Using Decision Tree Modeling to Determine Who To Scout

The first question a scouting department must answer is which players to devote time and effort to scouting. Time is a finite resource, so while the goal of thoroughly vetting every college football player in the nation is admirable, it’s not realistic. By asking a few simple, objective questions about a college player we can quickly determine if he is worth scouting. A decision tree on whether or not to devote resources to scouting a college football player would look something like the following:

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General Theory: Because it is possible to scout a lot of players (but not every player) it is worth being fairly inclusive and looking into players who show signs of having at either the athleticism or football skill to succeed at the NFL level.

Node 1 Explanation: If a player is a starter at a top Division I school it is a sign that the player is good enough to play with top competition. Also, top Division I schools usually recruit the best high school athletes, so a player starting at a school like Alabama is a signal that the player likely has above average athletic traits.

Node 2 Explanation: The best college football players are most likely to go on to become the best NFL players. If a player is a dominant player in college football, their influence on the game will be reflected in their box score statistics at some point in the players collegiate career. Players who are unable to make an impact in college football usually aren’t good enough to play in the NFL either.

Node 3 Explanation: Sometimes, players with unique athletic traits can switch positions from college to the NFL and excel at their new position in spite of their lack of collegiate experience. Julian Edelman was a quarterback in college football but did not have the skills to play quarterback in the NFL. However, Edelman’s elite agility  allowed him to eventually make the transition to being a successful receiver in the NFL (though he didn’t break out as a receiver until his fifth year in the league.) Terrell Pryor is another example of a freakishly gifted athlete who eventually transitioned from quarterback to receiver with success. Runningbacks Jerrick McKinnon and Denard Robinson are collegiate quarterbacks with strong athletic traits who’ve had some success in the NFL. Future Hall of Fame Tight End Antonio Gates never played college football at all and two time All Pro Tight End Jimmy Graham only played a year of college football after a college basketball career. Anyway, there are enough cases of great athletes who haven’t had the opportunity to develop their technical football knowledge and who lock a strong collegiate resume who were be able to learn the requisite skills and who’s innate football talent allowed them to eventually succeed at the NFL level that it is worth at least evaluating anyone with elite athleticism.

It is extremely rare for below unproductive college football players with marginal tested athleticism to make an impact at the NFL level, so it is not particularly wise to waste time and energy scouting these players.

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