SOMEWHERE ON AN SEC CAMPUS - "Hey Siri, can you help me find the nearest NFL prospects?"
OK, so that wasn't exactly the question that Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio posed to his digital phone assistant as he pulled yet another rental car out of yet another hotel parking garage midway through the six o'clock hour.
Rather, on this sunny southern St. Patrick's Day morning, Caserio just needed directions to the football facilities at the local Southeastern Conference campus where he and New England offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia were headed for a private workout with a handful of NFL hopefuls.
Earlier in the week the men had taken in pro days at powerhouse football factories at Georgia and LSU. But like everything else in the football landscape, pro days have become media-driven events that include TV coverage, fans, families and the hot spotlight of attention.
Private workouts, on the other hand, are one of the final information-gathering steps in the pre-draft process. Long after the game tape has been processed and following closely on the heels of all-star games, the Combine and those college-run pro days, these are more personal, clandestine, fill-in-the-blanks pieces to the puzzle that coincide quite well with the Patriots stealth strategies.
While Caserio and coaches like Scarnecchia -- who actually took part in the pre-draft process for the past two years during his short-lived retirement -- can make dozens of trips throughout the country for private prospect workouts, this time they allowed an outsider to trespass on the process, giving Patriots Football Weekly exclusive, unprecedented and unlimited access to the full morning of action on the field and in the interview/film room.
"We're closer to the end, just in terms of the overall process," Caserio says of the private workouts later in the afternoon in a quiet corner of the airport awaiting a flight back to Boston's Logan Airport. "We've gone through the fall and multiple years of film evaluation. Gone through the all-star games, gone through the Combine. So we're starting to get closer to the end in terms of the accumulation of information and getting some questions answered on the particular players. So the next step is to take this information, kind of compare it to what we have at this point and then combine that with the evaluation of the player and basically put him in his slot, where he'll end up on the board. Then just move on from this set of players to the next group of players."
As the Patriots contingent pulls into the parking lot at this SEC school's athletic offices -- nestled between impressive athletic facilities that include an indoor practice field, outdoor turf field, beautiful baseball stadium and football game stadium -- Caserio praises the upgrades they immediately notice since the pair last made this specific trip some years earlier. An early southern spring has the trees already flowering on campus, buds of growth that are somewhat appropriate as the young football players with their day in the Patriots spotlight hope to bloom into NFL talents.
To get things going Caserio sets up shop in the coaches' meeting room, a projection screen and video-loaded laptop at his ready.
It's right about 7 a.m. when the first prospect on the team's four-man list strolls into the room and takes a seat just to Caserio's left and a few spots down from the observations of Scarnecchia, who is more an informed bystander than active participant with this offensive skill player, considered by many outside scouting services to be a late, draftable candidate despite not being invited to the Combine.
What ensues is a fact-confirming, fact-finding Q&A regarding the player's history, dating back to high school and recent time in college. Simple questions with simple answers to get things rolling. Positions, weights, years, family background, etc.
Then the discussion turned more to football, his coaches, teammates, opponents and on-field role. The prospect admitted that a coaching change prior to his junior season was a major alteration to the team, one that benefited him as a player.
At that point, Caserio clicked on the film, giving the prospect a chance to pick the game they'd focus on.
What are you looking at?
Ole Miss was the choice, one received well by the Patriots reps on hand given the impressive, NFL-ready talent the foe would field on screen.
Then, Caserio -- a guy that Bill Belichick himself has described as being as versatile as any in the NFL given his background as both a coach and through all levels of personnel -- turned into questioner, coach and scout all wrapped in one.
"What are you looking at?" Caserio asks the player, the film showing him looking back from right to left across the formation just before the snap, seemingly giving away his intended blocking target. "If we're playing you, that could definitely be a key."
The digital video system shows the game situation and play call on the screen, along with the tape. So Caserio asks each time for an explanation of what the extensive verbiage means as they work through a handful of snaps.
Along the way, Belichick's right-hand man sprinkles in questions unrelated to the visual, like how he would rate his own various skills. The player ranked his speed as his worst trait, saying he was "told" he'd run a 4.65, which would not match with numbers Caserio later cross-referenced from his laptop recorded at the school's pro day.
