The scout team.
The army of warm bodies tasked with being the starters’ punching bags as they prepare for the impending opponent. The scout team is critically important, but its members rarely get respect in the overall hierarchy of a football team. But there is one way they can demand higher regard—by bucking convention and taking it to the starters on every single play. While it may infuriate the players at the top of the depth chart, a member of the scout team can quickly elevate his standing by dominating in practice. In fact, a number of NFL stars began their pro careers by pissing off the starters with their enthusiastic, inexhaustible performance on the scout team.
If you currently find yourself on the scout team and have dreams of a bigger role, draw inspiration from these seven players.
1. Aaron Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers might be the best scout team quarterback in NFL history.
The Green Bay Packers selected Rodgers in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft, but he was forced to ride the pine for three seasons as Brett Favre remained the team’s unquestioned starter. That was bad news for the Packers starting defense, as practices became games for the hyper-competitive Rodgers.
“For Green Bay defenders, Saturday mornings were the worst. The plays for the scout team, run by Rodgers, were supposed to be scripted, the tempo purposely slow. Instead, Rodgers tossed deep passes and no-look passes and tight spirals,” reads a 2011 New York Times profile on Rodgers. Al Harris, then a starting cornerback for the Packers, remembers how Rodgers treated every practice like the Super Bowl. “You’d want to rest, but A-Rod is out there zipping it,” Harris told the New York Times. “He would do the championship belt dance.”
By refusing to submit to the idea the scout team should just roll over and die, Rodgers accelerated his development. That allowed him to hit the ground running when he became the team’s QB1 in 2008, as he threw for 4,038 yards and 28 touchdowns. “Those first three years were critical to my success,” Rodgers says.
2. Brandon Marshall
Brandon Marshall (the linebacker, not the receiver) led the Denver Broncos in tackles in 2014 and 2015, and he remains a key contributor on the team’s vaunted defense. But prior to his ascension, Marshall was just another anonymous dude on the practice squad.
After having spent 2012 on the practice squad in Jacksonville, Marshall got picked up by Denver in 2013. As a member of the scout team, he went up against Peyton Manning every practice. Marshall penned a phenomenal article for SI.com wherein he explained how Manning brought the best out of him.
“I found myself obsessed with performing well on the “show”—the scout team defense. I wanted to understand our quarterback’s pre-snap checks that were baffling the NFL that year. I wanted to beat (Peyton) Manning in my own small way,” Marshall writes. “I started focusing on technique and the details the coaches taught us—in coverage, keep my eyes on the receiver’s waist; don’t cross my feet when pressing a receiver; use both hands when taking on a lineman. Attention to detail, attention to detail, attention to detail.” Marshall’s consistent effort, sterling technique and high football IQ left an impression on Manning. He vouched for Marshall to be elevated to the active roster, and the rest is history.
3. Chris Harris Jr.
Marshall isn’t the only starter on Denver’s defense with origins on the scout team.
Chris Harris Jr. entered Broncos’ training camp in 2011 as an undrafted rookie free agent. No one envisioned him making the team, but Harris was determined to make the most of every opportunity he got—including his role on the scout team.
“Coming in as an undrafted rookie, I wanted to make sure I competed every day against those talented receivers. Brandon Lloyd, he was a great guy to go against because I did a lot of scout team. Going against him every day along with all those other receivers really helped me polish my game,” Harris told STACK. At the time, Lloyd was coming off a sensational 2010 season, in which he posted 1,448 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. Harris practiced with so much intensity that the coaches often had to tell him to take it down a notch—partially because he kept finding himself on the receiving end of Tim Tebow’s passes. “A lot of times, [coaches] had to tell me to cut back, don’t pick off a lot of Tebow’s balls. That’s how hard I was out there working,” Harris said.
His scout team performance helped him earn a roster spot, and he ended up winning the team’s Breakout Player of the Year award after recording 65 tackles in his rookie season. Three Pro Bowl selections later, Harris is among the most elite defensive backs in all of football.
