‘Finding Rams,’ Part II: One year behind the scenes of the NFL Draft scouting process

Editor’s note: Over the last 10 months, The Athletic was granted access inside the Los Angeles Rams’ scouting and draft operation. This is the conclusion of our two-part series. Find part one here.

LOS ANGELES — Andy Sugarman always books his first one-way flight on March 5, the day NFL teams are allowed to visit draft-eligible prospects. He will not see his Northern California home again until late April, after the draft.

Each spring, Sugarman, the special assistant to Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead, annually visits two dozen or more players — he saw 33 this year — zig-zagging across the country on a series of one-way flights as Rams’ scouts and coaches hone in on specific prospects.

Sometimes Sugarman is still on the road mere days before the draft begins. Once during draft week, he made it to Snead’s L.A. office for an hour before being told he had to get back to the airport to see a new prospect.

“They get into debates on guys and I get sent,” Sugarman said.

Sugarman coached in the NFL for nearly two decades, mostly tight ends, but he looks like he teaches high school algebra. Gray-haired, quiet and small-framed with oval glasses, he’s an inconspicuous presence on college campuses and in football buildings, which is how he likes it.

The Rams do not typically conduct official “30 visits,” where teams are allowed to host up to 30 prospects at their facilities each spring, except for extreme cases when they feel they need more medical information. Those sessions must be reported to the league and, therefore, frequently leak in the media.

Sugarman’s visits do not as long as they are in person and within a 50-mile radius of the player’s school or hometown. Snead doesn’t want other teams to know who the Rams are paying closer attention to, and he and Sugarman believe in approaching prospects in their own world, where they may be more comfortable and more themselves.

Sugarman’s sessions can take the entire day. He asks prospects to teach him their college schemes — how they teach is often a reflection on how they best learn. Sugarman also wants to know how they think about the game: Do they know just their assignments or others’ as well? Can they break down why opponents attack them in certain ways? If they went to an all-star game like the Senior Bowl, can they recall certain plays from the offense or defense they learned there?

Often, they go to lunch so Sugarman can see how the player acts when he thinks his “classroom” session is over — how he interacts with waiters, cashiers or fans, whether he stays engaged in conversation and is comfortable and curious enough to ask Sugarman questions. “You really get a chance to know a person,” Sugarman said. The former coach later files his notes into a special section of JAARS.

Snead and other senior staff believe that someone with a coaching or playing background has to do this job. A scout evaluates skills, while a coach watches how the player fits within a certain structure.

“It’s just a different way to look at it,” Sugarman said. “I don’t have a scouting background. I have a coaching background. You look at things a little differently, you look at what the schemes are and whether they are making mistakes or not.”

His intel on how players learn and communicate is weighed alongside several others, including the results of the customized HEXACO leadership test and wide-ranging background checks from team officials and scouts’ own sourcing in a process head coach Sean McVay calls “finding Rams,” players who fit his culture.

Sean McVay just completed his eighth NFL Draft as the Rams’ head coach and had a Round 1 pick for the first time. (Ryan Kang/Getty Images)

Sugarman’s frenetic travel itinerary illustrates the shifting debate or level of interest in a prospect based on discussions between assistant coaches and the scouting staff. Coaches receive buckets of film from Snead and the scouting department in three waves over March/April and by then have access to the in-depth reports in JAARS. The coaching and scouting sides then meet deep into April. If they are stuck on a player, or if there is an argument, a question or exaggerated interest, Sugarman books a flight.

The work done during this time can lead to roster-altering decisions, even for late additions to the itinerary.

Last spring, Sugarman was traveling through the Southwest when he got a call from scouting director James Gladstone. Could he add this receiver from BYU to his schedule in between schools? Western area scout Vito Gonella kept raving about Puka Nacua in meetings, and when coaches got to his tape, a few gave him “hot” badges despite his grouping in a lower-ranked cluster of prospects.

At BYU, Sugarman spent several hours breaking down film with Nacua and came away floored by his energy, schematic knowledge, recall and quick grasp of new concepts. “He was talking like he was a coach,” Sugarman said. “He was teaching (the offense). He knew every player’s job, including the linemen.”

