With the prospect of a lost 2011 season now more real than ever, it’s easy to obsess and salivate over every throw, shuttle-run drill and long jump at NFL Pro Days this month. Football, actual football — not talk of “decertification,” “a rookie wage scale” and the minutiae of what attorneys Bob Batterman and Jeff Pash had for lunch as they negotiated at a boardroom table in D.C. — is certainly a welcome reprieve from the current labor doom and gloom we’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis.
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Alas, I’m here to share with you the ugly truth: These NFL Pro Days? They’re actually not that big of a deal.
Now, sure, if a prospect had an awful Combine performance in February and wants to show that he can, in fact, run that sub 4.8 40-yard-dash, he can do so at his Pro Day. And yes, if there’s an overlooked prospect that for whatever reason wasn’t invited to the Combine, he has the opportunity to wow scouts by stealing some of the spotlight at his or a nearby school’s hosted Pro Day this month.
But all things considered?
“Pro Days are just one very small part of the NFL Draft equation,” says David Canter, a longtime NFL agent who’s represented numerous first- and second-round draft picks over the past 10 years.
“By the time we get to the Pro Days, teams know a lot more about these kids than the fans seem to realize. They’ve got college scouts who’ve been watching these players on film since their freshman years, and the film doesn’t lie. Whether a guy runs a 4.5 or 4.6 40 on their Pro Day isn’t going to make all that much of a difference come draft weekend.”
Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff adds, “We, as an organization, are philosophically more invested in players’ individual workouts with us than their Pro Day performances. We’re always interested to see how a player conducts himself in that setting — with all eyes on them — but when we’re honing in on our first- and second-round prospects, we place a greater emphasis on our individual workouts with them.”
Far more important than Pro Days are the trips teams make to the player’s college campus and the various visits players take to NFL team facilities in the weeks leading up to the draft. In most cases, a player will be flown in with a few other prospects, stay in town for one or two days, and be put under the microscope for rigorous examination. There are workouts with position coaches, interviews with coaches, and lunches and dinners with front-office personnel.
“We make sure it’s a unique experience, customized for every player we bring in,” says Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik. “We’re prepared for each player and make sure we make the most of our time with them.”
Canter adds, “Teams want to see how you perform in their building, working with their defensive schemes, and with their coaches. Anyone can do well at a Pro Day. At a Pro Day, everyone in attendance is in your corner, rooting you on. When you go visit a team’s facilities, there’s no hiding. You’re not sleeping in your own bed, you’re not with your college quarterback or teammates, and you’re certainly not the big man on campus. How you react in that situation is what teams really want to see.”
Players can visit with as many teams as they’d like, or better put — as many as will have them. Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton, for example, already has a reported eight different team visits lined up. There are certainly more to come. Though the Combine, Pro Days and college campus visits present solid opportunities for teams to get a feel for a player, it’s on these visits to NFL team facilities where impressions are truly crystallized and draft board decisions are made.
Chargers fourth-year safety Eric Weddle had a particularly memorable visit when he met with the Chargers in San Diego back in March 2007.
“I got there and Norv Turner was the first person to greet me at the facility,” recalls Weddle. “I talked to him for about 10 minutes, and we went outside and watched the defensive backs work out. Then, I met with the defensive coordinator at the time, Ted Cotrell, and defensive backs coach Bill Bradley for about three hours.” Three hours into his visit with the Chargers, Weddle still hadn’t picked up a football, done a single drill or taken a Wonderlic-like IQ exam.
“After talking, the three of us went to the beach and had dinner and just chilled out and really got to know each other. We gelled. On that trip, I never met AJ Smith or Buddy Nix, but I had already met with them briefly at the Combine.” Weddle, Cottrell and Bradley clicked and the rest was history. A few weeks later, San Diego traded four draft picks, moved up 25 spots and drafted Weddle with the 37th pick.
Of course, players don’t just hop on planes and go into these visits blind. And the trips certainly are not all beachfront dinners, heart-to-heart conversations and lullabies. Agents and college coaches prepare prospects for their “on-campus” trips weeks in advance and instruct them to expect the unexpected.
Before any visit to an NFL team’s facilities, Canter’s clients are given “cheat sheets” on each and every member of the squad’s coaching staff, a guidebook on their current player personnel and a primer on the team’s history. Canter’s players are trained to not merely memorize every coach’s name and face, but to also pull out a nugget from each front-office member and coach’s bio that he can use as a talking point in conversations.
