Less than a month removed from Super Bowl XLIX, the maneuvering of rosters and salary caps, evaluations of NFL draft prospects, and assessments of free agents are in full swing. It’s the NFL off-season, and one very active group has a specific interest in the proceedings – and a unique vantage point. Let’s go behind the scenes with an NFLPA agent.
Who is he? We can’t tell you. Which players does he represent? Sorry, we can’t tell you that either. But this real-life Jerry Maguire is indeed certified by the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), and he’s been at the negotiating table with GMs, executives, and players familiar to all fans. He’ll be partnering exclusively with Inside The Pylon to share his thoughts on the underlying machinations that often remain a mystery for all but those directly involved.
We caught up with him last week just before he headed to Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine, the league’s centralized operation for evaluating the nation’s best draft-eligible college players, which wrapped up yesterday.
ITP: Since the Indianapolis combine is by invitation only, what role do agents play in securing spots on that stage for their clients?
Agent: Agents have no say in the combine selection process. The combine is incredibly airtight. The selection committee is confidential – it is comprised of NFL club representatives who rotate each year, so agents can’t even hope to have a team-friendly contact who can help.
ITP: What goes into the decision to have someone work out at the combine versus a pro day? Is it just injury status or do additional factors come into play?
Agent: I start off with the proposition that a healthy client will participate fully at the combine, for a few reasons. First of all, the days of skipping combine workouts are just about over, with the exception of the top QB’s. Second, pro days are wild cards – I’ve had it snow at two pro days in the past two years. I don’t mind saving one or two things for pro day if you have to (like getting a doctor’s note for a strained pec and saving bench [presses] for pro day), but for the most part I want my combine guys to get two bites at the apple.
ITP: How do your clients prepare for the combine?
Agent: I send [quote align=”left”][/quote]my clients to trainers based on position and setting. For example, I’ve had three OL/DL in the past two drafts train with Chip Smith in Atlanta. I think his team does a great job with those positions (and others, for sure), and they have delivered results. I’ve sent other position players to different trainers. The other factor is group size. So if I have a client who prefers working in smaller groups, I might suggest a particular gym that operates that way.
ITP: Have you represented players that have not been invited to the combine and how does their pre-draft path differ from a player that has been invited?
Agent: Yes, I’ve had lots of clients on each side of that ledger. Combine guys are easier for some things, while guys without combine invitations are easier for other things.
For a client invited to the combine, I don’t have to worry about hustling around to make sure teams know who he is. [quote align=”right”] [/quote]They know him – their scouts and position coaches have detailed reports on him. That’s good, but the tougher part is getting him ready for everything at the combine and all that goes with it. Plus, once that process is done, it’s not easy to figure out what teams think and who will take your guy and in what round. It’s tough because they don’t need you for information – but you need them.
For guys not invited to the combine, I have to make sure I’m working every angle to get my clients noticed. That takes a lot of work and a lot of effort. But the upside is that, if those guys get noticed and the scouts like them, now it gets easier because teams have to work with us: They need to send position coaches out for follow-up workouts and they need to fly the guy in for a top 30 visit to get medicals. With those guys, the rest of the world might not know, but you know your guy is moving up and you can use that information to your advantage.
ITP: Take us through your typical to-do list once you’ve arrived in Indy and settled into your hotel. What is that first day like? How does the routine change over the rest of the combine?
Agent: The busiest combines are not the ones where you have the most clients testing at combine. The busiest combines are when you have sought-after free agents about to hit the market. Getting teams to meet with you in Indy to discuss these players is the best way to get rolling on free agency. They are all there and you can use these meetings to stoke other interest.
I usually get to Indy in time to be there when my clients arrive, and then I get situated for whatever meetings I have scheduled to discuss upcoming free agents. Teams will conduct those meetings at their hotels, so it basically involves walking from one hotel to the other when team execs are in between other obligations. [quote align=”left”][/quote]Teams are doing less of this at the combine in the past year or so, but it is still part of the process in Indy.