“This guy will transcend quickly,” Sugarman wrote in JAARS. The Rams drafted Nacua with their last pick in the fifth round, and he broke the rookie receiving record in 2023.



Inside Rams rookie WR Puka Nacua’s big numbers, from work behind the scenes

The Rams don’t formally attend February’s NFL Scouting Combine as a coaching or scouting staff, so outside of the odd handshake or getting a HEXACO result they didn’t previously have, they do not generally meet with prospects there. Certain Los Angeles executives hole up in quiet parts of the hotel complex around downtown Indianapolis, the annual site of the combine, but they are on what Snead calls “specific missions” that have more to do with overall offseason roster-building, networking and analytics. The Rams’ scouting department and coaching staff continue to work remotely or at their Thousand Oaks, Calif., practice facility with combine drills broadcasting on office T.V.s and athletic testing numbers uploading in real time to JAARS.

The Rams’ medical and athletic training staff do attend the combine because the formal medical assessments conducted there are a crucial part of the total evaluation. Players go through the process position by position across the span of several hours when they arrive in Indianapolis. The medical testing site is split into six separate rooms, with team physicians and athletic training staff from all 32 teams spread out among the rooms. Each player takes six physicals, one per room, with his information then entered into a shared database among the teams.

From there, teams can follow up with their own cross-checks. Rams’ VP of sports medicine and performance Reggie Scott combs through the medical information and inputs his own interpretations into JAARS along with a “risk grade” for each player. His grades and notes mark a major checkpoint in the Rams’ draft process.

“None of us want to get blindsided,” Scott said. “There’s no competitive advantage here in that way because it’s player health. … It’s how we ‘risk’ them that is different. That’s where you (add) your proprietary information.”

In JAARS, senior scouting and coaching personnel can also find analyses on leaguewide position injury trends and patterns from the Rams’ schematic assignments, position and practice output demands. The latter studies, compiled by data and analytics director Jake Temme and scouting strategist Nicole Blake, use player tracking and weight training data acquired during practices throughout the season. They help determine what type of workload a player with a higher “risk grade” could reasonably manage if drafted by the Rams and whether that could be sustainable.

Temme and Blake also include studies on draft trends and a sliding “risk scale” in their analyses. If a player has a lengthy injury history, but also has an excellent physical skill set and/or emotional quotient, at what round might he be considered, and how would his risks be managed?

In January, after the college football season ends, Rams area and OTT scouts begin a set of virtual meetings with Gladstone. The area scouts are the lead voices in these meetings. Snead sits in, but his screen is off and he doesn’t chime in.

Temme and Blake are also on the call. From her office at the Rams’ practice facility, Blake pulls up the group meeting, controlled by Gladstone and his shared screen, on a large T.V. over her desk. Across her desk are three additional computers, one open to a view of Snead’s screen and another connected to a time-logging device.

On his screen, which the scouts cannot see, Snead manipulates what he calls “the call sheet” as they discuss prospects. The sheet looks like a series of rectangles that split players by position into different buckets. There are no round-by-round grades, only four overall tiers into which players are then “bucketed.”

By mid-April, all draft-eligible players are split into nine buckets based on the Rams’ finished evaluations, which include the medical and character checks completed in March and, for some, notes from Sugarman’s visits. The buckets aren’t always “rankings” — some are lateral to others. Additional categories are added in April as college free agency position committees begin (CFA, also called undrafted free agent or UDFA).




Math changer | Total package


Reliable starter


Math changing starter | Range of caution flags


Impactful contributor | Clean profile


Talented enough to contribute but less predictable


Trustworthy but less talented


Late IQ or PQ


Major concerns | Off board or reconsider at end of draft


Likely drafted | Not a Rams fit



Committees, the ‘Les Fund’ and dance music: How the Rams’ UDFA process works

The area scouts don’t see Snead move players around the call sheet — or hear from him — in meetings because he doesn’t want to influence their arguments about players. Blake, who can see Snead’s maneuvering, uses the time-logging device to annotate his moves and takes notes about what inspired them. She also flags any spikes in conversation between the scouts.

