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James Liipfert during rookie minicamp in May.
James Liipfert and Nick Caserio at training camp in 2021.
James Liipfert in the Texans draft room in 2022.
James Liipfert and Nick Caserio during 2021 draft.
James Liipfert at training camp with his wife Lacy, whom he met during a scouting trip, and their two children, James IV and Campbell
James Liipfert has spent 1,729 nights in a hotel.
He’s spent thousands of hours more on the road. Sometimes a Tim Ferriss self-help podcast harmonized with the hum of the highway. The blend formed a personalized baseline supporting the soundtrack beneath the life of an NFL scout.
Life is too short to be small.
The odometer offered a paradox. Miles can melt slowly between Canyon and Commerce, when all there is to look forward to is another warm paper takeout bag, a crisp keycard to lose in yesterday’s pants pocket and a well-made twin bed that’s prepared to bear the weight of a bleary-eyed man, his laptop and a notepad scrawled half-full of player evaluations.
Thank goodness for cell phones. Sometimes it’s funny how they really are lifelines. Sometimes Liipfert knew his buddy, Pat Stewart, was maybe on the road from Huntington, West Va., to Lexington, Ky., and he’d drop him a line. They’d talk without surcease — two area scouts for the Patriots: one scouring west of the Mississippi, the other east — airing insecurities, commiserating miseries and sharing fantasies of opportunities beyond the horizon.
“You know that somebody else is going through it with you,” says Stewart, now the Panthers’ vice president of player personnel.
The question you should be asking isn’t, “What do I want?” or “What are my goals?” but “What would excite me?”
Liipfert’s 14-year climb has spanned both New England and Houston and yielded an official title — Texans’ assistant director of player personnel and college scouting director — that’s almost as long as those old Texas roads. As the No. 2 executive behind general manager Nick Caserio, Liipfert is familiar with the questions that run through the minds of the scouts he now manages. He knows how the wants and goals and excitements can fuse within football, how energy for the job can’t be sustained on coffee, Red Bull and Red Man alone.
Liipfert was a big 5-Hour Energy guy in New England, Stewart says. The brand actually provides a suitable nickname for the Marshallville, Ga., native who galvanized a Georgia Tech locker room despite being, in his own words, a “soft-bodied” linebacker who on his best day ran a 4.9 in the 40-yard dash.
Brian Jean-Mary, Liipfert’s position coach at Georgia Tech, can spout all the character clichés about his former player — the “man’s man,” the “coach on the field” special teamer, the “glue guy” in the 2008 coaching transition from Chan Gailey to Paul Johnson — but laughter uncorked by decade-old memories breathes a personality uncontained by convention.
Maybe the Yellow Jackets could’ve guessed Liipfert would work in personnel. Guess who spearheaded the team’s fantasy football league? Guess who strode into the locker room one day wearing a blazer over his Georgia Tech-issued shirt, shorts and shoes — a 20-year-old commissioner toeing the line between hilarity and sincerity — and barked rules and regulations like he was an experienced executive?
“He thought the jacket is what made him official,” says Jean-Mary, who now coaches linebackers at the University of Tennessee.
A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.
Liipfert still carries a 14-year-old Post-it note in his work bag. It’s a reminder of the most uncomfortable, most meaningful conversation in his career.
See, back in New England, back when Jon Robinson was the franchise’s director of college scouting, Robinson helped hire Liipfert as a scouting assistant in 2009 upon the recommendation of former Georgia Tech assistant coach Charles Kelly. Liipfert was a smart kid, Kelly told Robinson, the kind of football fanatic who dove into mock drafts and player evaluation packets and knew he wanted to stay connected to the sport somehow.
Scouting assistants were basically glorified interns, Stewart says, the entry-level “slappy’s” who’d spend a year or two doing grunt work before graduating to scout college players or professional players and so on. Theirs were the remedial tasks. They’d grab the coffee. They’d clean out the paper jams in the copy machine. They’d pick up and file faxes from agents that said their clients were available to schedule for workouts.
