Recently, I had a chance to chat with Nathan Cooper, a co-editor, author and scout for the Sports Info Solutions (SIS) Football Rookie Handbook 2021. Read more to see how the Handbook came together, the Steelers’ draft trajectory, SIS’ picks for underrated and overrated prospects, why you should buy the Handbook and advice for prospective scouts.
Question: How did you become involved with Sports Info Solutions (SIS) in the first place, and how does that relate to your overall journey to being a sports analyst or a sports scout?
I loved sports growing up. I played quarterback in college at a small school in Kentucky. From there, I obviously got to the point where I wasn’t gonna play past college, but I wanted to stay in the game. I went and did an operations internship with the Chiefs, went out and got my master’s [degree], and then actually did an internship with UNLV and their football team for a season, then did a couple of arena league internships. And then, I did some external scouting with the Browns for a draft cycle. That led me to SIS; I actually came here as a baseball scout for a season. I had no idea that they were doing football at the time; that was actually the first year they started doing football, so it was kind of a happy accident I guess you could say. And I’ve been doing both [sports] really. Since then, [I’ve been] doing a lot more with football.
This is our third [Rookie Handbook] that we’ve put out now, something that our higher ups have really allowed us to take off with the scouting side. SIS, obviously we’re a charting company first. But being able to kind of get into the scouting side and putting out what we do in the in the Football Rookie Handbook, being able to get that scouting eye with the analytics combined and really give fans and give everyone the opportunity to kind of do their own research, has been awesome in the last few years,
Q: What does the overall scouting process look like for one particular prospect? Let’s pick Trevor Lawrence, kind of the face of the draft this year. How many games with Trevor Lawrence film would you watch individually, how many would your other editors watch and would you guys confer after watching film? How do you weave in that data aspect as well?
There’s a lot that goes into it; it sort of varies by scout and by position. Talking about quarterback, that’s one of the ones where you try to watch as many games as possible. On average, it’s probably like a four- to five-hour process. We require at least four games, no matter the position: you at least need to watch four games on a guy, and from there, it depends. When you’re talking about quarterbacks, it could be more; when you’re talking about defensive backs, probably more as well because [if] you’re [scouting] a corner or a safety that may not get targeted a lot, you may need to watch an extra couple of games so you can see those targets and things like that. I actually watched Trey Lance, and I watched nine games for him, so it all depends. Guys that don’t have a lot of film, maybe you want to watch as much as you can, [but] guys who’ve been consistent over three or four years, you watch five or six games, or you can watch 10 games that you’re gonna see a lot of the same similarities throughout.
We actually had over 600 players that were on our list this year. And a lot of those guys we actually want to watch more than once, so we’ll have one guy watch somebody, and then we’ll also have somebody else watching as well. Maybe it’s a guy that could be a two-position guy, maybe like a Jacoby Stevens: is he gonna play strong safety, or is he gonna play will linebacker? So we’ll give a guy like him to a couple different guys, see what kind of reports we get back and kind of mesh those together for what goes into the actual handbook. All said and done, we had over 750 reports submitted on all those guys this year. John Todd is another one of the guys that co-authors [that] I work really close with. We put in a ton of time of editing all these reports, so we have guys that may have one report on, and those are kind of easy to edit. But then you have two or three reports on guys that we need to start to go through, pick out what fits best for this guy. Maybe we have to watch a little bit of film to break ties and things that we see on these multiple reports and sort of go through that process. And then whenever you get to the end, then you have another 15 or 20 guys who are going through stat-checking, editing the rest of it and writing additional content and those sorts of things.
When you’re all said and done, it’s a lot of hours that go into it. Going through each prospect, some can be intricate, like the Trevor Lawrences and the Trey Lances. Some offensive linemen, you’ve got guys that are four-year starters, really, you get three or four games in and you really know what the guy is. That kind of depends, but that’s kind of the process that we go through.
Q: With the NFL, we have NFL Game Pass, where you can rewind and watch any clip. But there doesn’t really seem to be at least a widely known college equivalent to that, so are you guys given a lot of the film that you’ve watched? Is it teams reach out to you and say, ‘Hey, can you write a report for this guy’ or do you just have insiders that you work with different levels of football? How do you just really go about getting all that different film for prospects?
