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A guide to scouting the 2025 NFL Draft: How our experts start the process

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The NFL Draft is always there, even when it’s not.

For the general football public, the draft takes center stage for a few weeks in the spring, culminating in a three-day party at the end of April. For the more intense football fans, it’s time to start paying attention in January, when the playoffs begin and the draft order is (mostly) set.

For draft experts like The Athletic’s Dane Brugler and Nick Baumgardner, every cycle is basically an 18-month process with endless rollover. The result of Brugler’s process, specifically, is “The Beast.”

This year’s version of “The Beast” featured scouting information on more than 1,900 draft-eligible players, including prospects throughout the NCAA, CFL, Canadian colleges, Europe and anywhere else scouts looked for talent in helmets and shoulder pads. This year, in a difficult class to stack, 81 of Brugler’s top 100 prospects were selected within the draft’s first 100 picks.

So, how does the process work? What goes into the initial round of scouting ahead of the college football season?

Here, Brugler and Baumgardner give you a little peek behind the curtain …

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Revisiting Dane Brugler’s initial 2024 NFL Draft top 50 board

Baumgardner: Dane doesn’t like to talk about himself, so I’m going to do it a bit before we get started. It might surprise some to learn that Dane’s actually interviewed for (and been offered) NFL scouting jobs, as his history with scouting dates back to his time around the legendary Mount Union football program in Ohio. Brugler was at Mount Union during a time when current Philadelphia Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni, current Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell and current Toledo head coach Jason Candle (among others) were on staff.

All of that out of the way, I think the first thing I ever asked Dane was, “Where do you even start with all this?” So, Dane, when do you truly start scouting a class?

Brugler: I take the month of May to review the recently completed draft class and take some time off to recharge the batteries. It’s a nice change of pace to worry about who hits cleanup while coaching my 8-year-old’s pee wee baseball team as opposed to mock draft scenarios.

I dive full time into the next year’s draft class around Memorial Day — but the work starts months earlier. While studying film on the 2024 draft class, for example, inevitably there were numerous 2025 prospects who jumped off the screen. So, my notes for future classes are always ongoing. That way, I enter the summer with a strong sense of who to watch.

Baumgardner: Like anything, it takes years to get good at this stuff or even get into a rhythm with it. But in short, scouts work with three eyes — two focused on what they’re doing right now and one, somewhere in the back of their brain, looking at the flashes that will need remembering tomorrow.

The mental discipline to keep focused on the immediate task while not ignoring, or getting lost in, the future is really not easy. For me, it’s the hardest part of the whole process.

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Brugler: During the summer, I have two main goals. First, to build my prospect database with preliminary position-by-position rankings, which include a few thousand draft-eligible prospects. I then cross-check those initial grades with a few NFL team sources to make sure I’m not missing anything. These conversations with NFL scouts and execs are vital to my process. That is also when I get a prospect’s verified measurables (height, weight, arm length, etc.) from the spring. Obviously, grades will fluctuate throughout the process, but the starting point — both grade and ranking — is important.

Second, it is important to understand the key traits for those prospects so I enter the college football season with expectations for what they do well and where they need to improve.

I learned early that it can be easy to become married to your initial thoughts, but it is important to keep an open mind to players getting better or regressing with updated evidence. The terms “risers” and “fallers” are mostly farcical in March, but they are absolutely appropriate for prospects during the season.

Baumgardner: To me, the “open mind” part is the most important part of the process. It’s like objectivity for a journalist. Football coaches will tell you straight up that their first impression of a player is almost always something that’s difficult to erase. For a scout, though, the first impression is nothing more than an entry point. If it’s anything else, you’re just spinning wheels.

Think of those thousand or so draft-eligible prospects all stacked on top of each other in a giant list. That list, essentially, is the same as a team’s depth chart. It’s live and fluid and moves and changes — not just on a weekly basis during the season, but sometimes on a daily basis based on information gleaned.

So, when is the point of no return with regard to a final opinion on a player?

Brugler: My informal scouting education came from a number of NFL scouts and execs, but it was Alonzo Highsmith (currently a personnel exec with the Patriots) who taught me the importance of having conviction in each evaluation. However, he also stressed the importance of walking the fine line of being confident without being stubborn, similar to a detective’s investigation — your initial instinct is important and often rooted in strong facts, but your conclusion is based on where the evidence takes you.

