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Workouts help, but video tells all for scouts


Twenty-seven years of scouting-related experience has taught Reed Johnson, the Atlanta Falcons' director of player personnel/college, the best way to learn about a prospect's chances for success in the NFL.

It isn't the scouting combine; that's for confirming hard data like height and weight, and for conducting the in-person interview.

"I don't think anybody has used (the combine) as the final say," Johnson said.

It isn't the various "Pro Days" on college campuses, where players perform the same kinds of exercises they did at the combine, only in a more familiar setting.

Rather, it's something that most people do on a regular basis at home, except not with football, but with movies or television programs -- watching videotape.

Granted, Johnson's method of watching football on video is far more scientific and detailed than when a fan would sit down in front of his television to watch a game missed because of work or another commitment. He's not looking for the final result of a game, but how a particular player moves and reacts in game conditions -- something workouts cannot necessarily reveal.

"Tape is the crux of our business," Johnson said as he took a short break from -- what else? -- watching a tape of draft prospects. "Simply because you can run it back and forth."

For Johnson and the Falcons, game tape is everything. It's far more valuable than the workouts at the scouting combine, because those don't take place in full uniform and full-contact situations.

It even outranks what one might perceive as the best way to evaluate a player -- watching in person. Johnson attends a few college games not far from the team's base of operations in Flowery Branch, Ga., but finds such excursions far less effective than the work he does in his office.

"It's impossible to watch every player do everything as the game is going on live," Johnson said. "With videotape, you can go back and forth, back and forth."

The tape of choice for the Falcons and other teams is Beta. On the consumer market, Beta was a 1980s flop, right up there with new Coke. In professional football, it remains invaluable, as its sharper picture can lend itself favorably to viewing details offered by game film time and again.

Clubs receive video of college players that goes through a central clearinghouse in New Jersey. Typically that video is Beta, but the smaller schools tend to lean towards VHS. Johnson, prepared for both methods, works in an office that includes players for both formats.

It's an office that is the nerve center of building the foundation for the Falcons' draft operations. During the offseason, Johnson supervises not only a team of college scouts, each of whom spend the months leading up to the draft working in tandem with the Falcons' position coaches, but breaking down players at a specific position.

The players are graded, based on the reports from the scout and coach working on a particular position, combined with Johnson's own analysis and observations. The process is structured and consistent; the Falcons start on the defensive side of the football -- beginning with the defensive line.

Grading the defense first is part of Johnson's m.o., one that he began crafting after breaking into the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys in 1975, working under renowned personnel expert Gil Brandt. Stints with the Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins followed before he joined the Falcons following the 1997 draft.

"It's a familiar method, the method I learned when I was in Dallas," Johnson said. "When Dan Reeves asked me to come to Denver with him (in 1981), we continued with it."

But no matter what the position, every grade comes back to what the videotape reveals. Grades are far from empirical; Johnson's experience teaches him that it's not the evaluator, but the prospect in question, that will determine draft standing.

"The player grades himself," Johnson said.

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