Yeah, the film we actually get from clients; paying clients that we have exchange the film, that’s how we get our film, and it’s basically for our charting process. We go through and we use the All-22 to be able to see things that you can’t see on broadcasts and things like that. As you alluded to, the Game Pass, that’s something that we use for when we watch NFL games. Going through and seeing all of that, it definitely helps. It’s definitely hard to watch broadcast film to scout guys, so it definitely helps to have that All-22, and I wish it would be more readily available and something that you can really get anywhere. But luckily, we have clients that supply that for us. But that’s kind of the process that we go through: we have our video scouts that come in and chart all of our games and everything. Having that has definitely been helpful in our charting process and our scanning process.
Q: Who’s your favorite player that you’ve been able to evaluate this year so far?
I’ve watched a lot of guys this year. To say who my favorite is, probably Jaylen Waddle—he’s definitely a fun guy to watch, one of the highest-ranked guys that we have. He’s actually our #1 receiver ahead of [Ja’Marr] Chase and ahead of Devonta Smith. Really fun guy to watch; you’re watching him, even with the injury. You watch before that, he probably was gonna put up, maybe not the total numbers, but averages, he did probably better than what Devonta Smith put up. If you’re looking at him, [he’s] a guy that’s really fast. [He’s] quick off the ball who’s gonna win slants and crossers; he can win deep. His speed is ridiculous as well. A guy that varies his routes well, runs good routes, varies his speeds and things like that. Just a fun guy to watch, and I think he’s gonna do a lot at the next level.
Q: Are there any guys that immediately you think of as maybe overrated—where people are estimating them to go too high, that may be not that good in terms of that position—or guys who might go late in the first round or even later than that might have a really immediate impact?
We have some guys that obviously stand out as us maybe grading guys a little higher or lower than most other guys have. Some guys that stand out: a Cole Van Lanen from Wisconsin—I think he played tackle. We actually have him rated as a guard, and we actually have him as a 6.7 grade. There’s not many people that are talking about him; we have him as a solid starting level guy, a guy that whenever you come out of that Wisconsin offensive line, you kind of know what you’re gonna get there. And he’s a guy that I think we probably have rated a little bit higher than most. But still a solid guy who is really going to go in, and I think he’s a guy that has the balance at the second level, has the strength that you want to see on the inside as well.
Maybe a guy that is a little bit lower than some others, we actually have some edge rushers or some linebackers that I could say are probably a little bit lower. Maybe a Gregory Rousseau: we also have [him] as a 6.7, but we have him as our fifth-ranked edge. And there’s a lot of people that are saying maybe he’s the #1, he’s the #2. Obviously, 6.7 is still a really good grade, but just the fact that we graded him as our #5 is a little lower than I think a lot of people have him. ]He’s] obviously a guy that’s super talented, still young and I think he’s really gonna grow into what he’s really going to do at the next level. He’s going to grow into his body, grow into being that edge rusher who’s really going to be a force on the edge there. But we feel like maybe the guys ahead of him are just a little bit more proven and guys that are going to get out on the field and contribute right away.
Q: I think one of the big questions that emerges every year is, Should a running back be taken in the first round? Obviously, [it’s] kind of one of the most fungible positions in football because there seems to be just three or four that are really elite, and the rest of them are kind of in that same category. So I think this year, the running back class is pretty fascinating based on what I’ve seen with Najee Harris out of Alabama, Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams. I’ve seen people have Travis Etienne as low as #4; I think Bleacher Report put that out. I’ve seen some hype for Javonte Williams going in the first round. So, what is your take on this year’s running back class, especially given that the Steelers likely should take a running back, maybe as early as #24? A player like Najee Harris, is he worthy of maybe even a mid-first round pick?
Yeah, I could actually see Najee Harris being sort of at that end of the first round. He’s a guy that we actually have as a blue-chip guy: he’s a 7.0 type of grade, and [in] this year’s running back class, we have him as a 7.0; Javonte Williams is actually our #2 at a 6.9, and then Etienne is our #3. We’re high on Williams and obviously high on Harris, too, and I think either one of those guys definitely could be an option for the Steelers at the end of the first round. I think that’s warranted—I don’t think that you’re in a situation where we know, ‘We can’t take a running back in the first round.’ I think if you took one of those guys, I think you’re probably fine.
Q: And then also, the Steelers obviously have some holes to fill with offensive line with offensive tackle and center, and some mocks think, ‘Oh, well if a really good tackle like Christian Darrisaw were to fall to #24, that the Steelers should pounce on that.’ What are your thoughts on this offensive tackle—and maybe even center—class because at least from the outside, it seems to be pretty deep well into even Round 3.
