Exploring the Patriots’ Draft Philosophy

On the advice of a friend who’s a former scout, I’m reading War Room by Michael Holley. The book details the development of the Patriots’ evaluation methods and how the New England scouting tree produced GMs in Atlanta (Thomas Dimitroff) and Kansas City (Scott Pioli). Though normally I hate football books (and especially football movies), this book has a lot of good info and makes a lot of good points.

The book quotes Bill Belichick as citing knowledge of what other teams are going to do as invaluable in how he selects players.

“It’s such a process, and part of it is knowing what the league thinks,” he says. “We have players on our board and we look up there and say, ‘We’re probably higher on this player than any other team in the league.’ You see mock drafts out there and the player is not mentioned in the first round. In any of them. Scouts talk, and you kind of get a feel that no one else sees the player quite like we do. On the flip side, there are guys that we might take, say, in the third round and we know someone’s going to take him in the first. So, again, it comes back to homework.”

To me, that’s a real revelation. So many scouts and administrators take pride in how much they don’t talk to scouts from other teams, and how their evaluations are their own and no one else’s (indeed, then-Patriots scout Lionel Vital makes almost that exact point later in the book), but Belichick freely admits that he keeps up on what others think and uses that info. It got me thinking — do other teams feel the same way? Knowing the prospects in the draft is critical, but how important is knowing your own team’s weaknesses, and even more importantly, how key is it to know what others think about the draft?

I reached out to a few friends on the road and got various responses. One scout said it’s 50 percent knowing the prospects, and 50 percent “blind luck.” I thought that was an admirable (and honest) response. He cited the fact that Tom Brady was a sixth-rounder in 2000, but the guy who “stood on the table” to get him drafted, Bobby Grier, was run off by the team shortly after that draft. Grier recently retired from the Texans.

“The key is proper fall evaluation not spring numbers,” my friend added.

Another scout said, though he didn’t break it down by percentages, that he puts far more on the prospects themselves than his own team’s weaknesses or what other teams might be thinking. He added that he feels teams most often miss on players when they draft for need rather than quality. That’s a sentiment I’m starting to hear regularly from area scouts, and very insightful, I think.

A third scout broke it down as 70 percent the talent in the draft, 15 percent his own team’s weaknesses, and 15 percent what others think about the players.

I guess this is just another illustration of how the Patriots do things in non-traditional ways.

 

BPS’ Pete Bommarito on the New 1.5 Rate

We wrap up our series talking to trainers about the proposed SRA change with Pete Bommarito of Bommarito Performance Systems. Pete’s two facilities, in Davie and North Miami, Fla., draw dozens of top NFL prospects each winter/spring but also dozens of top MLB and NBA players. You won’t find a better speed trainer in the business than Pete, and his facilities are growing and adding more veterans each offseason.

From here, I’ll let Pete and ITL’s Mark Skol take over.


“It’s hard for me to say (how the new SRA will affect things) because I’m not an agent. This is more of a question for an agent. But I don’t see it affecting much because you would still think that a lot of agents will continue to justify and charge the 3 percent.

“We’ve always been a company that has overspent overhead. That’s our business model. We could save money with our overhead, we just choose not to. We are a firm believer in residual business and we are upfront with agents about that. Our price is our price and our overhead is high. We spend a lot of money on things like medical, nutrition, football coaching and staffing. We spend a lot of money. Our overhead is very high. So we don’t really anticipate us making a huge profit margin on draft guys.

“Our model is our veterans program. Our veterans program is significant and we really build that through pre-draft training. We can’t see ourselves doing anything different even if our overhead stays where it is and our overall revenue goes down a bit because agents are paying us less. We are not going to change our model. Our model works and we get so much residual business among draft prep players coming back as veterans that I don’t ever want to interrupt with the service we provide. We probably have the biggest and fastest-growing veteran program in the country. I firmly believe it’s because we take care of them so well in the pre-draft training. It’s about making overall athletes quicker, relieving pain fast and regenerating quickly. I can’t see myself doing anything different.

 

“I don’t see it as a new rate. The agents can still charge three percent. It seems to me it’s the same. In past years, agents still had to charge 3 percent and justify why. I really don’t see it changing anything. They are still charging 3 percent and justifying why. A lot of agents I talk to are happy to justify why they are going to charge 3 percent and have no problem laying out their services and everything they do and why they deserve to get paid. It’s very similar to how I handle a veteran. We have a certain price structure for NFL veterans and we have no problem justifying it to them on why we charge what we charge and what services they are going to get.”

