Greatest NFL scouts ever: Ahead of 2022 NFL draft, meet the visionaries, grinders and teachers who paved the way

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Finding "Mount Scoutmore" was the goal. Create a shortlist honoring the most influential and talented NFL scouts in history. Poll those who know, do the research, sift through the records and find four or five who built the foundation of what the profession has become and those who have moved it forward through the decades.

Not those like Bill Polian, who moved up from scout to personnel director to general manager to team president on his way to Canton. Or those like Ron Wolf, Bobby Beathard and George Young, who also rose into team executive roles during their gold-jacket careers.

But scouts. On the road, hotel points-packing, interstate-driving scouts. Guys like the Denver Broncos' Scott DiStefano, who is now in his fourth decade with the team's personnel department.

As it turns out, Mount Scoutmore proved to be a sculptor's nightmare. What started as sort of an ode to scouts ended up being almost an unsolvable puzzle -- one without corner pieces and that looked different to every person who was asked for an opinion.

We didn't find the four, or five, unquestioned forefathers of the profession, but we did find some answers. It takes certain attributes to carve out a career in scouting, a profession that is still kept under wraps to most people who aren't in it.

As Broncos general manager George Paton put it: "The scouts, they see these players, get to know these players, they are the foundation of the process."

"Road scouts? Their impact is almost immeasurable," Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian said. "A lifeblood of evaluation and if your organization isn't strong at that level, you won't succeed. You just won't."

More than 50 people were contacted to get their thoughts on scouts. We wanted the no-brainers and the must-haves, but the names just kept coming.

The first call went to a longtime general manager. He was given the hoped-for parameters and he said it would be "no problem," and then he proceeded to list 14 names. All were declared to be "absolutes."

He called back later to give three more. So it began.

A retired scouting director, perhaps, would be more definitive. No skin in the game at the moment. That list was 16 names.

A longtime scouting director said he needed a minute to give it some thought. The next day his list of 11 names arrived.

As one area scout in the West said, "We're like players, our teammates, the guys we've been next to, or who were there when we got there or helped us, or pushed us, are important to us. And because your teammates are your teammates, I think you can be insulated in your own group. And those who were in it when you were, or are, those are the guys you're going to be the most familiar with."

In the end every one of those names is important to what the profession has evolved into, but listing them all may not serve any of them. Perhaps it is the parts of the job that are important: the visionary, the grinder, the eye and the teacher.

The Visionary

Definition: Someone has to see progress before it is progress. Someone who sees success before an NFL snap has been played.

Hall of Famer Gil Brandt has often talked of the importance of finding players where others were not looking. This was especially true early in his career before the internet opened up the world and scouting staffs expanded their reach. While with the Dallas Cowboys, Brandt began scouring NCAA track meets and NCAA basketball tournaments to find players who had often never worn a football helmet.

Being a visionary sometimes involves timing a player in an airport terminal, a gymnasium or a patch of ground behind a factory where that player happens to have a summer job. The longtime scouts have a catalog of those memories and a flawless recall of the times it turned into something.

Others moved scouting forward through innovation, like when the late C.O. Brocato, the longtime Oilers/Titans scout, put three cones on the ground in a L shape to measure agility. It was a drill that became a pre-draft workout staple, including at the combine, for decades.

Wolf has said every team "simply has" to have somebody like Brocato on its staff.

Other visionaries included Hall of Famer Bill Nunn, who, as a newspaper reporter and editor, was a key figure in introducing the players from Historically Black Colleges and Universities to a largely white NFL. Nunn's evaluations of those players made it clear what teams were missing. After he was hired by Art Rooney, Nunn went on to spend almost 50 years with the Steelers.

In one of scouting's most treasured memories, after receiver John Stallworth ran an unremarkable 40-yard dash time -- on a bad field in bad weather -- during a pre-draft workout in 1974 for scouts at Alabama A&M, Nunn decided to stay an extra day and had Stallworth run again. The time was much better and Nunn -- the only scout who stayed -- convinced Steelers coach Chuck Noll to take him, leading to Stallworth's Hall of Fame career in black and gold.

Nunn's work had a significant role in the Steelers selecting HBCU players such as Stallworth and fellow Hall of Famers Donnie Shell (South Carolina State) and Mel Blount (Southern), as well as others such as L.C. Greenwood (Arkansas A&M), who played a significant role in the Steelers' four Super Bowl wins over six seasons.

