How NFL draft training has changed the football industry
PITTSBURGH – Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have to warn their possible draft picks to stop.
The same process that puts that player in front of them makes them better prospects, but not necessarily better players.
Once they do join the NFL, in fact, it makes them more likely to get hurt.
“So Coach Tomlin and myself will always remind the players, ‘Look, once this is over, it’s over,” Colbert said. “’Start conditioning for football again.’”
This warning didn’t need to be given about 15 years ago. The market for the kind of Combine and Pro Day-specialized training that takes draft prospects away from their campuses for 6-8, and sometimes even 10 weeks at a time, didn’t exist. Trainers weren’t pitching it. Agents weren’t discussing it with players, who weren’t counter-offering the names of training facilities while they decided who they thought could lift their draft stock the highest.
There was no one to keep up with except one’s draft class peers as the names of training programs weren’t yet currency.
But in what longtime agent and president of JL Sports Joe Linta described as a “cottage industry” facilities and trainers are traded among college players turning pro. The accepted reality has ripple effects throughout the football business.
“I think once people started doing it if you were trying to compete and trying to sign a player and five other agents were offering to send him away to train you had to keep up with the competition,” Linta said.
Halfway through his career, the rules of his job changed. Though it was only elite prospects at first, football’s herd mentality quickly followed as prospects all over the country started asking for more and more specialized training to prepare them for the Combine.
The cost comes out to $1,500-$2,000 per player per week, Linta said. That covers training, room and board at a given facility, the player’s food and in more recent years, a rental car, all packaged together.
It also starts a bidding war between competing agencies before pre-draft training truly begins, establishes a pecking order within each agency’s roster of players and partly dictates which agents can represent what caliber of players.
“The training facility is really what sells people, I think, because that’s where you’re going to be for two months, training,” Oregon State offensive tackle and projected fifth-round pick Sean Harlow said. “You’re not going to be hanging out with your agent, you’re going to be hanging around the guys who are wherever you end up training at.”
This isn’t inherently a problem for agents. It’s just that motivation matters. If a player is more focused on simply being in Orlando or Phoenix, Linta is out.
But if the potential client tell him he’s gotten good feedback about a spot from a former teammate, that works. He’ll send the player there if he signs, and he’s good enough.
Whereas spending $100,000 on a first-round pick is likely to result in a million-dollar profit within the first five years, veteran agent Bill Parise said, he can’t justify a $15,000 outlay on a likely undrafted player.
“If it’s a guy who’s marginally going to have a chance you might not train him or only send him for a weeks,” Linta said. “There’s a pecking order. It’s not a socialistic system. Myles Garrett I’m sure would get a better chance than a guy who’s got marginal chance of getting called into a minicamp.”
Yet prospects have training facilities like Peter Bommarito Performance Systems outside of Miami, Florida or EXOS in Phoenix, Arizona on their minds when they meet with prospective agents.
Parise had a prospective client tell him this offseason that he preferred him to other agents, but asked if he could match the training another agent was offering. He let the player walk. Linta turns away from those same bidding wars.
Our antennae go up when someone says they want to go to Arizona, when someone is basically asking for a prepaid vacation,” Linta said.
Local real estate markets factor into training costs, too, said agent Joe Barkett. A player paying a higher free to a trainer in Cincinnati than a prospect working out in California still might cost less to prepare for the draft simply due to the costs of housing.