For anyone who has spoken to Dan Shonka of Ourlads NFL Scouting Services, you know he is not short on words, has many wonderful stories of NFL and drafting experiences, and is an overall good guy. Always happy to speak with you, Dan tries never to turn down a radio appearance in the months leading up to the NFL draft. Dan is genuinely filled with the passion which makes up professional football.
The Fantasy Greek learned this off-season that those whose specialty is NFL draft scouting are a breed of their own. They are chock-filled with player observations and comparisons. So much so, it can be dizzying to one unfamiliar with the college player landscape especially in such detail. College player evaluators spend what is likely an inordinate amount of time reviewing game tape and evaluating players. Dan is slightly different in that he is of the old school. Dan has also been, so to speak, around for a while, and knows or has known many of the vintage figures we can either only read about, or some of the modern day figures we can only usually see on television.
Even Ourlads’ website is a treat unto itself. It contains a plethora of information on players, old and new, as well as what are likely considered the best depth charts available. For those subscribing to Ourlads NFL Draft Guide, Draft Review, and periodic newsletters, they are certainly a treat when delivered to your front door. Each contains an enormous amount of time related information on college players culminating in what is likely the best part of the subscription — an NFL Draft Guide, with information and rankings of each player in the draft, overall and by position, as well as the narrative account of each players’ evaluation. It’s a must read for anyone who enjoys the drama of the NFL Draft, or just wants to learn about those college players expected to be drafted. Indeed, it’s made available to teams and those players in the green room at the draft itself!
So, when Dan agreed to do this interview with The Fantasy Greek, you can imagine that The Fantasy Greek felt fortunate for the opportunity. What follows are snapshots of that conversation.
Please feel free to post any comments or questions below. They are always much appreciated. We would be happy to get you feedback from Dan as well.
TFG: Dan, how did you get your start in pro football scouting?
DS: I was approached by Scout John Fitzpatrick while I was head coach of New Mexico Highlands University’s football team (DIV II). Subsequently, and after some time had passed, I was hired by National Football Scouting. I have 13 years of major college football experience and 24 years experience in pro football scouting. In total, my time in player personnel spans four decades.
TFG: Describe generally what goes into a player’s evaluation?
DS: Besides actually writing the evaluation, the report is based on studying player film and observing practices of the all star games. Tape and live. When I worked for a team, I attended 1 – 2 games a week and of course the Combine and private workouts.
During this process, I try to form my own opinion about a player. What I mean by this is I don’t talk to other scouts about an athlete, so as to avoid being a part of the herd mentality. I want to form my own opinion and be able to defend the good, bad and ugly of what I see in a prospect. My former employers or now our subscribers are paying for my expertise and opinion. Also, I am very cautious about talking to coaches about their players. You have to understand, coaches like their players and want to say what is in the player’s best interest. So, to the extent I talk to them, in most instances, I still rely on my own evaluation of the player.
By the time the NFL draft comes around, when you are scouting for a team, there are roughly five reports on each of the top one hundred and fifty to top two hundred players. The exception is if a player is injured and can’t be measured or observed. This is so because of the combines that occur at the college level, as well as Junior Pro Days. We verify and collect information related to weight, workouts, speed, arm length, as well as results of the Wonderlic test which is performed at that level.
TFG: With the thousands of college players out there, it seems you can’t evaluate everyone. How do you narrow it down to which players you evaluate, provide analysis on, and eventually provide a draft grade for?
DS: Not true. Besides a player who is injured, every college Junior player is evaluated. You need to understand that National Football Scouting is a combination of organizations. In the case of National Football Scouting, it is made up of twenty NFL teams (20 teams). There is another scouting organization called Bletso which is made up of six teams. Then, there are teams like the Patriots and the Raiders which perform their own scouting and are not a member of any combine.
When I worked for a combine, there were ten regional scouts, who had to go to every school in their assigned region.
TFG: Do you feel you spend more time evaluating the better players available in the NFL draft, or more time on players who might be considered on the fringe of being ranked for the NFL draft?
DS: You know who the better players are by studying junior and sophomore tape. Like Peyton Manning and Ndamukong Suh, because they jump out at you as being very good. The hardest players to evaluate are those players who eventually are drafted in Rounds 4, 5, 6, or 7. Competition level and not knwing some of their verified information are questions that need to be answered. Many times these are players that may lack consistency, or just don’t jump out on the tape.
When evaluating these players, my approach is to walk in liking everyone. I force the players to make me dislike them. It could be as simple as the player being lazy and non-competitive.