Well, sometimes the faxes got filed. New England’s scouting department offices were on the second story of the stadium. Down a long hallway, there was the marketing department. Robinson watched from his office as a young, social and single Liipfert sashayed down the hall and return about 15 minutes later. Robinson let it go for a few days. But the fax machine whirred in Liipfert’s absence, and Robinson had to go pick up the files himself.
Robinson called Liipfert into his office and shut the door.
“If you don’t pick your shit up, I’ll fire your ass,” Robinson said. “You understand me?”
Robinson pulled a desk drawer open like a crypt, revealing a 15-inch file of paperwork.
“You see all those folders? And all those papers?” Robinson said. “Those are all resumes of guys that want your job. You’ve got a great opportunity here, man, and you’re about to throw it all away.”
Over a decade later, after Liipfert was promoted to area scout, then national scout, after the Texans hired him to be their director of college scouting in 2018, Liipfert sent Robinson a picture of a worn-out Post-it note he’d written for himself right after that conversation.
“He’d written down three, four, five things,” says Robinson, now the general manager of the Titans. “He said, ‘Do these things every single day,’ and he listed them. Boom. Boom. Boom. At the bottom he put an asterisk and a star. ‘Or J-Rob will fire my ass.’
“He said, ‘I want to thank you for having that discussion with me, because you were real with me. I was headed down the wrong path, and you straightened me back up, and I never wanted to have a conversation like that with you or anybody else in that position ever again.’”
Information is useless if it is not applied to something important or if you will forget it before you have a chance to apply it.
Re-applied, Liipfert’s social skills uncapped his greatest strength. His easy way of talking helped him connect with players and coaches, which invited trust and opened up to more thorough information about a player’s character and background, what made the prospect tick.
He practiced this skill as a scouting assistant in New England. One of their responsibilities was chauffeuring potential free agents. He’d make the 40-mile drive from Gillette Stadium to Logan Airport, drive the player to his physical at Massachusetts General Hospital, then take him to the team’s facility for a workout. There was always heavy traffic, and it was tough to manufacture conversation because the trips were usually late at night or early in the morning. But every tidbit was valuable.
“Even where I am now, I always ask the scouting assistants, what do you think of him?” Stewart says. “Because you were in the car with them for so long, and you usually find out better information from them about their behavior and how they carry themselves. When they’re around us, they put on a good show. When they’re around the scouting assistants, you kind of get a truer sense of who they are.”
Conversation can be exhausting. But it’s what made Liipfert’s scouting reports unique. Robinson would read through the research and see discussions with not only a prospect’s coach, but the team’s trainers, their equipment managers, sometimes seemingly random university staffers who offered some form of insight that created a more complete profile.
Liipfert was thorough. He became “one of the better evaluators in the league,” Stewart says. Jean-Mary, a former linebacker coach at the University of Texas, remembers how Liipfert came through Austin several times for “many, many conversations” about defensive lineman Malcom Brown, whom the Patriots selected No. 32 overall in 2015 and started in their Super LI victory over the Falcons.
“It kind of made me want to be on top of my game too, because I knew what James did was good,” Stewart says. “You always wanted to try and take your stuff to the next level as well. I was always very envious of how good he was at the background stuff.”
There was time enough to scout prospective family, too. Liipfert met his wife, Lacy, at a bar in Louisiana and courted her while making three 2012 trips to scout Southeastern Louisiana cornerback Robert Alford. The Falcons wound up picking Alford No. 60 overall in 2013 — an ironic twist by Liipfert’s home-state team — but the scout got the girl, the two kids, the third that’s on the way.
Losers have goals. Winners have systems.
Houston’s 15-man scouting department is entering its third draft cycle under Nick Caserio’s massive roster rebuild. Liipfert spent nine years working in New England under Caserio, who was the franchise’s director of player personnel for 13 seasons before the Texans hired him in January 2021.