Boil it all down, and really Caserio is cross-checking some of the information he already has on the prospect while gaining a perspective on his so-called football-IQ and simply getting a feel for him as a person and potential worker/teammate.
Caserio also uses the first player as a resource to discuss the other players on the workout docket.
One of those questions about his teammates, was actually the one this particular prospect seemed to most struggle with.
"I respect your opinion, that's why I'm asking," Caserio assures before rolling almost seamlessly back to the film. "See your head? That's something you can definitely fix."
You do have good hands. You can definitely catch the ball.
Suddenly Scarnecchia chimes in as the offense works with a silent count on the road, the QB clapping to set the snap process in motion. "Can you hear that clap?" he wonders aloud, acknowledging he's heard different players at different positions respond in contradicting ways.
Caserio fires off more field-related chatter, questioning coverages and noting it seems the offensive players didn't spend much time learning or worrying about the coverages they faced.
But that somewhat negative observation was followed immediately by a compliment, a sort of one-man, good-cop/bad-cop persona.
"You do have good hands," Caserio praises. "You can definitely catch the ball."
After a few clips play out, Scarnecchia chimes in again as the interview winds down with some questions about the two linemen he'll work with later in the morning who also golf regularly with this prospect.
"Who's the best golfer?" Scarnecchia wonders.
"I'm gonna say me, for sure. None of us is very good. If I play my best day, I can shoot an 87."
With that, Caserio turns the table and asks the prospect if he has any questions for them.
"Are you looking to take a [player at my position]?" he responds, quickly getting to the point.
"Just looking to find decent players to add to the team," Caserio says after once again praising the characteristics the prospect brings to the field.
With that the interview ends. Caserio sends the prospect to the game field where he will join him and a defensive teammate in a few minutes for essentially a joint workout with the two players.
Caserio and Scarnecchia chat in private as they prepare to head outside to meet the players at 8:15, more than an hour of productive work already in the laptop notes.
"I really like this guy," Scarnecchia says. "I like his demeanor."
On the walk to the field, Scarnecchia, who could probably be described as a knowledge buff, wonders who founded this particular university, information he promises to learn before the day is over.
Despite the sunshine and blooming trees, the air is crisp on this empty SEC stadium, filled only with shadows on this off-season morning rather than the huge crowds it sees on Saturdays in the fall. A chill remains in the air, an observation made by one of the prospects as he warmed up.
After a few bag drills for both players, Caserio leads the pair through some front-seven bag work, blocking and taking on the bag with Scarnecchia chiming in occasionally on the action that's his forte. The workout then moves to some route tree work and pass-rush drills.
The back-and-forth between offensive and defensive drills proceeds at an efficiently-rapid pace, with both players beginning to tire. Caserio keeps things rolling quickly, instructing and observing, but otherwise doing little else to interact with the players as they work.
"The Patriots are notorious for tough workouts and testing your conditioning. So I was kind of ready for it," says the defensive prospect in a meeting room awaiting his own interview. Other teams, apparently, give far more time to rest and talk between reps than Caserio.
As the first of the day's two on-field workout sessions wound down, the offensive player was finished with essentially his final job interview with the Patriots.
"Good work. Take care of yourself. Thanks for coming out," Caserio told the hopeful, who caught every ball thrown his way, before heading back inside for his second interview.
Given his work as both a scout and a coach on both sides of the ball, Caserio is the perfect guy to deal with multiple prospects at different positions. While it might be ideal for every position to be worked out by the same scout or coach -- perhaps the best-case-scenario the team's position coach at that spot -- it may not work out that way logistically and Caserio can fill in the void more than capably.
The Patriots are notorious for tough workouts and testing your conditioning. So I was kind of ready for it.
Picking the players to work privately and who to send to oversee the work is a complicated spider web of scouting.
"We try to get kind of wide coverage on a multitude of players," Caserio says. "Obviously the offensive line, that's going to be something that Dante really focuses in on. Coaches are involved to some degree, but we can't get to every player. There have been plenty of examples of guys that we've worked out knowing that they more than likely weren't going to get drafted but we're trying to set up for post-draft free agency."