The Grinder

Definition: Paton said the profession is simply about the details, about keeping it all straight as they go from town to town, school to school.

It's in all of the scouts who make it.

Area scouts visit roughly five schools a week during the season -- the number can vary staff to staff, team to team -- and write reports on eight to 12 players from each visit at the bigger schools, two or three per visit at the smaller schools.

Depending on the level of prospects in a scout's area, that's 40 to 60 players reports written per week that have to be on time and filled with real information. Those who can't keep the details in order won't be around long.

"The recall on those guys is astounding," Polian said. "Our staff in Buffalo, guys like Bob Ryan and [George] Sengel, just the reservoir of knowledge and how to apply it through the years. When I started, they had years in, I was the young guy. Attention to detail, calm and that deep, deep reservoir of players. ... I think it's why sometimes you see the father-son ties."

Case in point, Bill Baker Jr. and Bill Baker Sr. worked for the Eagles, while former Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff's father -- Thomas Sr. -- was a Cleveland Browns scout in a career as a college and CFL coach. Polian's son, Chris, now with Washington, has been in scouting since 1993.

"There are so many times you'll ask the area scout a question in your meetings and the answer has a lot to do with how we feel as a group about a player," former Broncos general manager John Elway has said. "It's all about details."

The Eye

Definition: Those who see the moment in practice, hear the word in a conversation, make a note of a testimonial that rings more true than some of the rest, that offers a glimpse in to what a player will become.

Few in NFL history have the career diversity of Francis Joseph "Bucko" Kilroy. A three-time Pro Bowl selection and two-time NFL champion as a player, Kilroy went on to a stint as an NFL assistant coach and 47-year career as a scout and personnel executive, including 36 of those years with the New England Patriots. He is considered the founder of the modern NFL scouting combine. In his early years with the Patriots, they drafted Hall of Famers John Hannah (1973), Mike Haynes (1976) and Andre Tippett (1982) as well as Russ Francis (1975).

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has often spoken about the importance of Kilroy's eye building the Patriots' first three Super Bowl winners. Kilroy, who died in 2007, was behind the drafting of Richard Seymour (2001), Lawyer Milloy (1996) and Tedy Bruschi (1996). The Patriots also selected two Hall of Famers -- Ty Law and Curtis Martin -- in the 1995 draft.

Cornell Green didn't play college football, he played basketball at Utah State before the Cowboys made him a defensive back and he went on to five Pro Bowl selections, three first-team All-Pro selections and a Super Bowl win. Green also spent more than 40 years in the Broncos' personnel department, even as the team changed general managers, coaches, assistant coaches and many of the scouts around him.

Mike Shanahan once said, "If I can't remember something, I go ask Cornell ... he's got the eye."

The Teacher

Definition: Those ready and willing to pass on the trade.

Longtime scouting director Blake Beddingfield said, "If you show you're truly interested in the job, invested, ready to work and you are about the details, there will always be one or two guys who just show you how to do it, every day. They may not say they're doing it, but they're doing it. They may even make it hard on you while they're doing it, but they're doing it. I could go, C.O., Ray Biggs, Glen Cumbee, Cole Procter, just on and on."

For me, in full disclosure, Brocato will always be the first who was willing to show some newspaper guy how football is built from the cleats up. Many have followed, far more gracious with their time and patience than they needed to be, but the echo of Brocato's staccato Louisiana drawl in my phone to "stop hee-hawing around" will never go away.

The late Floyd Reese, former general manager of the Oilers/Titans, said teams often sent their entry-level scouts to make a trip or two with Brocato to learn the business. Reese consistently credited Brocato with the final opinion as they assembled a draft-heavy Super Bowl XXXIV team. Seventeen of the starters in that game were drafted or signed as undrafted rookies.

The teachers show how to be the people person, to talk to the security personnel, the receptionists, the strength coaches, former roommates and high school coaches. The teachers open up the world beyond the stopwatch, beyond the tape, those things only the area scouts usually get.

So, Mount Scoutmore didn't come to be as it was first pitched. Perhaps it's a failure about success. About a job that isn't for everybody, but one that is the foundation for the nationally televised event the NFL draft and its scouting combine have become.

And in that list of names the general managers often read after all of the picks have been made, there are visionaries, grinders, good eyes and teachers in there, ready to start the process again the next day.