When your team engineers the single greatest dynasty in American professional sports, there’s bound to be a few alumni that move on from the organization and have, let’s say, the kind of credibility where their takes need to be accompanied with as many grains of salt as an Auntie Ann’s pretzel. Not going to name names or anything, but suffice to say, maybe Asante Samuel isn’t the best resource for analysis of Bill Belichick’s cap management acumen.
On the other hand, there’s the franchise legends that Bill Belichick has trusted with crucial jobs in the Patriots organization for years and even decades, and then there’s an even smaller sliver of those that when they talk, you sit straight up in your chair, set your work IM status to “Busy — Do Not Disturb”, and just listen.
When Dante Scarnecchia speaks, especially with the Patriots on the eve of a draft when they would surely love to acquire the services of the next great offensive lineman to call Foxboro home, it’s time to break out the notepad and pay more attention than you ever did in college. The Patriots realistically need to be hoping the board shakes out where they get a chance to snag at least one premier talent at tackle, if they want to keep up the precedent of drafting tackles a year early, and almost inarguably have a glaring need at one guard spot opposite the mighty Michael Onwenu. So who better to help us learn more about what the Patriots go heart-eyes for in an offensive line prospect at any position than the man, the myth, the legend, the coach that spent 34 years with the New England Patriots?
(Fun fact: Dante started coaching offensive line for New England in 1999, which would be a fun enough fact on its own. Prior to that, though, he also coached special teams from 97-98, was a defensive assistant from 95-96, a special assistant from 93-94, coached special teams and tight ends from 91-92, and also coached special teams and tight ends from ‘82-’88, all for the New England Patriots. The more you can do!)
Coach Scar has been retired since the summer of 2020, and even in his days after full-time football, he still can’t quite quit ball completely and has been consulting part-time with Bill about “prospect and scheme evaluation, among other things” according to the indefatigable Mike Reiss of ESPN. So everything you’re about to hear, or, uh, read if you forgot your headphones, is still very much applicable to this year’s draft and beyond that’s going to require more than a couple ballers on the offensive line sooner rather than later.
Here’s the full episode if you’d rather just listen straight through; we’ll transcribe the fun parts of The Athletic Football Show’s interview with Dante below and chime in with our two cents here and there. Cool? Cool. Let’s go.
On how the Patriots get started with watching film on the 30-50 prospects the scouting department has ID’d as draftable or high-priority UDFAs:
The Athletic: How do you start that process? If it’s a chunk of 50 players, how do you even begin knowing how to sort through the film for each guy, where you want to start watching, how do you break that into chunks?
Scarnecchia: Well, the easiest way to do it, first off, is to look at the all-star games at the end of the year, and the number one game is the Senior Bowl. So usually you can look at the senior bowl tape, and of that list of 50 guys, maybe as little as 3, as many as 7 guys were in that game. So you can look at them against, really, pretty good competition. And usually what you were looking for there, in my opinion, were the one-on-one pass protection tapes, the one-on-one run blocking tapes, and obviously the game tapes. I didn’t really look a lot at the practice tapes - you know, they’re just practice. So I would look at that, and then, from there I would kind of have a pretty good idea what those players look like.
And then, what we do, and I’m sure a lot of people do this also, is we have what we call Point Of Attack Tapes. So, that tape is put together by the scouting staff. It involves a large volume of run plays, a large volume of pass plays. It also includes the number of penalties they had in all their games. So you had ways to evaluate them that way.
And then, what I always liked to do, was, let’s say, if you’re looking at a guy in the Southeast Conference, you’re going to look at him against Alabama, Florida, you’re going to look at him against Georgia — you’re going to look at them against all these good schools, against players that are going to be playing on Sundays in this league. There’s no doubt about it. So you had access to looking at those guys against those teams, and against really good players.
Note: apparently despite the Patriots’ recent love affair with players that dominate at the Senior Bowl, it’s always been heavy in their evaluations. Who knew!
More on how the Patriots evaluate prospects where there isn’t a ton of tape against legit top-25 teams or even Division I opponents:
The Athletic: When there isn’t a lot of tape with high-level competition, if you’re looking at someone in this draft — for example, let’s say Trevor Penning from Northern Iowa — where most of his tape is not going to be against players from schools of that ilk, how do you try to make that evaluation and bridge that gap? I’m sure it’s difficult to understand the context of what you’re watching.
Scarnecchia: I believe this — let’s just talk about from a physical standpoint. If he only plays against teams that are of like standing as his — and I’m not downgrading Northern Iowa, Northern Iowa’s beaten Iowa, everyone’s had a great game - you know, what we’re talking about is, maybe Iowa’s not on the schedule this year. The thing that I have to see is that guy has to dominate the competition. There can be no ties. I mean, he just has to dominate everybody he plays. Because he’s really playing a lesser quality of player than what we’ve already talked about.