Back in the football offices, this time in a smaller positional meeting room, Caserio begins the process all over again with the defensive prospect who he'd just put through the ringer on the field.
Background, growth, coaching changes and role were once again talking points. This isn't the first time he's met with New England though, having done an informal chat in the hotel lobby with one of the Patriots assistants at the Combine.
The front-seven defender recalls his youth growing up as a struggling reader and the anxiety that caused him before he put his mind to overcoming the shortcoming. Now, days of being four grade levels behind in reading are long gone as he's just nine credits short of a degree from the highly regarded school.
Turning again to the projector screen and footage of game action, talk of the team's high percentage of nickel defense, play calls and alignments ensued.
As arguably the best player and one of the leaders of a defense that was clearly the stronger aspect of the team, the prospect admits there was tension internally given the struggles of his offensive counterparts. The solution from the prospect and other defensive leaders was to ask the coaches to go with more 1s vs. 1s in practice.
The discussion continued into how the front handled a slew of dual-threat quarterbacks and how that affected the pass rushers on almost a weekly basis. Caserio acknowledged the challenge it presented the player.
"Pass rush is all about lane integrity and distribution," Caserio observed when the film essentially showed neither.
As the interview neared its end, the defensive prospect had a slightly different take on his question for Caserio, keeping it simple.
"How'd I do today?" he wondered.
Caserio responded with a rundown of the strengths he observed and how he might fit with a defense like New England's.
While Caserio is finishing up his second interview, Scarnecchia is a few doors away with a pair of interior offensive linemen. The veteran assistant's approach to the process immediately showing itself different than Caserio's and a bit of insight into the high expectations the legendary coach has for any player he deals with.
Scarnecchia essentially goes through an installation on the whiteboard -- blocking schemes and calls the Patriots use -- and then quizzes the prospects on what they've just learned. He's looking for very specific answers, essentially a regurgitation of what he'd just taught.
"Everybody kind of has their own individual style, but you're trying to get to the same end point, at least from a football perspective, just to see their ability to learn, their ability to process, how they take coaching. Maybe you get an idea of how you need to teach them or how they retain information. So you are trying to arrive at the same end point, you might just have a different mechanism to get there," Caserio says.
Standing half their size and three-times their age, far smaller than any SEC defensive linemen the two blockers had ever dealt with, Scarnecchia quite swiftly and clearly has the attention of the young athletes.
He goes through the calls and terminology. He goes over the role of the center and his two jobs at the line of scrimmage. He works to get the linemen to understand the distribution of blockers compared to defenders in his very specific words.
"Now we're gonna see how much you remember," he said quietly, not a hint of the barrage he was about to unleash on these men.
Scarnecchia wipes the information from the board, draws up a formation and is ready for the quizzing.
For one of the prospects, it's not going well.
"What's the protection call?" Scarnecchia asks, referencing the Xs and Os on the board behind him.
The response is one call, followed quickly by another, two answers for a question where only is needed, fused by uncertainty.
Now we're gonna see how much you remember.
"Which is it?' Scarnecchia pounces.
Things get even worse for one of the prospects. The more he's asked, the more he gets wrong, the quicker he answers and it snowballs downhill.
His offensive line teammate tries like any good linemate to help him out.
That, in this setting, is not as admirable an attempt as it would be on the field of play.
Scarnecchia is looking for very specific answers to very specific questions. It's a quick trial of what linemen probably face once they are entrenched in New England.
A question about the theoretical Will linebacker gets the somewhat frazzled line prospect in trouble again.
The veteran coach doesn't want to hear terminology he's not used, lingo the prospects have probably been using for the last four years or so, but not the things Scarnecchia has just taught them and wants regurgitated.
Yet to hit the field for his actual workout, one of the linemen is already sweating in the face of the classroom work. His nerves with each ensuing misstep obvious as he bites down on his shirt collar in clear discomfort.
Of course when the answers come correct, Scarnecchia is equally supportive.
While both players had done well on a written test earlier in the interview process with a man who's challenged the likes of Pro Bowlers Logan Mankins and Matt Light in New England, the verbal sparring was a bit more of an uphill battle for at least one of the would-be Brady protectors.
