A scout's life

Lina Broydo/Special to the Town Crier
RJ Gillen, a pro scout for the San Francisco 49ers, speaks at a Rotary Club of Los Altos meeting earlier this year.

RJ Gillen could certainly be considered a film buff, though he doesn’t watch movies as he stares at the screen for up to 12 hours a day. The Mountain View resident pores over game film of football players for his job as a pro personnel scout for the San Francisco 49ers.

“It’s a grind – seven days a week pretty much (during the season),” said Gillen, who’s in his fifth year with the 49ers. “But it’s not like I dread coming to work; a lot of days, the time flies by.”

Gillen went back to work last week after getting a break in the early part of the summer. Even in the offseason, scouts are rarely “off” – they have to prepare for the free agency period that begins in mid-March and the NFL Draft held in late April. Gillen’s job leading up to these events includes evaluating potential free agents the 49ers may be interested in and predicting the draft priorities of teams around the league.

“If we’re thinking of drafting a receiver in the third round, what other teams are thinking the same?” he said. “We may have to trade up to get a guy.”

In addition, Gillen is tasked with scouting possible late-round players and undrafted free agents to help fill out the Niners’ 90-man training camp roster.

The Memphis native, who primarily sized up college prospects his first two years with the organization, noted that his player evaluations go beyond what they do on the field. Character matters.

“It’s a huge part of it,” said Gillen, a member of Louisiana State University’s 2007 national championship team. “We have to feel comfortable with the person before we draft them, sign them as a free agent or even have them come in for a workout.”

This requires scouts to play detective.

“We use the connections we have – including players on the team who have played with them – and other resources we have,” Gillen said. “Social media can help tell us if a guy has issues.”

They also rely on information from other teams’ scouts – to an extent.

“A scout from another team texted me at 11 the other night to ask about a (former 49er) player and what kind of guy he is,” Gillen said. “Normally, we’re open and honest about that. But if it’s a player we’re interested in, we’re more closed-lipped.”

Gillen not only gets a read on players via text and film but also in person once the season kicks off. His role as an advance scout requires him to watch the 49ers’ upcoming opponent from the stadium, where he takes meticulous notes on pre-snap operations, substitution patterns, signals, play-clock management, injuries and the like.

“I scout them live and break down the film,” he said. “The Monday before we play them, I present the breakdown to the coaches to help them develop a game plan.”

Gillen also monitors the waiver wire throughout the week, in case a team releases a player the 49ers may want to acquire. Plenty of them will be available Sept. 1, the day after NFL teams must reduce their rosters from 90 to 53 players for the regular season.

“That’s a lot of guys,” Gillen said. “We went through every roster and tagged potential cut guys, and we’ll do it again after (the early summer) vacation. So when those 1,000 or so guys get cut, we’ll be familiar with everybody.”

Although the work seems endless, Gillen – who holds a degree from the Marquette University School of Law – has no regrets about pursuing a career in pro sports instead of as an attorney.

“A lot of my friends are lawyers, and they’re pretty envious of my job and I’m not envious of theirs,” he said.

Gillen, who interned with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs and worked for the National Collegiate Scouting Association prior to joining the 49ers, knew since college that this is what he wanted to do.

“I really fell in love with the front-office scout side of pro sports,” said Gillen, who aspires to be an NFL general manager. “I like studying film and finding guys who can contribute to the team.”

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