4. Malcolm Floyd
Malcolm Floyd didn’t get invited to the Combine. Then he went undrafted in the 2004 NFL Draft. Only two teams were even interested enough to bring him in as an UDFA—the San Diego Chargers and the Baltimore Ravens. Floyd ended up choosing San Diego, where he met a fellow rookie by the name of Philip Rivers.
It didn’t take long for Rivers to see something special in Floyd—even if he was just a UDFA rookie on the scout team at the time. “He would kill it on the look (scout) squad,” Rivers told Chargers.com of Floyd’s time on the scout team. “He would make unbelievable plays every day out there. We knew he had something to it. He was a little bit raw from the standpoint of routes, technique and those kind of things. But we knew he could make the plays that you couldn’t really explain. You’d look around and go, ‘Man, he keeps doing that!’ The first time, it was a little lucky and second time, it was, ‘Man, he got lucky again.’ Then it became, ‘That’s just what he does.’”
Floyd went on to total 5,550 career receiving yards—almost of them coming on throws from Rivers—before retiring in 2015.
5. Arian Foster
Before he was a four-time Pro Bowl selection, Arian Foster was an undrafted free agent signee with the Houston Texans. He showed enough during training camp to make the team’s practice squad. The intensity he showed during scout team practices was enough to rankle the defensive starters.
“Practice squad is week-to-week. They’ll cut you and bring somebody in just because they look like another player,” Foster told USA Today. “I remember, I think it was Demeco Ryans, he yelled at me one time, too. He’s like ‘Man, slow down. We’re just trying to get a look.’ And I said, ‘Are you going to pay my bills?'” Thanks to that intensity, Foster was soon elevated to the active roster. After earning an estimated $38 million, Foster retired from the NFL in 2016.
6. Rod Smith
Rod Smith is a two-time All-Pro selection, a two-time Super Bowl champ and the Denver Broncos’ franchise record-holder in career receptions, receiving yards and touchdown receptions. To think, his NFL career started on the scout team.
After a standout career at D-II Missouri Southern State University, Smith went undrafted in 2004. He signed with the Broncos as a UDFA and wound up getting signed to the team’s practice squad. Smith balled out on the scout team and constantly bragged to teammate Shannon Sharpe (who had established himself as one of the premier tight ends in the NFL by that point) about his performance against the defensive starters.
“Dumbest thing ever but the most brilliant thing I ever did,” Smith told USA Today. “I made up my own stats: ‘Yes, Sharpe, I got seven grabs for 120 today.’ He’d look at me like, ‘Dude, what the hell are you talking about?’ And I said, ‘I’m killing them today, Sharpe. I’m killing them.’ And then Sharpe told (the defensive starters). So, they started hitting me. They start jamming me, slamming me to the ground. You know what, I’d get back up and do it again. Do it again. They’re just preparing me for the game. And then they let me start and I never looked back.”
7. James Harrison
Unfortunately, there aren’t many details available regarding James Harrison’s time on the Pittsburgh Steelers practice squad. But simply looking at where he started and where he is now is an incredible story in and of itself.
Coming out of Kent State, Harrison went undrafted in 2002. The Pittsburgh Steelers signed and released him multiple times during his first two years in the NFL, as he simply couldn’t get a firm handle on the playbook. The Baltimore Ravens eventually signed Harrison in late 2003 and sent him to play in NFL Europe. He was cut again—the fourth time in his young NFL career—shortly thereafter. After a Steelers linebacker suffered a weightlifting injury, Pittsburgh decided to give him one more shot. Harrison came to training camp with 1,000 flash cards, each containing information that would help him digest the Steelers defense. He studied them every night of training camp, and things started coming together.
“I wanted to feel like if I did get cut, I gave it everything I could,” Harrison told ESPN. “There was nothing else I could do.” Harrison went on to become a four-time All-Pro, a two-time Super Bowl champion and the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. According to Harrison, his humble beginnings are still the motivational fuel for his insane workouts.
PHOTO CREDIT: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images, Aaron Ontiveroz/Getty Images, Don Juan Moore/Getty Images, Patrick Smith/Getty Images, E. Bakke/Getty Images, Bob Levey/Getty Images