As an example: If you feel strongly about a player but his testing numbers at the combine are wildly different from expectations, you do more homework based on that updated information.

Generally speaking, most of my film work on a prospect is completed by mid-January. Then, those grades will fluctuate slightly based on pre-draft all-star games and the combine. But the fact-finding mission is always ongoing, especially for those of us on the outside who don’t have the full resources of an NFL franchise. Understanding how to have conviction while keeping an open mind is definitely a learned skill.

Baumgardner: The detective analogy is perfect — you are profiling people, at the end of the day. That’s the part some fans tend to forget with this whole deal. Maybe it’s the helmets covering faces, but people get completely lost in the numbers, data and highlights and often overlook the most important thing about prospects: They’re human and not video game characters.

Do they love football and do they try their best to be good people? The answers are incredibly difficult to figure out. This is where being fair and objective, having an open mind and following the evidence make the biggest differences between a good guess at what the draft’s top 100 will be and hitting at a high rate.

Brugler: Balancing talent and character is the never-ending battle of an NFL evaluation. I would love to stick to the film only, but off-field factors (medicals, character, etc.) and evaluating makeup are half of a player’s final evaluation.

For the average NFL starter, the talent level is similar, and intangibles often determine who has the longer career. I’m not interested in character assassination, but I want readers to have all the appropriate information to understand each player, so I include the facts (arrests, suspensions, etc.) in a player’s report. And how trusted sources talk about a player’s character becomes a factor in his ranking.

Rashee Rice is a recent (and complicated) example. The summer going into the 2022 season, Rice was my top-ranked senior wide receiver and appeared in my top-50 draft board. But based on character feedback from SMU and NFL teams, I dropped him from a second-round to a third-round grade in “The Beast.” I couldn’t help but feel regret about my grade while watching Rice’s rookie season with the Chiefs, but this offseason has illustrated the concern.

Baumgardner: Obviously, football is a team game, but we’re evaluating individuals and how they perform within that structure. When you start in the summer, do you have a position or area you prefer to start with?

Brugler: I always start with quarterbacks, but I care more about efficiency during the summer months. So, if I’m scouting Penn State quarterback Drew Allar, I’m making sure to watch the Ohio State tape so I also can get eyes on Tyleik Williams, JT Tuimoloau, Denzel Burke and the half-dozen other Buckeyes defenders with NFL futures.

The goal is to watch at least three tapes for each prospect to formulate their initial grades.


Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders slots in as Dane Brugler’s early No. 2 senior QB prospect. (RJ Sangosti / MediaNews Group / The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Baumgardner: How many prospects do you try to watch before you set your initial rankings?

Brugler: Over the summer, I study, grade and rank more than 1,000 prospects. For example, over the last week, I did a preliminary deep dive on 40 senior quarterbacks and stamped each with an initial grade. Georgia’s Carson Beck is my top senior QB, followed by Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders; Western Kentucky’s TJ Finley starts as my No. 40 senior quarterback. It’s interesting that only seven of those 40 QBs are still on the team they signed with out of high school, and the rest are transfers — sign of the times. That is one of the greatest challenges this time of year, just keeping up with all the player movement.

For several of these players, I already have a head start because of the notes from last year’s draft cycle. Ohio State had several players — like TreVeyon Henderson, Emeka Egbuka, Tuimoloau and Burke — I expected to be in the 2024 class, so I did full reports and grades already. Each has a good chance to be the highest-graded senior prospect at their position in my initial rankings.

Starting in July, my position-by-position summer previews will be posted, and I’m eager to share my initial thoughts on this upcoming class.

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Baumgardner: Last one, and it ties back to the point about stubbornness being a scout’s worst enemy. Every person who’s ever watched football has their preferences, and the same goes for every coach, scout and player. Give me one personal scouting bias you’ve had to adjust during your career.

Brugler: Size at wide receiver is something I have always valued, for obvious reasons. But at times, I can undervalue undersized prospects. Going back to last year’s draft class, I really liked Zay Flowers’ talent — he was my No. 32 player in the 2023 NFL Draft. But his lack of size was something that bothered me on film and stopped me from bumping up his grade.

It was similar with Tank Dell (5-8, 165 pounds) in the same draft class. I graded him as a mid-to-late third-rounder (which wasn’t too far off from where he was selected). But in hindsight, I dinged him a little too much for his diminutive size.

(Top photo of Carson Beck: James Gilbert / Getty Images)

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