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Students of the game: Women moving in, moving up into NFL scouting jobs

Mere days before this year’s NFL draft, Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane assigned scenarios for his scouts to strategize.

Andie Gosper’s prompt was clear: If she were general manager of the team, who would she select in the fifth round and why? Any position but receiver was fair game.

Gosper thought back to the Miami (Ohio) game she scouted in the fall, and the offensive tackle who flashed potential even in a 42-10 loss to the University of Buffalo.

Gosper endorsed Tommy Doyle.

“When picking in the bottom rounds, I was looking for unteachable traits,” Gosper told USA TODAY Sports. “His size stuck out out me. I like the nastiness he played with and his alpha personality. He played hockey, which at his size (6-8, 320) … shows he’s a natural athlete.”

Add to the equation that Doyle would be coming from the same school as offensive line coach Bobby Johnson – connection is key for a developmental player, Gosper figured – and the Bills’ lone female scout was sold on her decision.

So, too, was Beane. When the Bills were on the clock in the fifth round that Saturday, the club selected Doyle with the 161st overall pick.

Beane remembered Gosper’s keen evaluation – and two years of her tireless work ethic – when he promoted her this month from scouting intern to player personnel coordinator.

But Gosper is not alone.

Across the NFL this month, teams promoted at least seven women with scouting responsibilities. On May 17, the Denver Broncos hired Kelly Kleine as executive director of football operations/special advisor to general manager George Paton, whom she previously worked for in Minnesota. On Thursday, the Eagles promoted Catherine Raiche to vice president of football operations. Kleine and Raiche are now the two most senior women in team scouting roles in NFL history.

Including Gosper, USA TODAY Sports spoke with 12 women working in scouting roles for NFL teams. They are sending a resounding message to the league: Women are not merely breaking into the historically male NFL scouting landscape; they are thriving.

Andie Gosper is a player personnel coordinator for the Bills. BUFFALO BILLS

“If you’re a student of the game, you’re a student of the game – regardless of who you are. And that’s who I am,” Raiche told USA TODAY Sports. “For the longest time, I feel like we’ve picked out of 50% of the pool … but if you open the pool to 100%, you may get really, really qualified candidates.

“I hope we get more and more and more – and not just get them in, but also help them grow.” 

Added New York Giants area scout Hannah Burnett: “Gender does not define your knowledge of football.

“It’s exciting for women in general being able to have someone setting the standards giving women hope and saying ‘It’s possible.’ You look at (Kleine) and you’re like, ‘It’s possible. It’s 100% possible.’ ”

These changes in front offices can be partially attributed to the league’s annual “Women’s Careers in Football Forum” founded by Sam Rapoport, NFL senior director for diversity, equity and inclusion.

Since 2017, the league has recruited 310 participants, most of whom have one to three years of experience working in college football. The forum now invites 40 women annually and sends an advance attendee list to all 32 NFL teams to facilitate meetings. Seven of the 13 women currently working in NFL team scouting came through that forum; three more interned for league vice president of player personnel Ken Fiore before a team hired them. The goal: “flooding the pipeline with great candidates so the best rise to the top,” Rapoport says of a group that has bloomed to 135 women in football operations.

Beane is excited about how talented women like Gosper, whom he says has “just been dynamite since Day 1,” can continue to improve personnel departments.

“You don’t want group-think,” Beane told USA TODAY Sports. “So the best way to not have that and circumvent it would be diversity and a wide range of backgrounds. That could be age, male/female, minority or non-minority.

“The more perspectives, the more ways you think about things to make decisions.”

Gosper wasn’t the only woman who contributed key information to NFL teams’ recent draft decisions.

From Burnett’s Kansas City, Missouri, post – she oversees colleges in a 10-state region – she lobbied for Northern Iowa pass rusher Elerson Smith’s potential, citing his growth trajectory, athleticism and size-speed combination. She also vouched for Oklahoma State cornerback Rodarius Williams’ steady leadership and proven ability as a press, man-to-man corner who’s “not afraid to get up in your face.” The Giants selected Smith in the fourth round and Williams in the sixth. 

“The rookie got the pick,” fellow scouts quipped during her first draft at Giants headquarters.

Gosper, Burnett and their female counterparts across the league are quick to emphasize the collaborative process that informs any scouting decision. But in a world where some women in scouting have heard and still hear that only men belong, women cherish opportunities to debunk the myth.

Women in NFL scouting, as well as two general managers and a director of pro personnel interviewed for this story, emphasize that playing or coaching football is not a prerequisite to a successful career in evaluation. Understanding football is, of course, necessary to a role in which scouts often assess players’ traits and scheme fits via team-specific grading scales. But scouts also must excel at developing relationships to source prospects’ character write-ups; they must communicate lucidly to paint a vivid picture of a prospect in group presentations and roughly 250-word reports.