Yeah, absolutely. We’re really high on the tackle class. Obviously, starting off with guys like Penei Sewell and Rashawn Slater, and those guys I’m assuming are probably going to be gone by the time the Steelers are up to pick. But you have Villanueva and Feiler: both are free agents. You have Okorafor there—I think he’s more of that right tackle, so you’re probably looking for a guy on the left side. We actually have four guys ranked at that 6.7 grade, and that’s Darrisaw, Liam Eichenberg, Sam Cosmi and Jalen Mayfield—but the guy if you’re looking for like a left tackle, that’s probably going to be a guy like Liam Eichenberg out of Notre Dame. Strong pass blocker, shows very good anchor ability, plays with reactive athleticism and body control that you need on the left side. He was tied for fourth among tackles in our handbook in pass blocking total points per game. [He’s] not going to wow, really, in the run game and generate much movement, but he’s one of those fundamental Notre Dame tackles. Darrisaw and Cosmi are guys that could work on the left side if they were asked to, but we feel like their skill set fits a little bit better on the right side. So, obviously, any of those guys would be great picks at the end of the first round; Eichenberg is more that left tackle that [I] probably feel like the Steelers could look for.
Q: Despite all the fantasies that go out on Twitter about the Steelers trading up for a Zach Wilson or Trey Lance, it’s just fundamentally unlikely. The Steelers could find themselves picking maybe a late-round quarterback like Davis Mills out of Stanford, Jamie Newman out of Georgia. What are your takes on any of those quarterbacks: do any of them really have starting upside in the NFL, or would they not really be a prudent pick for a team that has some needs at quarterback?
Obviously, you have Roethlisberger coming back. The real big question is: is [Mason] Rudolph the guy whenever Big Ben decides to hang it up? You bring in Dwayne Haskins; maybe they let that battle kind of play out this year. But if they go ahead and take one [quarterback] in the mid-to-late rounds, I could definitely see a Mills or a Newman being those types of guys. Davis Mills we have as our #7 quarterback, and we actually have him as kind of a sufficient starter type of guy, and same thing with Jamie Newman as well. Jamie Newman we have more of, maybe sufficient starter, circumstantial starter, maybe better as a backup, but he has mobility that you look for. He has the arm strength. One of the big questions obviously is taking the year off—he didn’t play in 2020—but then also something with accuracy as well. He’s struggled throughout his career with accuracy, especially short accuracy: you definitely need that at the next level. So it’s something that if he can build upon, I think he has enough traits that if you’re taking a guy kind of as a flyer in the mid-to-late rounds to develop, I think he could be a guy to get.
Q: Before the free agency period starts every year, lots and lots of mock drafts are rolled out. Do you personally read a lot of those, and is it kind of gratifying to see people reference your handbook or SIS when they’re making mock drafts?
I try to stay away from mock drafts, especially early in the process. It’s nice to watch and see what guys [like] Daniel Jeremiah or a Mel Kiper or Todd McShay [think]. These guys have some more insights than, obviously, when we do, so just seeing who they have—not necessarily who’s going where, who’s going this high, but just seeing who they have and guys who are on their radar. That way, we can kind of get them on our radar as well. One of the things that we’ll do [is] we’ll actually look at mock drafts after the draft for next year, just to compile our original kind of preliminary list to get ready for the next season. With mock drafts, I actually do my own seven-round mock draft every year in the couple days leading up to the draft, so I love actually doing my own.
But like I said, for what we do, it’s nice to see who is actually on those lists and kind of reference those guys, and that definitely helps us looking at our Handbook and things like that. And whenever you see mock drafts that reference our stuff, it’s obviously awesome to see, it’s gratifying to see those sorts of things. But at the end of the day, everyone kind of uses their own websites or own film analysis and stuff like that, so at that point, just kind of go with what you feel and kind of see if it hits.
Q: You mentioned earlier the kind of big three wide receivers are probably, in any order, Jaylen Waddle, Ja’Marr Chase and Devonta Smith. But I personally find it really interesting that Smith probably had the best season by receiver in college football since Desmond Howard, and a lot of people don’t even have him as their #2 wide receiver. Would you say this is one of the most polarizing wide receiver classes that you’ve scouted maybe ever, especially in recent memory?