“If he’s meeting with the Eagles, I want him to know that (special teams coach) Bobby April was with the Bills before Philadelphia, that (offensive line coach) Howard Mudd’s one of the game’s coaching legends and worked with Peyton Manning the past 12 years, and that (secondary coach) Michael Zordich played with the Eagles and Jets in the 1990s. If there’s a college they have in common, a known hobby they share — my guys go into those visits knowing that ahead of time.”
That’s all well and good, and the teams certainly appreciate a player’s commitment to detail, but they also prefer to see a young man’s authenticity shine through. At last year’s Senior Bowl, there were dubious reports about Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon’s rather unique personality. Word out of Mobile was that the All-Big 12 performer never stopped talking, was all over the place, and likely just wasn’t worth the headache for an NFL team.
“Yet, when he came and met with us here, he didn’t ‘tone it down’ at all,” explains Dimitroff, who eventually selected Weatherspoon with the 19th overall pick of last year’s draft. “Instead, he was himself. He explained that all that energy, all that personality — it’s all positive. We appreciated that. He was authentic. And although everyone seemed to assume that he wouldn’t fit our culture, we thought he did. Everyone we spoke to in Mobile, at the Combine and at Missouri — everywhere, really — they all agreed that Sean’s never cynical, never negative and never a problem. That personality — it’s positive energy and enthusiasm. We liked that.”
Preparation and positivity on visits to NFL team facilities are important, but they’re not everything.
“First and foremost, we use the visits to clarify any medical concerns,” says Dominik, whose golden 2010 NFL Draft haul included rookie starters Mike Williams, Cody Grimm and Gerald McCoy. “That’s the biggest thing. After that — these guys are essentially on job interviews. We expect them to treat the visits as so.”
And sometimes, it’s the little things that stand out the most. Whereas Weddle hit it off with his eventual position coach and coordinator through six hours of conversation, Dominik and his staff were impressed by a small act from a college kid who visited with the Bucs last spring.
“We had about eight players eating lunch together at the facility, and after the meal, only one of the guys took the time to go back into the kitchen and thank all the chefs. That kid was LeGarrette Blount.”
Blount, of course, was suspended for much of his 2009 senior season at Oregon for punching an opposing player in the face on national television.
“Thanking the chefs showed us something about LeGarrette and his values. We knew that he’d appreciate the guy taping him up in the training room, the scout breaking down the film. We knew he was a guy we could see in our system.”
Though the Bucs ended up not drafting Blount last year, they quickly pounced when he was released by the Tennessee Titans during training camp. As the Buccaneer tailback in 2010, he led all NFL rookies in rushing.
“These teams leave no stones unturned. By the time they get to draft weekend, they know all they need to know about these kids and more,” explains Canter. “The players have no idea the amount of detail each team has on them.”
“I once had a client who collected fire trucks,” Canter recalls. “He was a skilled tight end with great technique. I showed him one team’s scouting report on him. What’d it say? ‘Bigger than a Greek god, but is a (expletive). Twenty-years-old and still plays with fire engines. Maturity issues.’ ”
Canter’s client — an eventual third-round pick — responded to the scouting report with tears and confusion. The only way anyone could have possibly known about his fire engine collection was if they had been in his apartment.
“They don’t realize, but every pro team has a coach, a player, someone who’s still connected with the college teams, and these guys know all the ins and outs on these players. It all comes out in the wash. Seeing that scouting report only made that player tougher down the line.”
Aside from acing their individual workouts on campus and their visits with teams, players need to stay in shape and stay out of trouble in the weeks leading up to the draft. In this modern day of new media, though, that means more than just keeping out of the police blotter.
“We had a kid come in last year for a visit. We were meeting with him at 8 A.M. At 7:45 A.M., on his way to our meeting, he sent out a tweet with racial overtones. Proper decorum on Twitter, on Facebook and in all social media — we track and monitor that extensively now,” says Dimitroff. “Needless to say, that player’s interview didn’t last very long.”
“In the months leading up to the draft, we don’t want to hear about you,” notes Dominik. “We want you to lay low, under the radar. Just stay focused, stay in shape and stay out of the headlines.”
So, all these Pro Days? Yes, there’s certainly a value to them. And sure, they’re fun to dissect for us draftniks.
But they’re not as all-important as the media sometimes makes them out to be.
And in some cases, it’s the ill-advised morning tweet or the simple “thank you” to a team employee that can have an even bigger impact come draft weekend.