Most everyone is aware of the NFL Draft and college pro days, but it’s what takes place between now and the draft that leaves many on the outside looking in. The public gets the pre-draft trackers, telling you where everyone is going – but that's about the extent of the information. It's the integral part of the evaluation puzzle that you never really get to see. Teams either invite prospects to their city or travel to the player’s home to take him through a private workout. Invaluable information is acquired during these visits.
But from the player’s perspective, it can feel more like speed dating than a prelude to a long-term commitment.
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Here’s how it starts:
Teams inform agents about their desire to set up a visit several days in advance. This assures the proper logistics in case the athlete has multiple trips scheduled. When a prospect flies to a city, that player cannot work out for that team. Players may only work out at the university they attended or at a designated site agreed upon by both parties (not an NFL facility).
Remember, this is a business interview, so typically players are dressed in business casual attire.
These visits accomplish several things. First, more face time with the coaching staff and any personnel that hasn’t met the prospect. Obviously, the biggest part of the job is what you do on the field as a player. But countless hours as a professional athlete take place in meetings, one-on-one teaching sessions, and small group work. With so many talented athletes being weighed, if there are some personal red flags in just the normal workplace interaction that you would never be able to see on game film, it could be a separator. If you've got two guys at the same position being evaluated that are seemingly equal in most regards, but one comes off as much easier to work with …that's not nuttin' in this speed dating world.
Second, it’s an opportunity to test the player’s football IQ, either by watching film, going through the playbook or conducting dry erase board quizzes. Teams usually document these quizzes to compare to other prospects. It’s common there are other players on the trip, so the entire staff isn’t present for every meeting with every player. The quizzes consist of material that either had been given to the player at an earlier date or moments prior to the test. This reveals how quickly a player can digest information. NFL schemes experience greater change from week to week compared to college programs, which makes having good recall and adaptability so necessary.
Following the meetings, the player is fed a nice dinner on the team's tab as the feeling out process ensues. Every action is watched and measured and both parties get a chance to determine if a relationship can materialize. You know you're being evaluated, but to what degree …you kind of never know. Should I order the most expensive item on the menu? Or the cheapest? Do I follow the lead of the staff? Or should I just follow their lead … and is that a negative trait for a quarterback? Do I order a beer? Do I have dessert? Etc, etc…
Admittedly, some of these might just be neurotic thoughts, but the boogeyman stories of everything being scrutinized keeps you on your toes throughout the process. It's still humans evaluating other humans. These snapshot impressions are bound to have some effect.
And just as fast as the romance began, it ends. Players return to their lavish hotels and are off to their next visit or back home. A team may also choose to conduct the workout at the player’s university or at a designated location. Teams usually select the finest restaurant in town to continue the vetting process, but it's still just the same dance all over again.
The next day a workout is tailored to the questions the team wants answered. For a quarterback, whatever drills or throws the quarterback is asked to perform typically are based on the requirements of that particular team’s offense. The coaching staff has been postulating for months on whether or not a player can fit in their system. This is critical moment for the teams where the simulation is actually testing things the player will be doing in their system – something that's been a projection at virtually every other point in the process until this point. These moments can be especially telling, but the real impressions from these front line evaluations never reach the public eye or ear.
Meetings also can be held at the school and film and dry erase boards may be used. Franchises do all they can to generate a feeling of confidence in knowing that you are “their guy,” which is always somewhat uncomfortable because you know everybody can't draft you. It's impossible for the “their guy” thing to be true every time.
Right after the workout/meetings, the team moves on to its next prospect to do it all over again. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am! It really ends up being more like a one-night stand for all but that one team that drafts you, then it’s possibly a match made in heaven.
To further muddy the waters, it's not uncommon for players to get drafted by teams that didn't have them in for a visit … no speed date, just a proposal. And is the visit just a smokescreen intended to mislead another team?
In all of these scenarios, these visits and workouts are kept quiet. The information that leaks out won’t have much depth or substance, but these visits may be the most influential event of the courting process. Or they may not. Which is what helps keep everyone guessing throughout the process.
As a player, you hop back on the plane and are left to wonder with your thoughts:
What just happened? Was is good…I think it was good. And does any of it really matter?
You get a chance to day-dream yourself as well. Will that team be the one? Can I see myself living in that city … playing for that organization … wearing that uniform?
Pre-draft visits are a bizarre part of the process, but an important one nonetheless. It's all about getting comfortable. A franchise’s ability to be confident in a prospect helps ensure a draft day selection that works for everybody. The player is sometimes just along for the ride.