Fit Speed’s Matt Gates on the New 1.5 SRA

Today, we continue our conversation with others in the industry that must grapple with the effect of the newly modified Standard Representation Agreement (SRA) by talking to Matt Gates of Fit Speed Athletic Performance.

I wanted Matt’s opinion because he’s a guy whose brand is growing (Fit Speed recently added a Chicago location to its Weston, Fla.-based central location). Just a few years ago, I had never heard of Fit Speed, but Matt’s facility has been attracting bigger and bigger names the last 2-3 years, and now the service has become a recognized brand in the game with top agencies and players. The needle is pointing way up. So how does this change things? I’ll turn it over to ITL’s Mark Skol and Matt.


“The fee reduction is only going to affect the training business if facilities can’t find a way to adapt. I’ve already begun discussing creative ways to work with my agents on lower-round or free agent-type prospects. There’s always a way to work around any issue.  Bottom line is agents aren’t going to sign fewer kids as a whole — individual agents may, but others will pick up the slack — and kids are still going to want/need training, so the combine prep business isn’t going anywhere. Obviously, the 1.5 percent is a complete slap in the face for NFL agents, especially when NBA and MLB agents are capped at 4-5 percent. No question it’s going to affect the smaller agencies and new agents in the game more than the big boys. The sales pitch to the kids is going to have to change a bit, just as mine will have to change to the agents, but just like any business, if you can build in a tremendous amount of value into your product, you’ll be fine in the long run.”

“Adapt or die. No facility can just think it’s business as usual. This is a big change for agents and trainers.  There will be changes to pricing structure and the layout of payment terms for agents that are signing a certain client at my facility this year.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s negative for existing facilities with a good reputation, but it does throw a kink into the way we’ve done the combine prep business for a long time.  Just like the fee reduction will affect new and smaller agencies, it will do the same for training facilities. This will make it a lot more difficult to break into the training world moving forward.”

XPE’s Tony Villani on the New 1.5 SRA

Last week, we talked to several agents about how the new SRA will affect their business models. Most of them were unhappy, to say the least, about how the NFLPA has made the 3 percent agent fee something that will have to be negotiated instead of the default charge.

Of course, throwing a rock of this size into the water creates waves that affect more than just agents. As potential draftees have come to expect combine training (even the longest shots and lowest-rated prospects), agents have been the ones footing the bill. Will that continue under the new SRA? I wanted to get the perspective of the top trainers in the business this week, so I started with Tony Villani of Boca Raton, Fla.-based XPE Sports.

I wanted to lead off with Tony for three reasons. No. 1, he’s one of the 3-4 best trainers in the business, with a laundry list of first-rounders despite the fact he’s got just one location and built his business from scratch. No. 2, he’s one of the best guys in the football business — agents, trainers, coaches, scouts, players, bar none — and we’d be friends even if neither of us were in football anymore. He has no ego. And No. 3, he is fearless and never pulls any punches. I knew he would be great on this, and he is.

With that, I’ll turn things over to my associate, Mark Skol, who interviewed Tony.


“(The new SRA) will negatively affect the service we provide because it limits on what the agents will be able to pay for. And of course, the athletes will not understand this, and request all the bells and whistles with training which the agent can no longer afford at 1.5 percent. Honestly, everything the athletes want and desire currently with ‘combine training’ is hard to provide for an agent with the majority of athletes, even if the agent is getting 3 percent.

“I personally will not do anything differently. The few good/great agents will recruit the few good/great — on and off the field — athletes, and I hope to get a mere few.  Combine training is out of control as it is. The young athletes, who are not paying themselves, expect everything, and most, not all, agents who are paying, try to pay the least amount, but tell the athletes everything is paid for.  This does not make a good business model or payment structure for any business, let alone any NFL combine trainer or facility.
“This new rule is definitely a negative for combine trainers but maybe it will change for the positive. (Maybe it will prompt) . . . athletes now (to) assume their own line of credit to pay for their own training. (Maybe it will) start teaching them sooner than later what the cost is for what they ask for.  But, a common practice has been (for some combine trainers to provide free training to potential) first-round picks, something I will not and have never done. I assume this will become even more the norm with agents only getting 1.5 percent.
“The first week of our combine prep, we go over what their agent is paying for, how much it costs to provide, and how long it will take for the agent to break even on their investment. This is something none of the athletes understand nor can grasp. The agents are really getting shafted on this one and the NFLPA has made being an NFL agent even a worse career choice. I highly respect the NFL agents who can run a business morally and ethically and be able to stay in business. Shame on the NFLPA for even suggesting 1.5 percent making the NFL agents by far the lowest on the pro agent totem pole. They are only following the trend concussions, injury benefits, non guaranteed contracts (to name a few) are making people realize…Why play in the NFL?  But now, why represent NFL players?”

