The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Christian Kirk’s draft process has included hotel sprints and high school attendance records

Christian Kirk is projected to be one of the first wide receivers drafted. (Rodolfo Gonzalez/For the Washington Post)

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Christian Kirk counted the number of steps inside his head — one, two, three all the way to 12 — before he faked to the sideline, froze for a millisecond, then flashed to the middle of the field, where a soaring football awaited him. 

But it was too high, climbing well above his head instead of dropping toward his chest, and Kirk had to adjust. He slowed to gather his weight and met the ball at the height of his vertical leap, plucking it out of the air before carrying it toward the end zone. 

There were no defenders in his way. There were none on the field. Kirk’s only true opponent, on this morning in late March and all the weeks surrounding it, was himself. 

“He looks good, doesn’t he? Right?” asked Melissa Kirk, Christian’s mother, as dozens of NFL scouts also stood inside Texas A&M’s indoor practice facility to consider that very question. They all gathered here for Texas A&M’s pro day, one mile marker of each player’s pre-draft journey, along with the scouting combine, private workouts and, after months of evaluation and anticipation, the NFL draft that starts Thursday. 

At the root of this swirling buildup, after stripping away the hundreds of mock drafts and thousands of tweets and roughly one million predictions, are players trying to answer questions about themselves. Some are simple, such as whether Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is worth a top-five pick in a crowd of talented quarterbacks. Others are more nuanced, such as how Kirk will translate to the NFL after playing three years in Texas A&M’s spread offense.

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Kirk, a 5-foot-11 wide receiver with a shot to be selected in the draft’s first round, knows how detailed the NFL evaluation process is. So the 21-year-old has taken an equally measured approach, treating each media appearance like a job interview and each pass pattern like the most important of his life. He knows how little separates the first wide receiver drafted from the second, and the second from the third, and so on. One extra tenth of a second on a 40-yard dash. One stupid social media post. One drop too many. Or one drop at all.

One play after making the over-the-head catch, Kirk darted up the seam and turned his head to find the football. This pass was too low for any adjustment to save, and it splashed into the turf in front of him. The incompletion wasn’t his fault. The NFL personnel filling the sideline, at least one representative from each of the league’s 32 teams, scribbled on notepads and typed into iPhones.

“Damn it,” whispered Uche Anyanwu, Kirk’s marketing agent, standing a few paces behind Melissa in the indoor facility. “Every rep matters here. Every single one.”

Perhaps even more complicated than being a draft prospect in 2018, with all the tasks to complete and unending Internet noise, is being an evaluator trying to project a college wide receiver to the NFL.

The 32 teams watching Kirk at A&M’s pro day have had trouble with receivers lately. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay notes that 56 wideouts have been taken in the first or second rounds of the past seven drafts. Seven of those, McShay estimates, have fulfilled the expectations of a player selected that early, and that is after being studied by two scouts from a given franchise, its college scouting director, wide receivers coach, offensive coordinator, head coach and general manager, in most cases.

One reason for this, cited by McShay and others, is the increased use of the spread offense in college football. Variations of this scheme, which has produced prolific offenses but complicated the draft process, often allow receivers to put up impressive statistics while only running a few types of pass patterns, and not having to learn the nuances required of a successful NFL wideout. That leaves teams guessing and frequently falling into the trap of favoring players with strong athletic traits who then never develop into consistent route-runners in the pros.

“Clearly, it’s become a difficult thing to do,” McShay said of projecting wide receivers to the NFL. “Offensive tackles and receivers are the hardest positions to evaluate now because of the influx of spread offenses and how defenses are having to play.”

Kirk falls into that category, as a spread receiver who ran the majority of his routes from the slot. He earned a reputation as one of the country’s best playmakers and finished each of his three seasons with at least 900 yards, despite playing with a new quarterback in each one, and caught a career-high 10 touchdowns as a junior. But the “spread receiver” label becomes a knock once the draft process starts, and skeptics wonder if Kirk has the route-running ability to play both the slot and outside in the NFL.

Kirk is jockeying with Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, Maryland’s D.J. Moore and Southern Methodist’s Courtland Sutton to be one of the top wideouts selected. But Kirk and former coaches insist that he is more versatile than the “typical slot receiver.” Jason Mohns, who coached him at Saguaro High in Scottsdale, Ariz., says Kirk often played outside for him and can stretch the defense from any spot on the field. David Marsh, who was on the Texas A&M staff and is now the offensive coordinator at Campbell, notes that the Aggies’ version of the spread offense required Kirk to run pro-style routes.

“You hear a lot that you can’t do something, like run a certain route or play outside, and it can get a little frustrating,” Kirk said. “But I can do those things, and I know that. I just wasn’t asked to a lot in college. You have to prove it every chance you get.”

So Kirk designed his pro day as a response to that criticism. As his former teammates went through physical testing to start the morning, he stayed in sweatpants and bobbed his head to music blaring through headphones. He felt comfortable with the athletic numbers he put up at the NFL Scouting Combine — 4.47-second 40-yard dash, 35.5-inch vertical jump, 20 reps on the bench press — which came after close to three months of training at EXOS in Phoenix.

The week of the combine in early March, the entire EXOS training staff followed their players to Indianapolis. They rented out a hotel ballroom across the street from Lucas Oil Stadium, where the combine is held, and created a simulated 40-yard dash setting to work on starts and whittle down times. The company’s nutritionists were also there providing the right snacks to players, thinking that even the slightest break from their curated diet could add a fraction of a pound and affect speed and, possibly, draft positioning. Even the final pick of the first round will receive roughly twice as much guaranteed money in his rookie contract as the average second-round selection.