So that’s number one, does he dominate the competition? If he does, then you say ‘all right, we’re on the right track’. And then you hope you’re able to see him, maybe as a junior, against a higher level of competition. Or maybe this is a guy like the player you just mentioned and he’s at the Senior Bowl or a high-level all-star game. Then you look and see, is he able to make that transitional leap to a better quality of opponent in a one-on-one session. So, I think that you just have to keep digging and keep searching.
More on how the Patriots have evaluated the small-school guys in the past, including an excellent case-study example that doubles as a mini-episode of “Let’s remember some guys”:
The Athletic: I’m looking at a list of players you’ve drafted over the years here. Not a ton of small-school offensive linemen over the last decade or so. Can you think of someone that you really had to look into in that way and try and figure out ‘what am I really watching here?” that you guys ultimately did end up drafting?
Scarnecchia: You know, if we didn’t draft anyone from a smaller school it wasn’t because we didn’t like them, or we just said ‘hey, no way’. We did exactly the same process that I just described. We looked at them and really tried to get the best evaluation for that player as we possibly could.
But to your question, I mean, we didn’t draft Steve Neal, who played for us for 9 years. He was a college wrestler. But we brought him in, and for us, the evaluation process really was a case where we brought him in and tried him on defense and he was horrible. But his workout when we got him in before we signed him was off-the-charts great. I mean, this guy was a phenomenal athlete, the size, the speed, everything else. So I’m sitting there looking at this guy and I’m thinking, we’ll never get a chance at that player that has this guy’s skillset.
So I asked Bill, I said, “Hey, just give him to me for a week or two, and let’s see what he looks like at training camp.” And the one thing that he did, and really the thing that for me, and for us as a staff, to be honest with you, that really sealed the deal for Steve was, in one-on-one pass protection, he was outstanding, because that was his world. When those defensive linemen would go to grab him and throw him, that was Steve’s world. He was a two-time NCAA wrestling champion. Heavyweight wrestling champion. And he was phenomenal. But when they would go to push him, he could settle down. When they would try to pull him, he could get his weight back. They couldn’t do anything with him. And so you looked at that, and you just said, “All right, he’s raw, he’s got a lot to learn, but we’re not letting this guy out of here. And we’re going to put him on the practice squad”. So that was his evaluation process, and I think that’s true for a lot of teams. There’s a lot of stories like that.
Then we get into some real offensive-line-nerd shit about how Dante’s evaluation reports took shape:
The Athletic: Can you describe it (the evaluation form) at all? Was it like a rubric, was it long form, was were the most important things you wanted to get across?
Scarnecchia: I really delved into five areas. I wanted to know everything I could about him as a run blocker. Could he move the line of scrimmage? Could he make the tough blocks in the run game, which for me — and I would assume would be for a lot of other people — can he make the backside cut-off? Can he make the front-side reach block? Can he unlock his hips? I don’t want to get technical here, but in blocking you move them with your lower body and you control them with your upper body. And all those things count for something, so you have to look for those traits in that guy within that particular skill which we’re describing as run blocking. Can he unlock his hips? Because, again, you’re generating force with your lower body. Can you redirect a guy? So, if you’re into a guy and the ball carrier goes one side, he tries to play off that way, can you redirect the force of your block on that guy?
In pass protection, the centers and guards control the depth of the pocket. If those guys are getting knocked back, you’re not going to have a pocket. And especially for us because with Tom [Brady] in there at quarterback, he’s there. He ain’t going anywhere else. The idea was, those guys couldn’t sink and anchor in the middle of the pocket and not get pushed back then we felt like they were a real liability. And the same thing’s true for the tackles. The tackles keep the width in the pocket, so if they’re getting collapsed down in from the outside in, then that does you no good. You have to be able to have the depth in the pocket with the center and guards, the width in the pocket with the tackles.
And the tackles, they have a double-edged sword; they have to handle speed-to-power rushers, and they have to handle speed off the outside edge or quickness up-and-unders and things like that. You have to be able to evaluate those traits and how well those guys can do those traits.
We’re pushing 2,300 words here, but our next one deals with one of the Patriots’ biggest needs this season at the aforementioned guard position — if a guard prospect balls out on tape, but his numbers at the combine or with the measuring tape aren’t ideal, how do you square those two on draft day? Because as much as the Madden-brain crowd loves to say “just make X tackle prospect that doesn’t have Go-Go-Gadget-arms play guard”, that’s, well, a Madden solution to a far more complex real-life pickle.
The Athletic: As far as guards go, you guys drafted Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason I think in back-to-back years. I know you weren’t coaching full-time at that point, but you were part of those evaluations. Both of those guys have certain traits and strengths that you see from their college tape. Even Joe as a tester was impressive, but he wasn’t necessarily very long. Was that ever a priority for you when it came to guards, or were you willing to overlook arm length and some more traditional benchmarks at times if you thought the guy was a really good player?