A Few Final Thoughts on the New SRA

I wanted to wrap a week of discussions on the NFLPA’s move to make 1.5 percent agent fees the default option with a couple thoughts based on discussions I’ve had with agents and trainers, this week and in the past.

  • One of the biggest ways new and/or young agents can do to improve their chances of success is by partnering with bigger agents (I call it having a ‘big brother’). The way it usually works is that the smaller agent develops an excellent relationship with a top prospect, but knowing he can’t ‘close’ the player, pairs up with a major agent/agency late in the process (we regularly help pair up these parties, by the way). In the past, this was easy. Once the training fees and costs of recruiting were covered, the big and small agents split the 3 percent. Now they’re splitting 1.5 percent unless they can talk the player ‘up’ to 3 percent. There’s so little money to be made now that this partnership probably doesn’t work anymore.
  • As trainers have come into the game and become a bigger part of the draft process, they’re often derided as making hundreds of thousands of dollars with no risk. Though ultimately they get paid whether the player is drafted or not, I can assure you they carry plenty of risk. Trainers almost always provide training up front, then often get paid once it’s complete. The temptation now, for less scrupulous agents, could be to stiff trainers completely.
  • As a person who’s pretty comfortable with the ideas of capitalism, I think that, generally, the best producers are compensated the best, and to get the best people, you must be willing to provide a good wage. When you cut a fee that was already lowest among the three major sports in half, you’re going to hurt the service to your constituents. That goes not only for the lesser players, but ultimately for the players that really matter in the league. I feel the NFLPA is discouraging talented, smart young people from succeeding in the business as well as considering entering it. The number of people wiling to get certified by the NFLPA has always been almost insatiable, but that could end if steps like this continue to be taken.

For what it’s worth, this move has not been made officially. Not yet, anyway. But it definitely seems to be coming. We’ll see if the outrage generated by contract advisors so far is heeded by the NFLPA. Let’s hope the players association is listening.

More Agent Feedback on the New SRA

As you may have read yesterday, the NFLPA-certified contract advisors we spoke to are not excited that standard representation agreements (SRAs) will now default to 1.5 percent, requiring agents to persuade their clients to pay 3 percent.

ITL’s Mark Skol got plenty more opinions from a wide range of agents, big and small, so we thought we’d pass along a few more.

  • “Obviously, we now have to have more conversation with players. The bigger issue is that the culture, from both veteran players and the union, is against agents. So, beyond the initial fees, young players are coming into the league and getting poisoned by just a few people about the agent industry overall. It will drive out small agents as well as seasoned agents who are going to quickly tire of the attitude against them. Most people in life appreciate when someone works hard for them. Unfortunately, more and more players are displaying a total lack of appreciation, not only for the hard work, but for the expertise of seasoned agents. It takes many years to build up the relationships needed to affect a player’s career, and more than ever, this has been totally devalued. Additionally, baseball agents have their fees capped at 5 percent and basketball agents have their fees capped at 4 percent. There is no way a good football agent is worth less than a third of a baseball agent and less than half of a basketball agent. We are working through (how we’ll deal with the new SRA) at our firm and not 100 percent sure how we will handle it at this time. Most likely, we will have to sign more players, thus providing less time for the current ones. We would rather not do that, but are being forced to by ignorance and ungrateful people. As a side note, sadly, the vast majority of players are thankful and see the value, but are being drowned out by a few loud ones.”
  • “The real issue isn’t the new SRA. We all know the lowering of agencies is coming with the NFLPA trying to get rid of all agents in general. That’s the main issue. The SRA, and I hate to be frank, but most football players and parents are (greedy). It’s the most money to pay the least money. The NFLPA says we have to convince the player why we need 3 percent, which really shouldn’t be that difficult for agents who do more than just negotiate contracts. The effect it will have is it will allow the larger agencies who only charge 1 and 2 percent anyway to convince players to not even consider small agents who need the three percent to function. Another issue would be it will take other agents out because they can’t afford to pay for training if a player is on the 1.5 percent. That makes it so certain agents can only sign certain players. That’s the way the NFLPA wants it, anyway. The NFLPA has been trying to run agents out of the business for the last couple of years and I think that is there goal. They want to do it but the players aren’t smart enough to realize it will hurt them. I will continue to do what I do anyway. I don’t buy players, so I will continue to lay out everything that I do for players, and that is worth 3 percent. Most other agents make you sign with them, sign with a business manager, sign with a travel guy, sign with a marketer, and you’ll end up paying 6-8 percent total because they want to charge more than 2 percent, but they’ll make their money back on the back end anyway. My approach is simple: you sign with me or you don’t.”
  • “It’s a hard question because at this point you don’t know what the SRA looks like. . . . If you read the quote from (NFLPA President) Eric Winston yesterday he said the SRA is being reviewed by labor lawyers, so to say whether or not its been approved and when it’s coming out, I don’t think it would be fair for me to answer the question because I haven’t read anything on the SRA. (News reports have) said the default is 1.5 percent, and if I’m correct on the old SRA, it was 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5 and 3 percent. I think it’s the same thing, only thing is you have to state your case as to why you are charging 3 percent. They are not saying you have to charge a specific rate; you just have to state your case. You aren’t seeing too many people talk about this because it’s not set in stone that you have to charge 1.5 percent. It’s just explaining your position as to why you are charging three percent. I (will) have an addendum listing of everything that I do as an agent. I talked to my partner who is a lawyer and we both feel the same way. If you list the things you do as an agent, no player should have a question on what you do for them.”