It’s interesting. I think if you look at last year, you thought last year was a crazy receiver class, and then you look at this year. I think last year, we actually have better guys at the top of the draft. But whenever you’re looking at this year, it’s probably very similar in the depth throughout the draft. We actually have 48 guys in the Handbook this year at the receiver position, so a lot of depth—a lot of guys you can get in Day 2 and Day 3. But yeah, it’s saying that Devonta Smith—who was coming off one of the best seasons in possibly the history of college football, and we have him as our #3 receiver—it just tells you how crazy this class is. Looking at Smith at #3, we’re not pushing him aside at all. It’s a very high grade on him. It’s just that Waddle and Chase we feel are a little bit better, they’re a little bit more filled out, and they can probably do a little bit more. But yeah, looking even beyond Smith, there’s a lot of guys, potentially in the first round into Day 2, who are going to be big-time playmakers at the next level.
Q: Obviously, next year, the Steelers are probably going to be looking for a franchise successor assuming Big Ben does, in fact, retire, and very well could be through the draft, maybe even trading up. Have you guys started some of the scouting process for quarterbacks, and who are some names that Steelers fans can watch? I’m sure Sam Howell and Spencer Rattler would be in that mix.
Yeah, we actually start our process here maybe in the next month or so. We haven’t gotten to it just yet, but obviously Howell and Rattler are two guys that you have to watch. I think those are the two names that you really are going to pinpoint. And if the Steelers are wanting to wait until next year and want to go up depending on where they’re at in the draft next year, wanting to go up and actually make a pick for one of those guys, I think that’s definitely something that they would want to do. Those two guys are definitely going to be something at the next level. We actually get started probably over the next month, and we’ll start getting some summer scouting going, watching some guys for next year. A lot of our stuff kind of gets done throughout the season, but it’s never too early to start for draft preparation. It’s sort of that year pretty soon.
Q: Overall, how come you think people should buy the Rookie Handbook? What kind of benefits would it have for different levels of football fans?
I mean, whenever you’re looking at the SIS Football Rookie Handbook—this year’s book is over 700 pages—so it’s a very big, intricate book. We had over 300 prospects in there, so whenever you’re getting draft guides and everything, you’re getting a lot of players, but you’re just getting little blurbs on guys. We have half-page or full-page reports, plus all the stats that we collect. We count or collect hundreds of different data points and things for all the different positions. In every single page that you have on a prospect, you’re looking at his report, all of the grades that we give out for these guys, the final grades, the factor grades, strengths and weaknesses. And then you’re looking at all the stats that we collected on these guys, numerous analytics that go into each position.
So you have that, and it basically combines that together, really gives you the opportunity to be the GM and not really just [go] off of what somebody else says—now you have all the information to sort of go through and gather what your opinion is going to be on a certain player, whether you want it to be more stat-based, more scouting-based or kind of equally played in both of those.
It’s a really awesome book to have: it’s really comprehensive, and we also put in some different content and articles as well that kind of goes and touches on some of the analytics we have and some of the other interesting players or different things like that that come along with it.
Q: Where can people actually go ahead and buy the book?
You can purchase a hard copy on actasports.com, or you can get a digital copy this year on Amazon. This is our first year doing the digital copy, so if you wanted to go to Amazon and get that right away, you can do that as well. I’m always a big book guy; I love getting the hard copies and seeing kind of all the blood, sweat and tears we put into it, so if you wanted the hard copy, that’s definitely out there as well.
Q: Do you have any advice for maybe prospective or amateur scouts who are just starting to dip their toes into scouting, watching some film on YouTube? Any sort of tips to have keen eyes, things to watch for, how to adjust between prospects or groups or anything like that?
Yeah, it’s just going through and use the resources that you have. Obviously, YouTube isn’t the greatest thing in the world for having to watch broadcasts and stuff like that. But we have guys that do it—guys that are watching film to put their reports into the book, some of these guys are watching some YouTube film and really putting in everything they can to get out of it. There’s also some All-22 that you can kind of find here and there on YouTube as well, and just kind of diving in and seeing what you can find.
But going through and just, you know, doing your research, that’s the biggest thing. Whenever I watch film and I’m writing a report on guys, [I’m] going through and looking at their bio, looking at their injury history, looking at maybe a character history, just going through and looking at more than just what you’re seeing on the film. Because whenever you become a scout in the NFL, you’re looking at a lot more than just what you’re seeing on the field. You’re really needing to find all of that other information.
And so I think whenever you go through and you find all of that and you’re able to put that in reports, whether you’re sending it to teams or prospective employers or anything like that, they know that you’re putting the work into it. And that’s one of the things that I’ve really noticed, and that I like to do as well. There’s a lot of different ways to go about it, and the biggest thing is just kind of putting your work into it, putting the time into it and just doing what you can with the resources that you have.