Back in April 1997, the New England Patriots surprised experts when they selected a tackle named Ed Ellis in the fourth round of the NFL Draft.
The move raised eyebrows because Ellis was considered a project, and players like Colorado linebacker Matt Russell were still on the draft board.
The Detroit Lions eventually drafted Russell, who had won the Butkus Award in 1996, given to the nation’s top collegiate linebacker, with the final pick in Round 4.
Ellis is no longer with New England, but these days Russell earns a paycheck from the Patriots.
Russell, 31, is in his third year as scout for the defending Super Bowl champions. He lives in Boulder and scouts collegiate talent, primarily in the western part of the country.
“I love what I’m doing,” Russell says. “I like the evaluation side of it. I don’t see changing my path. I’d like to make a career of it and see where it can take me.”
From mid-August through mid-November each year, the job takes him to college campuses throughout the west. While being part of the most successful NFL franchise of the past few years sounds glamorous, an NFL scout toils behind the scenes, away from the spotlight. Russell seems to attack the duties his job calls for with the same kind of enthusiasm he played on Saturdays as a Colorado Buffalo.
In the fall, that means attacking the road. Russell is away from home sometimes for three weeks at a time before getting back to Boulder for a respite. He figures he stays in 30 to 40 different hotels each year.
NFL scouts are tight-lipped about who they are scouting, and the Patriots have a policy where its scouting staff does not speak on the record about the Pats’ personnel, NFL players on other teams or college athletes New England is following.
But Russell was able to speak about a typical day when he’s working on the road.
Russell’s starts early. He’s usually up by 5:45 a.m. and often opts for a 30-minute workout at his hotel before breakfast. He’s at the school by 8 with a list of the program’s seniors in hand.
“I typically spend the morning watching tape,” Russell says. “Then around noon or 1 o’clock, I start to visit with various coaches, the strength coach, the trainer. You try and get as much information about the kid as you can — what kind of people they are; their personality, demeanor, work habits.”
He watches the afternoon practice, as well, to see if what he saw of certain players on tape holds up in a live setting. However, there is no direct interaction with the college players. NFL scouts abide by an unwritten rule that doesn’t allow personal contact with the players until at least after the college season is over.
After practice, Russell packs up and drives to his next destination and checks into his hotel.
“Depending on the time, I’ll try to type some reports and get to sleep, then get up and do it all again the next day,” he says.
Russell didn’t plan on being an NFL scout coming out of Colorado. But two severe injuries, one to each of his knees in consecutive years early in the 1998 and ‘99 seasons in Detroit, derailed his playing career.
While with the Lions, Russell befriended scout Tom Dimitroff, who also lives in Boulder. Dimitroff, who is now New England’s director of college scouting, helped Russell land a job with the Patriots in 2001.
That was the same year Russell married the former Sonja Nielsen, who was then finishing up at CU where she was a senior on the Buffs’ volleyball team.
In his first role with the Patriots, Russell scouted other NFL teams, which meant he spent the fall based in New England.
“When (Sonja and I) got married, we went on our honeymoon, and then I went straight out there and didn’t see her for five months,” Russell says.
After 9/11, things changed. Russell’s brother took a military assignment in Afghanistan, and his brother’s family moved to Boulder. Russell decided to give up the job with the Patriots, come home to Boulder and take a job as a pharmaceutical sales rep.
But Russell missed the game too much, and was able to get back on with the Patriots, this time as a college scout based in Boulder.
New England’s Vice President of Player Personnel Scott Pioli was named The Sporting News’ NFL Executive of the Year in 2003 by a vote of his peers. Russell credits Pioli with mentoring him as a scout.
“As a former player, you tend to look at effort and heart, and those kind of things,” Russell says about scouting athletes. “Scott gave me a lot of help in honing my skills as an evaluator.
“Scott’s one of those guys that was able to help me with positions I wasn’t comfortable with.”
Pioli has drawn praise for his ability to find talent that matches New England head coach Bill Belichick’s system, a system that’s brought two Super Bowl trophies to the franchise in the past three years.
Four former Buffaloes — tight ends Daniel Graham and Christian Fauria, tackle Tom Ashworth and linebacker Ted Johnson — currently fit into the New England system.
Matt and Sonja are season-ticket holders to the Buffaloes, and Russell tries to schedule his workload so that he is in Boulder for Colorado’s home games in the fall. While he’s not on the clock when he watches the Buffs from the stands, if there’s a player on his master list that’s playing at Folsom on a particular Saturday, he’ll keep an eye on him.
Russell says his experience at CU — particularly the positive relationships he formed — helped shape what he does now.
“It created a lot of love for the game,” Russell says. “Your experience in college tends to mold what you do after college. If you have a poor experience, you tend to want to go a different direction.
“(I enjoy) practice and traveling and being around the guys. It’s such a unique, great game. …It’s all I’ve really cared about since I was about 5-years old. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be involved in.”
Seven Questions with Matt Russell
Buffalo Sports News: How important is a 40 time?
Matt Russell: Forty times are, to a degree, an indicator of athleticism. There are cutoffs at various positions where it does raise a flag. But we’re looking, as scouts in general, for good football players. You’re certainly not basing your entire evaluation on numbers.
BSN: Some guys test great, but don’t play well. Others don’t have the measurables, but turn out to be valuable on the field? How do you determine who those guys will be?
MR: Everyone tries to determine a guy’s intangibles. How does a guy live his life? What kind of worker is he? Those kinds of things. More often than not, you know who the over-achievers are.
BSN: What is the Wonderlic (the test given to potential draftees at the NFL Combine each year) and how did it get its name?
MR: I don’t know how it got its name. It’s a test of wide-ranging questions to give some indication to a guy’s intelligence. It’s certainly not set in stone, where a low test score would indicate a dumb player. It’s simply a tool used by teams to try and gain some gauge of a player’s overall intelligence.
BSN: What’s the easiest position to make a transition from college to pro football?
MR: In high school coming to college, bigger guys have a longer way to go just because speed is speed. A kid that is fast in high school is already fast. When they get to college, you typically see skill guys play before big guys.
I think in the NFL, it’s a wash. By the time a kid is a senior in college, he ought to be physically ready. The good, mature players play, the ones who aren’t ready don’t play as quick.
BSN: How do you project a player that won’t play the same position in pros – like the option quarterbacks Nebraska used to produce?
MR: You look at a guy’s athleticism and try to make as educated a guess as you can.
BSN: What makes you good at your job?
MR: I guess given a background as a player helps to a degree. I don’t know if it helps as much as a lot of guys think it does.
I think gaining an understanding of what your coaches want in a player and what your general manager wants in a player helps you go out on the road and find those types of guys.
Personally, I have confidence in what I see on tape, and what I see (in person). In this business you want to make a concerted effort to do all the work possible to make the best educated decision you can make. You won’t be right all the time, but you tend to be more accurate when you’ve really invested yourself in watching the tape, watching the kid move around, and really doing your job.
BSN: What do you miss most when you’re out on the road for extended amounts of time?
MR: I miss my wife and my dog.