As for the players who are in Indy for testing, it’s pretty simple because they are booked solid. I like to get over to the Crowne Plaza (where the players stay) to meet my client and go over his itinerary with him to make sure he knows what to do. The Crowne Plaza is locked down by NFL Security, but we are allowed to meet players in the restaurant in the lobby. The next thing I do is make sure I know their few windows of free time, so I can take them over to the Omni and hit the various vendor suites – Nike and Under Armour have suites that will load them up with free gear. There are others, but those are the best ones. Last year, the Nike suite had a juice bar, massages, a barber, and two rooms full of gear.
Other than that, I’ll make sure to meet up with the people I don’t see all year long but who I like to keep in contact with: scouts, team personnel, financial advisors, trainers, etc. I’ve also got a few agent friends who I’ll get together with over dinner, etc. It’s a good chance to catch up and buy a few cold beverages for people I will do business with throughout the year.
ITP: To many outside observers, much of the combine seems monotonous. Drills, drills, more drills, all in an empty cavernous stadium with no crowd. What are we missing out on?
Agent: For the players, it’s a lot of running around to get medical checks done, [quote align=”right”][/quote]attend meetings, do interviews, get woken up at 6am for follow-up testing, etc. I don’t think there’s much to “miss” in that regard, because most of what they are doing is very boring (if you ask me).
However, the fan in me was surprised at how many times you run into people you see on TV like head coaches and GMs. You can see them walking down the street, in line at Starbucks in the hotel lobby, and eating at the food court in the mall (that’s the strangest, if you ask me – because they all eat lunch over there almost every day). At night, after all the testing and interviews are done, you can find them out at St. Elmo’s or the other restaurants kicking back. As an agent, you have to pick your spots if you want to make a connection, but there are opportunities if you play your cards right.
ITP: How difficult is the decision for skill players to run at the combine or not? Do you advise your clients to always run, therefore giving them a second opportunity in private workouts, or is it more of a case by case basis?
Agent: I believe in testing when you are healthy – if a guy is healthy at the combine, they should test. It is also a big benefit to perform well at Indy because then you can opt out at pro day, doing only the drills you want to repeat.
ITP: There seems to be a difference of opinion on whether quarterbacks should throw at the combine. What are your thoughts on that?
Agent: Most quarterbacks have no choice – they throw. If you are representing the top QB or close to top QB, maybe you think that through, but everyone else can use the combine as just the first of two chances.
ITP: Do you personally track 40-yard dash times at the combine for your own record keeping? Are there ever disputes over those times or any other data that might unfairly affect a client?
Agent: This is often misunderstood. [quote align=”left”][/quote]The numbers you see at the combine are those kept by The National [aka National Football Scouting Inc., which operates the event]. In addition to those, each team has a handful of scouts with their own stopwatches. So there is no shortage of numbers and no need to keep your own numbers. The past two combines, there has been a lot of griping about times, but I’ve talked to teams about this and they don’t care – if the National number is not in line with their own numbers, they will use their own and not worry that National had some other time that the agents and players complained about.
ITP: What are your thoughts on the Wonderlic? What do players and teams think about it? Is it taken seriously and is there much variation in those opinions? Does it matter more for some positions, such as QB?
Agent: I’ve talked to teams about this quite a bit – my take is that they don’t put much weight on it. They place much more emphasis on their own interviews, chalk board work, and the personality testing.
ITP: How important are the meetings between the player and potential coaches and GMs? We hear stories all the time about players rising or falling on draft boards based on these meetings, as well as crazy questions (i.e. “Is your mother a prostitute?”)
Agent: These meetings are big, in my opinion, and I spend a lot of time preparing my clients for them. [quote align=”right”][/quote]By the time these guys get to Indy, many have been interviewed dozens of times at their All Star game (Senior Bowl, East-West Shrine Game, etc.) and think they have it down. To me, that’s an easy mistake – teams will take every opportunity to interview these guys and find the real information they are looking for. So I take this part of the process very seriously with my clients and make sure they are on their game for interviews. I will talk to my players each day in Indy to go over their interview schedule for that night and talk through things like: you met their scout in Mobile, you met the position coach on the field after practice, etc. I just remind them what they have already done and go over what to expect with the larger group.