For example, an area scout’s voice raised with excitement during a conversation about a prospect’s pro day. Gladstone asked the area scout to compare the player to another at the same position. As he did, Snead grouped the two together on his call sheet (unbeknownst to the area scouts). Blake filed the time and noted the nature of the spike. Over time, dozens of those charts are matched with prospects to create a tangible representation of the cliche, “scouts really stood on the table for (player).”

It is her job, Blake explained, to study how the Rams scouting department makes decisions. Each draft pick happens after a years-long timeline of micro-decisions, arguments, evaluations, sourcing and meetings. How did the group eventually reach its conclusion over that time? Blake can pinpoint the exact moment the tide turned for or against a prospect, what the discussion was like, who altered their own opinions after hearing others’ arguments, which staff members seemed to influence others and more.

Throughout pre-draft meetings in 2017, Snead kept noticing introverted area scout Brian Hill raising his voice when he talked about Eastern Washington receiver Cooper Kupp. Those moments — especially coming from a personality like Hill — built a stronger argument for Kupp in Snead’s mind that complemented harder data points, such as his GPS data from the Senior Bowl.

In 2022, when Blake was hired full-time out of Stanford’s MBA program, she and Temme began installing a process to turn the anecdotal moments in a decision-making process, such as Hill’s voice changing, into quantifiable evidence for or against the selection of a player during the crucial minutes of a pick.

Gathering this information also helps Blake engage in unique debates with Snead away from the rest of the group. On a particular day in January, Snead moved a player up one bucket on his call sheet and moved another down when the area scout expressed his excitement about the first player and as Gladstone drew out a comparison between the two.

During a break, Snead poked his head into Blake’s office. Didn’t Snead think he should simply expand the bucket instead of moving the second player out of it, she asked. The coaching staff, who would soon begin its first wave of draft evaluations, would get an initial exposure to only that first bucket of players, with the next bucket to follow a few weeks after. Getting on coaches’ desks in the first bucket is often a good thing for the player, but if the scouting staff was able to compare the first player to the second — unaware of the movement by Snead on the call sheet — shouldn’t the coaches do the same?

Snead’s call sheet remains in a state of constant movement between January and the week before the draft as meetings with scouts and then coaches continue. Draftniks and analysts — even other NFL teams — refer to lists of ranked prospects as “big boards” and keep them organized as such. But Snead’s call sheet looks more like the massive play card McVay uses in games. Both operate with similar strategies.

Where McVay groups preferred plays together depending on different scenarios and scribbles notes to himself in the margins, Snead groups positions and players on a massive screen in JAARS, moving between the nine buckets and using the program’s simplified language — colors, badges, one-liners such as “superpower” and “kryptonite” — to get quick refreshers on that prospect. McVay has less than 40 seconds to decide which play he’ll run and communicate it, and the rest is out of his hands. Depending on the draft round, Snead has between four and 10 minutes to make a player selection, and the rest is out of his hands.

Teams with a large number of picks, especially condensed into one section of the draft, characterize these picks as “throwing darts.” Prospects are imperfect in later rounds, but throw enough darts and the law of averages says a couple of them will work out. But Snead uses strategy here — these are informed bets, not blind throws.

Coaches will call certain plays based on studies of opponents’ tendencies. So will Snead. Temme and the pro scouts run programs that track trends and patterns in rival teams’ draft selections: When one team drafts receivers, do they only look for players who run a sub-4.4 second 40-yard dash? When another team drafts offensive linemen, will they remove a player with short arms from their board? How are character or injury flags weighed by certain teams?

Compiling and analyzing this data can help the Rams navigate the hectic later rounds. In 2023, the Rams had four fifth-round picks after some maneuvering via trades. Nacua, in his respective bucket, was grouped near the top of Snead’s call sheet entering the round. The Rams also needed a linebacker who could play special teams and a tight end, among other positions.

Snead and the staff in the draft room, including McVay, had to decide which pick to use on Nacua and identified other teams in that round who could be looking for receivers. Analysts pulled up those teams’ histories of preferred traits and previous selections at receiver.

Nacua had some injury issues in college and ran a slow 40-yard dash — both of which affected his draft stock. With that information in mind, Snead believed the Rams could wait out other teams who could be interested in a receiver. McVay rattled with anxiety beside Snead as he called in picks for outside linebacker Nick Hampton, offensive lineman Warren McClendon and tight end Davis Allen before finally selecting Nacua at No. 177.

