Titans' young scouts fighting way into NFL, learning Jon Robinson's way

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – That stereotypical crusty old scout chomping on a cigar with a billion Holiday Inn points in his account isn’t part of the Tennessee Titans anymore.

Among the changes Jon Robinson has made in his two seasons as the franchise’s GM is a significant turnover in the scouting department.

Gone are old-guard guys like Phil Neri, Marv Sunderland, Tim Ruskell and Mike Yowarsky.Scouts1

The college scouting staff Robinson inherited in 2015 had an average of 22.8 years of NFL experience heading into that season. By my count, the current staff has an average of 8.3 heading into this season.

Old scouts can be set in their ways and that can be a positive or a negative. New scouts haven’t seen as much and that can be a positive or negative.

The overall shift is not good or bad, but it is different. I think this is the youngest college scouting staff the franchise has had in the Tennessee era.

“I want them to continue to improve as evaluators,” Robinson said. “We’ve obviously tried to teach them what we are looking for in players, certain skills sets, position skills, critical factors, developing relationships

at schools, learn what’s playing in the league, learn what we’re playing with, be constantly up to date with our football team where they are making those comparisons.”

Jon Gruden remembers tagging along with his father, Jim, who scouted for the 49ers in their glory days. (Jim 49ers Scoutsis at the far right in the red shirt in this picture of 49ers scouts back then. Bill Atkins is third from the left, Billy Wilson fourth from the left.) 

“I’d see my dad and (Bill) Atkins and Billy Wilson, they were all veteran guys that had been around,” Jon Gruden said. “It’s a tough business to break into. It’s a lonely profession. You’ve got to go from one school to another. Then you’ve got to write a report and go do it again after he’s played eight or nine games.

“And you’ve got to have a thick skin, because it’s impossible to be right all the time. But you do have to show some conviction and you’ve got to earn your stripes, you’ve got to prove you can evaluate. And sometimes it takes a couple years where the GM says, ‘Hey, you were right about that guy. Maybe we ought to listen to this kid.’”

Pro Football Hall of Fame GM Bill Polian told The Midday 180 at the combine that getting young in scouting is a natural process that can ultimately produce other league executives.

“We had two veteran scouts in the early stages in Indianapolis who retired, and we missed them certain the Scouts3year after they were gone,” he said. “The process missed them. I would occasionally dragoon them back in service as consultants as time went by.

“We did exactly what Jon (is doing). We groomed all the young guys who came through the pipeline. We identified those that had management possibilities and put them into positions of authority. That’s how Dave Caldwell and Tom Telesco became general managers.

“You’d like to have some old heads around to provide leavening, but if the general manager is an experienced personnel guy, which Jon is, then you’re fine.”

Robinson said he’s not had to be as critical of first-draft scouting reports with the Titans as he was in 2014-15 with the Bucs, when he oversaw the scouting staff. He later learned Tampa Bay scouts texted among themselves about “Red Dawn,” the day when Robinson would fire back their marked-up reports.

That was not about the boss disagreeing with opinions. It was about his seeking colorful, vivid descriptions of prospects that really painted he and GM Jason Licht a picture.

Robinson was once an inexperienced young college scout for the New England Patriots, where he spent 12 years.

Scouts2He was not there to tell Bill Belichick what the coach who runs the team wanted to hear, but to give him an independent opinion of players inside similar parameters to the ones he described now teaching.

It’s easy to think guys trying to make it in the business are more likely to be yes men in an echo chamber. But what sense would it make for Robinson to be looking for those?

“They call it like they see it, and that’s one of the things that I harp on,” Robison said. “It was the same thing with the coaching staff when they came on. ‘Listen, I don’t want you to think, Well, this is what Mike (Vrabel) might think or Jon might think.’

“As an evaluator, you get paid for your evaluation, your opinion.”

A young scout, not with the Titans, told me watching draft-room conversations that pivoted on one opinion helped him learn and get ready.

"The key is conviction and confidence in those meetings," he said. "Have a CLEAR vision for the player and be convicted. Don't be on the fence. Absolutely don't be a yes man. In my early years, I watched other scouts closely. And to me the best were scouts who could stop the momentum of a room -- say it's very negative initially -- and turn it the other way.

"Don't be a yes man. If you've done the work and have conviction, it's easy."

Titans scout photos courtesy Tennessee Titans. 49ers photo used with permission.

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