ITP: Given how many NFL coaching and GM positions typically change hands between the end of the regular season and the combine, one might assume this is your first face-to-face interaction with some of them. How does that dynamic affect things from your vantage point, and does it complicate matters?
Agent: It doesn’t change much for agents because we talk more with scouting department guys than coaches. Most coaches haven’t even been asked to look at players until Senior Bowl or East-West – or maybe even at the combine for the first time – so usually things are the same for us. Most new GM’s won’t overhaul the scouting department until after the draft.
ITP: During [quote align=”left”][/quote]the medical evaluation process, do you find certain clubs more lenient than others? Have you run into situations where team X has no issues with the medicals of a player while team Y “red flags” the same player?
Agent: Absolutely. But here’s the problem: we never know until its too late. Teams keep their medical determinations under wraps. We often won’t find out a player has been flagged until draft weekend and he’s falling. If you have a known medical issue, you can work with doctors to get beneficial findings to teams during the pre-draft process, but it’s the hidden issues that will bite you.
ITP: Do you or other agents interact with any of the better-known draft “experts” like Mel Kiper Jr. or Todd McShay leading into or during the combine? If so, is it more about salesmanship on your part to boost your clients’ stock, or are you merely responding to questions from them?
Agent: Yes, we all talk to those guys, but the value of those discussions is perceived differently by everyone. My feeling is that the draft guys get their information from teams – I realize they do their own analysis too, and many are very good at it, but I think they are swayed pretty heavily by what teams tell them. That’s why I spend my time trying to talk up my players with teams.
ITP: Are those draft “experts” a productive part of the process, or a hindrance that agents deal with because they’re merely part of the publicity machine?
Agent: This is going to vary by agent – but my belief is that they are part of the process like all media. I respect their ability and think they can help with buzz, but at the end of the day, the teams make their own decisions.
Agent: I think it’s the same with all media, whether it’s reports or predictions. These things help because teams track what they hear about other teams, so I never bypass and opportunity to get good media coverage.
ITP: With the NFL continuing to add regional combines, how much does that help clients who are a bit under the radar? Is there a noticeable difference compared to when they didn’t host as many regional combines?
Agent: I’m not a big believer in these regional combines. I’d rather have a player who isn’t invited to Indy make his mark at his on-campus pro day. If the player isn’t invited to Indy and his pro day won’t be well attended, I think a regional combine might make sense – but at that point, you’re not in a great spot.
Agent: We certainly try,but that’s a tough sell. Teams know these players and see them at all-star games, the combine, and pro days. If they aren’t pursuing follow-up workouts with your client, it is rare to “convince” them to do so.
ITP: Is there much in the way of teams trying to “hide a player”, by promising to pick them in a given round if they stop taking workouts elsewhere? We hear about this in the NBA all the time, but not as much in the NFL it seems.
Agent: I’ve never seen it happen.
ITP: You must have some humorous combine stories. Any of them involving Bill Belichick? Has he ever walked around the hotel lobby in a velvet bathrobe or anything?
Agent: I think my funniest was from my first combine. I had two draft-eligible clients that year and neither was invited to the event – not unusual for a new agent. So I had materials printed up on my two guys and I brought them with me to hand out to teams in Indy.
First night there, a good friend of mine (another agent who at that time had been an agent for several years and had quite a few good clients) had plans to meet up with [then-Chicago Bears general manager] Jerry Angelo for dinner and invited me to join. [quote align=”left”][/quote]So I’m all ready to hit up a GM for the first time to promote a client.
We get to the restaurant and I’m waiting for my opening. After a few minutes, I hand him the two bios I had prepared. He takes a look, squints a little, and does that thing where a person will move the paper closer to his eyes and then further from his eyes, as if he’s looking at something that makes no sense to him. Its too quiet. He looks at me and says “You know, I’m usually pretty good at these things and I have no idea who these guys are. I hope you didn’t quit your day job.”
I heard – and was asked to retell – that story so many times over the next few days in Indy. The good news is that it opened up lots of doors that weekend and one of the two players ended up running a 4.3 forty at his pro day and getting drafted in the third round, so it was a win-win.
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