one of our scouts, pro and college, will evaluate a position daily," Bailey said.
Each evening in training camp, those evaluations will be presented and grades will be assigned. That means a grade for every guy, every night. Grades on the pro personnel level are made on a 2.0-8.0 scale. An 8.0 is only given to the best player ever.
Bailey's three pro scouts are Louis Clark, Larry Wright and Chris Prescott. They are also responsible for keeping tabs on what the other teams are doing with their training camp rosters. Clark is assigned 11 other teams, and Wright and Prescott have 10 each.
When the preseason begins, the pro personnel department hits the road looking at other teams. The focus will be primarily on second-day draft picks and players in danger of being cut. "A team may be loaded and can't keep all of those players," Bailey said.
During the season, pro personnel is responsible each Monday for a thorough evaluation of the Jaguars' performance the previous day. Each player on the team is graded.
Tuesday during the regular season is "workout day." Between two and five "street free agent" prospects are brought to Alltel Stadium to be worked out and evaluated by the pro personnel department. Jason Gildon, Deke Cooper and Nick Sorensen are examples of players who were signed from Tuesday workouts.
Each pro personnel scout will review tapes each week of his assigned teams' games. The Jaguars' six college scouts will also join the process of overlapping scouting evaluation. Each college scout will be sent tapes of three teams' games for the purpose of grading those teams' prospective unrestricted free agents.
The process for scouting the upcoming free-agent season is now fully underway. It is a weekly in-season process that culminates with a Dec. 1 meeting that begins the ranking process.
Clark is also responsible for another function. As Bailey's assistant director, Clark is the Jaguars' advance man. He works a week ahead of the Jaguars, scouting the Jaguars' next-week opponent. He reviews that team's tapes and writes a report on each player on that team. Clark attends that team's game the week before they play the Jaguars, and Clark takes particular notice of things coach Jack Del Rio and his staff wouldn't find on the tapes: sideline behavior, where the coordinators are stationed, who sends in the plays, who talks to the quarterback, crowd noise, injuries, etc.
December, however, is the pressure month for pro personnel. This is when all of the scouting has to be put into one concise ranking of unrestricted free agents. Restricted free agents are not part of the intense scouting process. If on March 1, the deadline for teams to tender offers to restricted free agents, the Jaguars develop interest in a particular RFA, they then swing into action with a full scouting report on that player. By and large, however, scouting the RFA field would result in a lot of wasted time because the tenders are intended to make the players unattractive.
In the December meeting, every prospective UFA in the league is the subject of discussion. During those discussions, the UFAs will be ranked from best to worst within their positions. As part of the overlapping process, Del Rio's staff will assist. Each position coach is assigned 10 UFAs to evaluate and grade.
February sees a final meeting between the pro personnel department and the coaching staff, in which the final arrangement of UFAs is approved.
"The foundation of the team will be built through the draft. We've gotten starters out of each of the last two drafts. We've sprinkled in excellent free agents. They produced in areas in which depth was a concern. Mike Peterson has been a starter for us," Bailey said.
It would seem to be a 50-50 proposition these days. You don't ignore pro personnel any longer.