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Once testing at pro day was finished, Kirk readied to catch passes from former NFL quarterback and Texas A&M Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and Luis Perez from nearby Texas A&M-Commerce. Kirk ran about 20 routes and almost all of them were as an outside receiver, including short comebacks, slants and a deep post that left a few scouts nodding their heads in appreciation. 

He was also pulled aside by Philadelphia Eagles wide receivers coach Gunter Brewer who, using two tennis balls stashed in the front pocket of his windbreaker, tested Kirk’s ability to adjust while looking over his shoulder. 

“Oh, look, look, look,” said Anyanwu, Kirk’s marketing manager, as the two split off from the crowd. “The Eagles love him at number 32, last pick of the first [round]. I just think he may not drop that far.”

Not everyone agreed that morning. While pro day unfolded at Texas A&M, McShay’s latest mock draft was published on Ridley from Alabama was the only wide receiver listed in the first round.

“This is the last interview, Christian, I promise,” said one of Texas A&M’s public relations staffers as he shepherded Kirk through a crowd of players and reporters and scouts.

“No worries at all, man,” Kirk answered, dishing out a few high-fives as he wove his way into a clearing inside Texas A&M’s practice facility. “I’ll do whatever you guys got for me.”

Pro day ended like this, with television cameras fixed on Kirk and reporters asking him questions about the teams looking at him, the next steps of his process, and what it was like catching passes from Manziel, a 2014 first-round pick who is no longer in the league. Manziel was here both as a favor to Kirk and as part of his last-ditch effort to return to the NFL. His well-documented behavioral issues, which eventually led to his departure from the Cleveland Browns, are a reminder of why prospects’ off-field habits are so heavily scrutinized.

One AFC scout, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the evaluation process, said most franchises have a small team of staffers dedicated to collecting every article and video clip of the prospects they are interested in. Mohns, Kirk’s high school coach, had close to a dozen teams ask for Kirk’s transcript and game film. The Oakland Raiders asked for his high school attendance records. 

“I hate to compare my son to an animal or something, but it really does seem like horse trading to an extent,” Melissa Kirk said. “They could be making a multimillion dollar investment into the player they are picking, so I don’t blame them for doing such heavy research and turning over every stone.”

The last interview of the day is with SEC Network’s Jordan Rodgers, the brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers made famous by his appearance on “The Bachelorette.” Before the combine, Kirk worked with former general manager Charley Casserly on how to best interview with coaches and executives. But he did not need extensive media training, as he first started receiving attention when he was offered a scholarship by UCLA at age 14. He thrives in this setting, one centered on him projecting the image detailed at the start of his Twitter bio: “Calculated, Conscious, Confident.”

Rodgers lifted his microphone to start the conversation, Kirk turned to smile into the camera, and then started laying out everything he wants NFL teams to hear. 

What did he want to show at pro day? “That I can run every route in the route tree.” Calculated.

What is going to be his first purchase after the draft? “I’m going to put a lot of it away.” Conscious.

Is he the best wide receiver in the draft? “I believe so. I’d be wrong not to think that.” Confident.

“That was great, man,” Rodgers said, offering a swinging handshake once the interview ended. “You’re already a professional at this.”

“Doing my best, man,” Kirk said, still standing straight up, staring right into the camera as if it were still rolling. “Always doing my best.”

That ended Kirk’s pro day just before noon, checking another box, nudging him one step closer to the NFL draft. And while a handful of teams will analyze everything Kirk did and said over the past few hours, he does not search for what is being said about him. 

The mock drafts come one after another, and it seems like the only tool needed to be an “analyst” these days is an Internet connection. In seven mock drafts from the morning of March 20 to the evening of March 23, Kirk was listed as falling out of the first round in three, going No. 26 to the Atlanta Falcons, No. 32 to the Eagles, No. 22 to the Buffalo Bills and No. 29 to the Jacksonville Jaguars. He will be compared with NFL wide receivers Golden Tate, Pharoh Cooper, Odell Beckham Jr. (with the nickname “Baby Beckham”), Larry Fitzgerald, Ted Ginn Jr. and Randall Cobb, among others.

And, soon, he will find out the one team that just wants him to be Christian Kirk.

“It’s pretty simple with Christian. If you get the ball in his hands he is going to make something happen,” said Marsh, who coached Kirk at Texas A&M. “Everyone wants to talk about spreads and all these different knocks on him, but that’s really just to stir things. He’s just a great football player.”

As Texas A&M’s practice facility emptied out, Kirk powered on his iPhone. There were hundreds of tweets about him working out with Manziel. He was tagged in a handful of Instagram posts. Friends had already texted him about McShay’s new mock draft. He swiped those messages aside and then saw that the New England Patriots want to meet with him, like, right now.

“Hey, Mom, I have to go meet with the Patriots but I’ll call you later,” Kirk said, slinging his backpack over his shoulder like a teenager rushing out the door to high school.

“Okay, well . . . good luck!” Melissa answered while her son hustled out of earshot. 

“Thanks! Love you!” he yelled over his shoulder, and then he squeezed through a side door, on to 30 more days of meetings and workouts and interviews, where even the smallest details will count. 

Read more of The Post’s “Road to the NFL” series:

Part 1: Part job fair, part spring break trip, part time warp: Welcome to the NFL’s weirdest week

Part 2: NFL draft analysis is a cottage industry — and everyone wants to join the neighborhood

Part 3: ‘Super agents’ rep 75 percent of NFL players. It’s a competitive fight to sign the rest.