Scouts, coaches and front office executives from NFL teams spend every March watching the private workouts of draft prospects on college campuses nationwide in preparation for the late-April draft. Until now, a stop at Howard University has not been a must. "Usually, it's like six teams, max, at one of these," Edward Hill, the school's sports information director for the past 19 years, said yesterday.
Dozens of talent evaluators will be there this afternoon to scout cornerback Ronald Bartell. He has hopes of being drafted high in the second round, and if he impresses, perhaps he could be selected earlier. Thirty-one of the 32 NFL clubs -- all but the Detroit Lions, Bartell's hometown team -- have informed his agents they will have representatives in attendance. A Black Entertainment Television camera crew also is scheduled to be on hand.
Bartell will be evaluated, in part, by game tapes of Howard from the past two seasons, and of Central Michigan University for the two seasons he played there. But his performance today in drills highlighted by a 40-yard dash will also be critical. An eye-catching sprint time will move Bartell up many clubs' draft boards, and that's why he has spent the past 3 1/2 months at a Tempe, Ariz., training facility that specializes in readying NFL hopefuls for such pre-draft tests.
"You're pretty much preparing for a track meet," Bartell said in Tempe last week, sitting in the sun-drenched lobby of Athletes' Performance, a glistening, 4-year-old facility around the corner from Arizona State University's Sun Devil Stadium. Bartell has been working out at Athletes' Performance twice per day, six days a week since early December.
Training players for college all-star games, the NFL scouting combine and their pro-day workouts has become a lucrative industry within the last half-dozen years. Veteran NFL agent Leigh Steinberg recalled this week receiving a call from the father of Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor when Taylor was preparing for the draft eight years ago. The Taylors were considering Steinberg as an agent but wanted to know where he sent his draft-eligible clients to train.
"I said, 'What?' " Steinberg said. "I said, 'Mr. Taylor, I represented the first pick in the draft six times in seven years, and all those players trained themselves.' He said another agency had a training facility and was paying for it, and if I couldn't match that, they'd have to go with them. I said, 'Sorry, but I can't match it.' . . . I would say it developed that year, and it was like an arms race from there. Every agent felt he had to develop some sort of training regimen to stay in the client-recruiting game."
The Price to Compete
Steinberg estimated he will spend about $19,000 per client this year putting players through a training routine near his Newport Beach, Calif., offices. It's not just workouts. It's readying players for the Wonderlic intelligence test they take at the combine, and for their interviews with teams. Players are put up in hotel rooms and given rental cars. Since an agent works on a commission capped at 3 percent of a player's contract by the NFL Players Association, the agent must decide whether a player will be drafted high enough to warrant such expenditures.
"It's an expensive process," Steinberg said. "I'm sure there are some [agents] who do just front the cost and then charge it back. We do not charge our players for it, ever. . . . The training of players has dramatically changed the economics of the representation business."
It has become the cost of doing business, and virtually all top players now expect to be placed in such training programs by their agents. Percy Knox, the director of athlete management at Athletes' Performance, said his facility charges $10,000 per player for up to 12 weeks. That doesn't include meals, hotel rooms or transportation. "It can get expensive," said Bartell's agent, Jeff Griffin. "But it's worth it."
Griffin and his partner in San Antonio-based Momentum Sports Management, Jack Scharf, are one of the eight sets of agents who send their clients to Athletes' Performance. The facility had to turn away some interested players this year, capping its combine-preparation program at 30 players. Five players who trained there last year were selected in the first round of the 2004 draft, including Detroit Lions wide receiver Roy Williams and Atlanta Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall, and the program's operators expect to top that number this year.
According to Knox, nine staff members -- three performance coaches, three assistant coaches, a physical therapist, a nutritionist and a chef -- work with the players. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are devoted to developing upper-body strength and linear speed. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays are spent on lower-body strength and multi-directional speed. Thirty minutes each day are devoted to a specific individual issue -- in Bartell's case, flexibility -- and the athletes' bodies are "regenerated" three times per week with techniques such as aqua therapy and massage.
A Head Start
Bartell arrived in Tempe on Dec. 6, flying directly from D.C., after arranging to take his final exams at Howard early. He had nearly a month of general conditioning, while players at larger programs were preparing for bowl games, before the combine-preparation program formally began on Jan. 3. He left for the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., in late January and for last month's combine, then returned after each.
"When we first started, Ronnie might have looked a little raw," said Luke Richesson, a strength specialist at Athletes' Performance. "But he closed the gap."
When Bartell arrived, he could lift 225 pounds 18 times in the strength test used at the combine, and he could run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds. While at Athletes' Performance, he said, he improved those marks to 25 lifts and a 4.27 second 40. At the combine, where the scrutiny and schedule are intense, Bartell performed 21 reps in the strength test and ran a best official 40-yard dash time of 4.37 seconds. He was happy with that performance under the circumstances, he said. Griffin said he is pleased his client has run a good 40 time for the scouts. Both know a faster sprint today could propel Bartell to greater draft heights.
"You could probably break half of the combine prep down to that one skill," Steinberg said, referring to the 40-yard dash. "I think clearly there's a major competition that goes on between the various facilities and trainers based on the results of the combine and the pro days. They tout and brag about the results."
Entering the draft-evaluation process, NFL people annually scoff about what happens at the combine and on pro days. "This is the President's physical fitness test out here," New York Jets Coach Herman Edwards said at the combine. "I don't get all hung up on it."
But invariably, players gain and lose draft status based on what happens in the workouts. In Bartell's case, the effect could be even more pronounced because he didn't play at a major college program. "At best, this piece of the puzzle should be 20 percent," Falcons General Manager Rich McKay said at the combine. "Now, if you're dealing with a player from a smaller college who hasn't faced great competition, it might be a bigger piece."
Said Charley Casserly, the Houston Texans' GM: "Ninety percent of the player's grade is determined in the fall, by how he plays. What you're doing in the spring is trying to separate players. . . . The way you try to separate them is the workout. . . . The players don't go from the first round to the seventh round. But they can change by about a round."