It wasn’t assured that Snead’s bet against other teams would pay off, but the staff informed it with data and pure luck did the rest.

A year after Nacua’s historic rookie season, Snead likes to say that had the Rams truly known what he would do in the NFL, they wouldn’t have waited nearly five entire rounds to select him. “Hell of a plan,” said Snead of his maneuvering last year. “But next time, we’re gonna pick him earlier.”

The Rams don’t have the space at their temporary practice facilities to house draft operations for their entire coaching, scouting and analytics staff the week of the draft, so since 2021 they have worked out of a series of mansions scattered around Los Angeles. This year, they decamped to a three-level, 9,200-square-foot home in Hermosa Beach that opened up over the Pacific Ocean.

It was stocked to bursting with catered food and fresh coffee, but some of the senior scouts passed around a bottle of apple cider vinegar in a paper bag first thing each morning, pouring a shot apiece into small plastic cups and knocking it back. They said it was good for their blood pressure.

Early Thursday morning, hours before the start of the first round, Snead made a series of calls. He checked with the Atlanta Falcons, who were scheduled to pick at No. 8, as well as teams situated around the Rams’ own pick at No. 19 to see what it might cost to move up or down in the round.

In their final meeting before the draft, Temme and Blake issued a last anonymous survey to coaches and scouts. On it, the group was asked a question: Who would you make a Ram? Florida State outside linebacker Jared Verse was one of three players who received the highest consensus.

Braden Fiske and Jared Verse are reuniting in L.A. after playing together at FSU last season. (Don Juan Moore / Getty Images)

Verse had been the topic of much conversation between coaches and scouts in the final weeks before the draft. The Rams knew they could not replace recently retired star Aaron Donald with one top defensive lineman or outside linebacker; it would take two or more players to get back even some of the production they had with the future Hall of Famer.

In early April, the staff held a series of meetings that argued for and against “pods” of defensive linemen and outside linebackers as potential tandems. Verse and defensive tackle Braden Fiske, teammates at Florida State, were identified among those tandems as having a unique chemistry. If the Rams could get Verse, they would also go after Fiske.

On Snead’s call sheet, No. 52 (their second pick in the draft) was too far down to get any of the players who had more favorable evaluations. If they didn’t get Verse at No. 19, they’d still try to trade away from that zone. But if they had to trade up to get Verse, they probably wouldn’t be able to trade up again to get Fiske.

A week and a half before the draft, Sugarman quietly flew to Tallahassee. Analysts and fans were still buzzing about a report that the Rams traveled to Penn State to visit with outside linebacker Chop Robinson two days earlier (it was just Sugarman). His hours-long meeting with Verse slipped by unnoticed.

As the first round played out Thursday night — scouts at hard-wired computers with JAARS open on the screens in two large rooms on the top level of the house, and Snead, McVay, Gladstone, Blake, Temme and others in a separate “war room” with Snead’s call sheet on large monitors at the front — the board fell uniquely. Fourteen offensive players came off the board first, including six quarterbacks, before UCLA outside linebacker Laiatu Latu broke the streak at No. 15.

Just past 7 p.m. PT, the Minnesota Vikings traded up to jump the Rams and Cincinnati Bengals at No. 17. Outside linebackers coach Joe Coniglio started pacing back and forth along the lower level of the house, his phone in his hand. If the Rams were picking a player at his position, he’d be called two stories up a winding staircase and into the war room.

The Vikings took outside linebacker Dallas Turner. Coniglio took the stairs two at a time, and as the Bengals selected Georgia tackle Amarius Mims, a low rumble of celebration from the top level started making its way down into the rest of the house. “Got lucky when Jared fell,” a slightly disheveled Snead said later.

Teams spend millions of dollars, produce mountains of data and hundreds of scouting reports after thousands of hours of evaluation — and still, some of the draft will inevitably come down to pure, uncontrollable luck.

There are always curveballs. The Rams almost missed their chance to call Verse on Thursday night and tell him they were changing his life by sending his name to the league on their draft card at No. 19.

They had his phone number incorrect. It was one digit off.

(Illustrations by Maria Fedoseeva / For The Athletic)