MOBILE, Ala. — Scot McCloughan took a seat high up in the bleachers at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. He was wearing a camouflage hat, but hardly blended in thanks to his burgundy Washington Redskins jacket.
On the field, a collection of the country’s top college football seniors practiced, grinding through a variety of individual and team drills that will showcase their skills to potential NFL suitors. Members of the Redskins’ scouting staff dotted the bleachers, watching players they’ve been studying for months.
Come Saturday, the North and South teams will play in the annual Senior Bowl, but that’s hardly the most interesting part. For McCloughan, entering his second season as general manager, the practices tell him more about prospects he’s eyeing for the NFL draft, many of which he’s getting a live look at for the first time.
“Well, I get the game taped, I see that,” McCloughan said on Wednesday. “But, just seeing them out here and how each day the guys respond, the competition. Because it’s not easy, and these are the best of the best. They’re beating each other up each day and to see who can come back the next day and respond. That starts showing character. That starts showing the stuff I’m looking for in toughness.
“You got two NFL football staffs coaching them and it’s live action. The bullets start flying right away and it says a lot because the first day, the second day, third day, it’s gonna show character. ‘Cause I mean, these guys are the best and they’re fighting each other and guys back down and guys step up and it’s very important to see that.”
The practices are important, but they are just a sliver of the evaluation process. Through informal meetings throughout the day — many of which take place on couches in a hotel lobby — and more formal meetings at night, scouts will begin to dig deeper to gauge character.
It is an important step in the process for McCloughan, who values character just as much, if not more, than physical ability.
“I know I keep reiterating it, but [I want] high-character football players that are tough guys, that understand that it’s about the sum of parts not the individual,” McCloughan said.
“It’s not so much ability all the time. It’s the person they are, you know? Because it’s a battle, and I want 53 guys fighting for each other and 10 practice squad guys fighting for each other. Once you get that going, your bad days are lesser.”
Tasked with trying to change the culture in the Redskins organization in his first season, McCloughan made it a point to added veteran leaders with the type of high-character personality he wanted to impart upon younger players. It shaped his approach in free agency as he turned to players he had ties with from previous organizations, such as free safety Dashon Goldson and defensive Ricky Jean Francois — each of whom played for the San Francisco 49ers when McCloughan was their vice president of player personnel and then general manager.
It continued during the season when McCloughan turned to veteran cornerback Will Blackmon and inside linebacker Mason Foster, who both stepped up to plug large holes in the roster due to injuries.
“I knew Will in Seattle and I knew what he brought not just the standpoint on the field but the leadership stuff,” McCloughan said. “Sometimes it’s a crapshoot because they’re getting older, you worry about injury, that kind of stuff, but the thing that’s good about me being around this so long now, even these guys have been out five to eight, 10 years out of college, I still know them, remember their makeup like Mason Foster. I knew exactly what he was.”
The challenge now for McCloughan is trying to identify those types of high-character players ahead of the NFL draft and grow that culture from within. McCloughan firmly believes that the draft is the lifeline of an organization, which is why he said he doesn’t expect the Redskins to be big players in free agency this offseason.
Before that plan can come to fruition, there needs to be a clear understanding of what type of player McCloughan is looking for — a process that is still taking shape. When McCloughan was hired, he decided to keep the scouting department in place and did not make any changes ahead of his second season.
“You know, it’s hard because you come in and I have my own vision of what I want a player to look like,” McCloughan said, “and it’s not easy for them to pick that up right away. You know, in college, going through the draft, they start getting it. I don’t need the biggest, the fastest, the prettiest — I want a football player. And, I think this year, going through the draft process — which we’re going to start in two weeks with all the college scouts again — they’ll get another four weeks before the combine with me of knowing exactly what a [Redskins player] is supposed to look like.”