TFG: How deep into the lower school divisions will scouts look to evaluate a player? How do scouts find out about these players who could be playing for a Division III school?
DS: If a school is in our territory, as a combine scout we would go look at their team, even Division III schools. As a rule, you write something down about each senior to be, their name, and at a minimum, explain why they cannot make it to the next level.
TFG: Our readers may not be aware of this, but NFL teams are allotted a certain amount of player visits to a team facility before the draft. Players cannot be worked out at this time. Teams may workout players that they do not end up drafting for whatever reason (already drafted, greater need). What other benefit(s) do teams get from the workouts for players they are unable to draft?
DS: Information for the player’s profile. We are in the information gathering business. Teams can bring in twenty-five to thirty players into their facility, one to two weeks before the NFL draft, for a visit. Sometimes teams will visit a player because even though they may not have an opportunity to draft them, they could be a free agent in the future. Also, they could be players that go undrafted that they sign after the draft. It’s a great opportunity for the owner and general manager of a team to meet the player before the draft, in a more relaxed environment.
In some instances, a team could use a visit to suggest to a team that they are interested in the same player, even though they really aren’t, as a means of disinformation. However, this approach just seems to be a waste of money when it should really be about evaluating the player.
TFG: Are players sometimes drafted by a team that has never met the player or by a team that has not had a chance to work out the player? If so, doesn’t that seem odd? Or, how do you explain the reality of the situation to help our readers understand?
DS: This rarely happens, more so in the free agent category. The area scout will know everything about this player including his favorite pizza toppings.
TFG: For any undrafted free agents out there, what advice would you give them to help their chances of being invited to camp by an NFL team?
DS: Undrafted free agents need to stay self motivated. I have heard of free agents calling teams. While that may or may not work, free agents need to keep their names out there by, for example, playing for the arena league. The United Football League and USFL would provide another way of keeping one’s name out there.
Look at Kurt Warner. No one seemed to listen to him even when scouts did give him a good review. [See Dan Shonka’s review of Kurt Warner.] Kurt showed up at an Iowa State workout and offered to throw for the scouts who attended the workout afterwards. No one stayed to watch him. However, he kept his name out there by playing in the arena league and NFL Europe.
Free agents shouldn’t give up the first, second, or third time. But, free agents also need to be realistic about their ability.
Free agents also need to understand that when I worked for the pro teams I scouted for, I never signed a free agent I didn’t think could make it in the pros, by at least making the practice squad. But, people need a break. [See the list of free agents Dan Shonka signed when an NFL scout.]
Two years ago, after the NFL draft in our Ourlads’ Draft Review, we listed our top-60 graded players that were not drafted. Out of this top-60, fifty made it on rosters or practice squads. The draft is no time for drafting a “sleeper.” As Ourlads Hall of Famer Walt Yowarsky once told me, “When looking for sleepers, you get a sleepy team.”
TFG: Is there any particular player(s) just drafted, that you are looking forward to seeing transition to the pro football game? Is there a particular player(s) you believe will do well?
DS: The guys that usually do well have a coach that will work with them and are on a team with the right scheme for them. Coaches look for guys who play in a similar scheme in college. Off the top of my head, I am looking forward to seeing Kelechi Osamele of the Ravens to see how he fits as a guard with his thirty-seven inch arms. Bills’ Cordy Glenn is another player I am looking forward to seeing play as a tackle. Then, I am looking forward to the Browns combination of Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden, and Mitchell Schwartz, and how they do at the pro-level.
TFG: Is there any particular undrafted player(s), signed as a free agent, that you are looking forward to seeing transition to the pro football game. Is there a particular player(s) you believe will do well.
DS: Several. Center Quentin Saulsberry who was signed by the Vikings; running back Chris Polk who was signed by the Eagles has great hands; defensive back Chase Minniefield who was signed by the Redskins; He suffered a severe ankle injury - guard Ronald Leary who was signed by the Cowboys; and, strong safety Tony Dye who was signed by the Bengals. These are all players that should have been drafted but weren’t, for one reason or another.
TFG: Can you share a little known secret about the draft or something the average person would not know about the draft or about the evaluation of players.
DS: There are not that many true 4.3, 40-yard dash guys out there. I have timed only thirty in the past four decades. So, these days, you don’t have to be a good football player. If you can run, you have a chance to be in a camp.
TFG: You were interviewed by famed author/writer Malcolm Gladwell a couple of years ago. How did that come to be? What was your fondest memory of the experience, and what do you think he got out of it.