As Giants midlands area scout, Hannah Burnett evaluated defensive tackle Elerson Smith at Northern Iowa’s pro day. The Giants selected Smith in the sixth round of last month’s draft.

“It comes down to the mindset, willingness to work, being smart and organized and willing to learn,” Atlanta Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot told USA TODAY Sports. “If you have 15-20 people in your scouting department, you don’t want them to be all players.”

That’s helpful for a talent pool of women whose playing experience is sparse – except for Falcons scouting assistant Kjahna O’s glory days as her middle school’s quarterback. And yet, women currently working in NFL scouting hail from collegiate basketball, softball, track, lacrosse, soccer and swim teams. They apply softball knowledge to study throwing mechanics and track expertise to detect hip tightness. Corporate experience has strengthened them as well, from Raiche’s career as a tax and litigation attorney in Montreal to Browns scouting fellow Kathleen Wood’s decades as a private detective investigating insurance fraud.

“I always consider part of my job at the team level is to mitigate risk and protect the integrity of the sport,” Wood told USA TODAY Sports. “Let’s make the game better any way we can.

“I had an executive say to me one time (something) a little off the cuff. He said: ‘I don’t care if you’re a male, a female, a transgender or a giraffe. If you can help me win football games, I will hire you.”

In 2020, women contributed to NFL scouting via written reports and analytical presentations, road trips to league teams and background investigations on college prospects. In Philadelphia, Eagles scout Ameena Soliman – she was promoted Thursday from player personnel coordinator to pro scout – wrote reports on 168 college prospects and 173 professional players. Kleine’s Vikings responsibilities included five states’ colleges and the Bills, while Minnesota scouting colleague Caroline DeFelice mined for tendencies to include in weekly offensive and defensive advance reports. Miami Dolphins personnel scout Liv Passy parsed through the college ranks, asking herself: Does this guy have the right motor and temperament for special teams?

As a pro personnel analyst for the San Francisco 49ers, Salli Clavelle scouted NFL teams and provided analysis on players, personnel packages and matchup preferences. In May, she was promoted to southwest area scout.

The San Francisco 49ers’ Salli Clavelle tracked personnel on six NFL teams in 2020, including two teams on whom she wrote advance reports. Clavelle oversaw analyses of each player on her advance teams’ 53-man roster, as well as personnel packages, matchup preferences and in-game signals. At 3 p.m. the Monday of game week, she presented a concise but thorough report to head coach Kyle Shanahan and his coordinators. As the Niners’ southwest area scout in 2021, she’ll apply that keen grasp of the pro level to college evaluations.

“Now I know what plays in the league,” Clavelle told USA TODAY Sports. “I can compare college players to players in the league and guesstimate how their career will go.”

When considering how their own careers will go, women are going beyond guesstimates. They’re actively helping themselves and each other climb the ranks, Kleine insisting: “Send the elevator back down.”

Soliman and Raiche teamed up last summer to scour NFL media guides for women in football operations to invite each of them (and almost a man named Carmen) to what’s become a powerful and multipurpose 87-member WhatsApp messaging group. Mentorship and professional development programs have emerged, as well as conversations about social justice, contract negotiations and appropriate office attire. Promotions elicit dozens of congratulatory messages.

“We’re all each other’s biggest fans,” Gosper says. “We’re just one big hype squad.”

That hype squad was tuned in when Denver hired Kleine to her new executive position. “Bro, Kelly Kleine!” O exclaimed to fellow scouting assistant Shelly Harvey as they checked Twitter from their posts at Falcons headquarters. “There’s a chance,” O said. “We got a chance.”

“I don’t know if I can say this, but she’s a badass,” Browns first-year scouting assistant Riley Hecklinski said. “Kelly has proven women can hold a role with great power (because) she’s good at what she does, and she’s proven that over and over again.

Kelly Kleine, shown with the Minnesota Vikings in 2017, was hired this month by the Denver Broncos as executive director of football operations/special advisor to the GM.

“It’s another broken barrier.”

Fontenot sees the progress and dreams of what’s possible not only for his 9-year-old son, who’s intent on following in dad’s footsteps, but also for his 11-, 5- and 1-year-old daughters.

“I think it’s cool that I’m not just saying, ‘Hey, I have a boy who wants to be a GM,’” Fontenot said. “One of my girls might be a GM, and I think it’s really cool to say that.

“I want to know they’re not going to have any limitations.”

Follow USA Today Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein

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