They share the same scouting trades. Caserio brought with him Patriots philosophies and personnel projects like role-specific scouting (is the player a starter? a backup? a special-teamer?) and cross-referencing evaluations on rookies in the seasons after they were drafted.
Perhaps no Texans player emulates the product of that process than Tytus Howard. Liipfert played a major role in scouting Howard and making the offensive tackle Alabama State’s first ever first-round pick in 2019 under former general manager Brian Gaine.
In Howard, Liipfert saw notable athletic upside. It’s a necessary quality, Liipfert says, for prospects from the Southwestern Athletic Conference, a collection of Historically Black Colleges that compete at the FCS level. Sure, Howard dominated competition all season. But he had tremendous size — measuring 6-foot-5, 322 pounds at the NFL combine — and wielded 34-inch-long arms that well equip him for intense blocking battles along the perimeter.
Howard’s draft file also included his football intelligence, how he was a former quarterback at Monroe County High in Alabama, how he initially enrolled at Alabama State as a tight end and retained enough schematic command that he could potentially flip positions if need be. When the Texans desperately needed improvement along its interior offensive line in 2021, the coaching staff moved Howard to left guard for 11 starts.
The temporary stopgap allowed the Texans to reconstruct their offense in the draft. Howard returned this season to his true position at right tackle after the Texans picked Kenyon Green No. 15 overall, and Howard is now tied for 16th in the NFL with seven quarterback pressures allowed through five games, according to Pro Football Focus (min. 67 snaps).
The Texans, which long sought stability on the offensive line, now has Howard and left tackle Laremy Tunsil under contract through the 2023 season. Caserio picked up Howard’s fifth-year option after drafting Green, which will pay Howard $13.2 million in his final season — a price the Texans wouldn’t be willing to pay if he didn’t fulfill a role or didn’t meet team expectations that are partly described by their post-rookie evaluations.
“Just happy to still be here four years later, fifth-year option picked up,” Howard says. “(Liipfert) did a pretty good job on the scouting on me, me coming from a small school. Thankful for him.”
Caserio promoted Liipfert to assistant director of player personnel in 2021, a title he shared with Matt Bazirgan and absorbed fully in the offseason when Bazirgan left to become Buffalo’s senior personnel executive. Houston’s draft picks in the last two seasons have been far more effective than the previous three.
Of course, the roster rebuild has made necessary the franchise’s use of rookies, although the Texans jettisoned three former second-round picks — offensive guard Max Scharping (2019), cornerback Lonnie Johnson (2019) and defensive tackle Ross Blacklock (2020) — over the offseason.
Eight of Houston’s 14 selections from the last two drafts are now regular starters, a number that would likely have increased if third-round linebacker Christian Harris (hamstring) and wide receiver John Metchie III (leukemia) were healthy.
Liipfert is helping the Texans best wield their wealth of draft picks. If they spend all 11 picks next April — and it’s likely they won’t with Caserio’s frequent draft-positioning trades — they’ll have doubled the number of rookies selected in the last two seasons than the previous two.
“We’re still getting there, man,” Liipfert says. “To me, I feel like we’re in the middle of this thing. I really appreciate what we’re building here.”
Brooks Kubena, a Houston native, joined the Chronicle in 2021 to cover the Texans and the NFL after reporting on LSU football for The Advocate | Times-Picayune in Baton Rouge for three years. Kubena received APSE National Top 10 honors six times for his reporting, including his investigative work into LSU’s mishandling of Title IX cases and a secret settlement involving Les Miles and a former student. Kubena also contributed to the AP Top 25 poll and held a Heisman Trophy vote.
A graduate of the University of Texas and Clear Lake High School, he’s too young to remember the Oilers but old enough to remember a parking lot was once AstroWorld.
Meet James Liipfert: the long-time scout who's helping lead the Texans draft decisions – Houston Chronicle
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