Scarnecchia: I believe in length. I think that length is important. Look, Matt Light played on our team for 11 years, all right, and his arms were 33 inches long at left tackle. Now, do you want them much shorter than that? I’d say no. Do you want them longer than that? Yeah, it doesn’t hurt, it’s certainly good. But it’s not the end-all “we absolutely cannot take this guy if he doesn’t have 33-inch arms”. So I think, I’m sure Shaq’s arms aren’t very long, I know they’re not.
The Athletic: I think it’s 32 and 1/8 for him, and 32 1/4 for Joe.
Scarnecchia: Yeah. I mean, to me that’s long enough. Look, if you’re blocking a guy, every time you hit the guy, your arms are 20 inches out in front of your body, that’s OK, in fact that’s very doable. But if your arms are sitting in here like Tyrannosaurus Rex arms and you got them right in here, you don’t have 33-inch arms, you don’t have 36-inch arms. So you’re really not using your length to your effectiveness. So what I always say is, look, let’s not hammer these guys because of that. Yeah, for tackles we have kind of a minimum out there, but if they’re capable of doing things well with, quote, not the longest arms in the world, it’s OK. Like Isaiah Wynn, Isaiah Wynn played left tackle in the Southeast Conference and was really good. And he’s got 33-inch arms. So he was really effective against a lot of good players out there. And so, I just think that, how good is the guy playing, let’s start with that first.
And one more for the road on everyone’s favorite part of the big boys in the trenches that led Matt Light and Logan Mankins to local legend and red-jacket no-brainers - evaluating toughness.
Scarnecchia: I think the greatest communication should come between the assistant coaches, obviously, the head coach, and the scouting staff. They have to know what’s important to us. For example, I believe in toughness. The three traits that I always look for: smart enough, tough enough, and athletic enough. Ok? And you can’t compromise toughness. If that guy’s not going to hit you in college, he’s not going to hit you in the NFL. He’s just not. And so I believe that that’s an absolute mandatory thing. They have to be tough enough to stand up to the guys that they have to block in this league.
Ok, we lied, one more that provides some pretty interesting context on just how Bill Belichick gets input from his assistant coaches in the scouting process. This seems especially relevant if you think Bill’s just tuned everyone else out and drafts like it’s 2003 because of every beat writer’s favorite term this offseason — the (air quotes) BRAIN DRAIN on the Patriots staff.
The Athletic: During the process, how often would you have discussions with Bill about specific players in a given year? Would you guys sit down and talk about it? I’m curious what your guys’ communication looked like over the years:
Scarnecchia: I think it was really just a moderate amount, a small amount of times. I would come in and give him everybody, “This is how I see it”. And we’d go through it page by page. And you know what? To his credit, a lot of people don’t know, he looks at all those linemen too now. So all the guys I was looking at, he was looking at. And we would share and he’s going, “No, I’m not sure I see it the way you see it”, and I would say, “I’m not sure I see it the way you see it”. But look, that’s his job, and so you respect that, and I’m going to go back and look some more at this guy and I want to make sure.
And then I think the most important thing, honestly, is when you have an opinion on somebody, you express that opinion. And if you feel strong about it, you express it in a strong manner. Hey, I really like this guy. If you can say that about a guy — I really like this guy, and here’s why — then I think that counts for something.
The Athletic: That tension is healthy. It has to be healthy in those moments where you’re pushing each other and figuring out, “What am I not seeing?” It feels like if that tension didn’t exist, you’d be in trouble.
Scarnecchia: There’s no doubt. You have to have checks and balances. Not everybody’s right all the time, not everybody’s wrong all the time. I think it is healthy and it’s something that can be very illuminating and allow people to look at guys and say all right, we’re all on the same page. Joe Thuney. There was nothing not to like about Joe Thuney. Shaq Mason. David Andrews — we looked at David Andrews and said, “What’s not to like about this guy?” Well, he’s not going to be drafted. So, great, we’ll get him for less. And it just worked out, thank god it worked out that way. And we’ve had our mistakes in the past too, so you just have to move on.
The Athletic: Was the tone of those conversations always like that, where you guys were comfortable pushing one another and there was that culture of professional disagreement, or was that something that developed over time as you guys built up some success?
Scarnecchia: I think professional disagreement is a real accurate way of saying it. There was never any heated conversations — never — between Bill and myself, or head of scouting and myself, it was never anything like that. It was just, “This is how I see them” and I think it was all very respectful both ways, and I think that’s true with everybody there. All they want is your opinion, and if you’re doing your homework, you’re giving your opinion and how it fits what we want to do, and how we want to do it and the guys we want to do it with, and I think that’s the way to approach things.
Every day we get this much Coach Scar is a great day. Enjoy the draft, everyone, and when the Patriots hand in a draft card for one of the big boys up front, now you know that much more about what that guy had that Bill and the coaching staff saw and thought, “Yeah, we can make a football player out of that”.