With that Scarnecchia sends the two players to get ready for the on-field work and talks over the just-finished meeting with Caserio in the corner. Having witnessed the back-and-forth, it's no wonder that Scarnecchia has intimidated so many 300-plus-pound monsters over the years, to the point that Mankins recently told the Providence Journal that the young linemen in New England better be ready for their first year under the returning coach.
"Those young guys have a rude awakening coming. They have never had anyone like him. They better be in shape because he's going to test you," Mankins said of Scarnecchia's return.
Both mentally and physically, apparently.
Back to the stadium's game field, now much warmer under the mid-morning sun, it was time for the physical testing for the two players he just put through the mental ringer.
Light warmups and form running led to a variety of agility and blocking drills.
As the various agility drills progressed, the big men began to sweat profusely and tire in the relative spring warmth.
"Did you guys bring water out?" Scarnecchia asked. They had not. "Are you gonna be all right?"
Scarnecchia worked closely, both in attention and location, with the linemen's each rep of the workout.
"It's all about improvement," he noted.
As the second set of workouts wound down -- the guard prospect wearing down as well -- the two players took chances to show off their snapping ability. Scarnecchia handled reps both under center and in the shotgun, with the players firing out and faux blocking after the snap.
As the fast-paced, intense workout with the linemen concluded, Scarnecchia's approach softened. Regardless of the specific results or the long-term prospects for either player, the veteran leader of men clearly appreciated the work that had been put forth.
"You guys are all right," he said, the attacking inquisitor of the interview room now gone. "Make sure you drink a lot of water.
"And no golfing!"
With that, the very private time with four very different prospects was in the books. The Patriots contingent returned to the rental car for the ride that to them probably felt like any airport in any college city.
They'd just put prospects through what in the players' minds was likely a major step in the pre-draft process. This was no meet-and-greet dinner with a lowly NFL franchise, but rather an intense meeting with the team regarded as the best organization in football. A job interview with the hope of playing for Belichick or with Tom Brady.
For the team, though, it's a tiny piece of a large mosaic puzzle. And not even necessarily one of those defining edge pieces, but a non-descript interior portion of the big picture. But also one without which the final puzzle cannot be fully completed.
"I don't think you are trying to prove or disprove anything," Caserio says at the airline gate, describing the goal of private workouts. "You have an inclination of where you are based on what you've seen from this point. So you are really looking for affirmation or maybe it uncovers something that you need to dig a little bit further on. We didn't have the information or something else has come up. So it forces you to go back and maybe just make sure what we have is correct. Do we have the right information so that we can make the correct evaluation of the player? And not base it on something that we are not sure of."
It's a part of the process. And the process has been successful in New England over the years. No team nails every pick. Not every piece of pre-draft information is correct. Not every prospect drafted ends up being exactly what the team was expecting. But the more information you have, and the more proprietary information you have in the puzzle, the better chance of making the right call.
"I enjoy going out, spending time with the players, getting to work with them in a one-on-one basis on the field," Caserio says of the private workout trail across America each spring. "And when you can actually get hands on and be immersed in the process you can see how they react to your coaching style or the coaching points. Can they apply what you are telling them? So I love it. I enjoy every aspect of the process. It's just what we do. I look forward to it as much as anybody."
Maybe the lone downside on the road to success is the road part, which includes a sometimes hectic travel schedule each March and April. But, as his boss might say, it is what it is.
"The hardest part is being away from my family. But they understand this is the time of year when things get ramped up a bit more because you have less time and you want to make sure you get everything correct so you can make the right decision for the organization," Caserio said.
With that he boarded a plane back to Boston and his Gillette Stadium office. But he wouldn't be there long. There were more trips on the horizon to so-called college football factories and small schools alike. More prospects to be worked out as the days to the 2016 NFL draft drew fewer.
Hundreds of NFL hopefuls need to be boiled down to the potential 11 picks the team might make on draft weekend or the undrafted players it might sign afterward.
This trip, to this SEC school, was complete, though. Four more players had additional potentially key information for their scouting report.
But, the work is never done.
Oh, and Scarnecchia now knows the history of at least one SEC school to add to his endless store of knowledge. A successful trip all around.
*This article came from the April 2016 issue of Patriots Football Weekly. *