DS: Malcolm’s administrative assistant contacted us. I did not know him before then. We went to a Missouri game together so he could see what a scout does. He came to the hotel I was staying in and we reviewed film together for a couple of hours of Chase Daniels, a quarterback I was high on. Malcolm seemed like a little kid in a candy store. There was no such thing as a stupid question. He eventually got the hang of it. He offered to take me to dinner but I explained we needed to get to the game or else we would be late. We sat in the press box together. It was his first time around a big time college game. It was like taking your son to a game for the first time. But understand, he is a brilliant guy. He was very perceptive and very inquisitive, asking a ton of questions. I didn’t really understand until later what a big time author he was until contacted by people in the football business and family. Then I went out, bought and read all of his outstanding books.
Read the interview included by Malcom Gladwell in his book, “What The Dog Saw” . Gladwell called Shonka the Outlier of Professional Football Scouts.
TFG: Greatest moment as a pro football scout?
DS: Tough to pick any one moment. I’ve been very fortunate to be a small part of NFL history, evaluating many outstanding athletes and people before the players became famous. But, as a scout, when you are involved in drafting a player or contributing heavily to a team’s draft, that’s a great moment. In 1998, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie fired the general manager and player personnel director and asked the coaches and the team’s three scouts, including me, to draft that year’s team. With the coaches and scouts all working together, it was the best team drafted in Eagles history.
Of course, The Fantasy Greek looked up the Eagles draft picks for 1998. The picks included (Round:Years in League) OT Tra Thomas (1: 13), one-time All-Pro, three-time Pro Bowl selection; LB Jeremiah Trotter (3: 12), two-time All-Pro, four-time Pro Bowl selection; CB Allen Rossum (3: 12), one-time Pro Bowl; DT Brandon Whiting (4: 7); DB Clarence Love (4:7), Super Bowl XXIV Champion, two-time AFC Champion; LB Ike Reese (5: 9), one-time All-Pro, one-time Pro Bowl, one-time NFC Champion; DT Chris Akins (7); and, G Melvin Thomas (7).
According to Dan, Akins and Thomas were both first and second round athletes that were coming off of injury, but never played again.
TFG: Lowest moment as a pro football scout?
DS: I once recommended a defensive end who had fallen to the sixth round of the NFL draft. The team passed on him and he went on to enjoy a thirteen year career in the league. The player the team ended up taking was cut at the end of camp. No scout likes to have a decision to draft a player trumped by a non-player evaluator or hear the words, “Nobody else likes that guy.”
TFG: Tell us about the depth charts on your site, and how they came to be.
DS: This was something, in addition to our scouting services, that we began doing through the NFL. Ourlads posts the player depth chart transactions when it becomes official from the NFL League office and uploads it daily to our site so you get the best and most accurate information possible.
TFG: The Ourlads website offers various information including depth charts by team and position. How do you see that type of information helping fantasy football players?
DS: We see them being most valuable to fantasy football players when injuries strike, in IDP leagues, as well as those in dynasty leagues. You can either look at each team’s depth chart overall, or the depth chart by position for each team all together.
TFG: Besides the information on your site, draft guides, and monthly newsletters, does Ourlads get involved in any other way helping pro teams evaluate or choose between players?
DS: Among other things, sometimes when an NFL team has a dispute between its coaches and its scouting staff about a specific player, we have been asked to make a recommendation as a tie-breaker. We also consult with a variety of teams in various leagues.
TFG: Give us an example of a team from the past, that particularly stands out in your mind, that used the draft to take themselves from a losing team to a winning team.
DS: Let me first say, every season, the Packers’ Ted Thompson does a great job building his team through the draft, as does the Steelers organization. Let me also say, there are those like Bill Polian and Bill Bellicheck who knew the players they had to get in the draft, to fit in their schemes. They do a good job of plugging round pegs to fit into round holes that is their system. The Giants have done a great job with their defensive lineman. The Titans have done a great job, too, when Jeff Fisher was the coach, and afterwards as they kept their veteran scouts after Fisher left.
In the past three years, it’s been the Packers, Steelers, Eagles, 49ers, Titans, Texans and Bengals. All have done the best job procuring among all teams in getting talent to help their teams win.
TFG: If there is anything you could tell our readers about the sport of football as a lesson of life, what would it be?
DS: I would equate this poem about life to football: Upon The Plains of Hesitation, Bleach the Bones of Countless Millions who at the Dawn of Success sat down to rest and resting died! — Adali E. Stevenson