NFLPA Agents Weigh In On The De Facto Rate Cut

About 99.9 percent of the football fans gearing up for the ’16 season couldn’t have cared less about the news that broke Monday about the NFLPA effectively dropping agent fees from a max of 3 percent — lower than any of the major sports — to 1.5 percent. OK, they’re not technically cutting it — players can now voluntarily pay 3 percent if they’re incredibly generous — but the players association has set the standard representation agreement to default to 1.5 percent unless otherwise noted.

Of course, if you read this blog, you are not the 99.9 percent. You’re the .1 percent that is focused on the business of football and interested in what shapes the game. I can tell you, based on the phone calls and texts I’ve gotten over the last 24 hours, that the NFLPA’s decision will shape the way agents work and how players are represented.

We spoke to several contract advisors this morning to get their respective takes on this. I won’t give attribution because I don’t want them to be targeted by the NFLPA for retribution, but I will run their responses to our questions in total.

Our questions: How will the new SRA, which allows agents to charge 3 percent but defaults to 1.5 percent, affect the business? Do you see it driving agents out of business? How will you deal with the new SRA/rate?

  • “It’s going to drive a lot of small agencies out of the business. The margins in this industry are already small and the risk is already high. This increases both. Volume agencies will be able to cut their fees a la CAA last year, and sign more players that feel they’re getting a better deal. What the players will realize down the road is they also received inferior service in exchange for that reduced fee. If the union is there to help the players, they’re not doing their job in this instance.  I may be one of the very few, but all of my clients pay 3 percent, and I’ll stick with that. You get what you pay for and I think the good agents in this industry are worth more than 3 percent. There’s no reason we should settle for any less.”
  • “I think it will eventually influence smaller sized firms to stay away from risky Day 3, late-round or UDFA prospects because the risk vs. return on investment may not be business smart. All players want training included, so if you are unable to convince that prospect why your services are worth the 3 percent, then I think an agent may not take that risk on him. The big firms can absorb those losses more than a small firm, but at the end of the day they are all about their bottom line as well, so late-round guys, guys who need agents the most, might suffer from this change. It’s possible (this will drive some agencies out of the business). Small- and mid-sized firms who are not getting Top-100 guys may run out of money before it comes back, based on a 1.5 (percent) agreement. Some agents may sign less prospects by sticking to 3 percent and decide it’s not worth it anymore. I will explain to the prospect that the NFLPA felt it was necessary to make the default 1.5 percent and that the fee has always been negotiable, but the actual maximum is 3 percent, and just have that discussion with the player.”
  • “I think that it affects the business by creating a perception among both players and parents that the ‘standard’ fee is 1.5 percent. Obviously, that shouldn’t be the case, as it never has been before; however, when you label it as the default percentage, how can you blame a player or his parents when they tell you that you won’t even enter the equation for their son’s signature unless you charge 1.5 percent? It’s a tough way to do business. I think it could have an affect on agents trying to make their way into the business. Obviously, I’m curious to see how this first year or so goes with the new SRA because it’ll be a good litmus test going forward. However, you have to think that it could be a strong deterrent for a young guy trying to make it as an agent who now comes into the business knowing that the fee has been sliced in half. (As far as how I’ll deal with it), that’s a great question. I’m assuming it’ll be a case-by-case basis. I want to get a feel for the player, and if he has his parents involved or an aunt or uncle or somebody, I want to get a true gauge for them before I decide how I want to approach the rate.”

Panic Time

This time of year, I’m starting to hear from agents who were certified in 2013 and, despite having been in the business for three years, have never gotten a client on an active NFL roster. The NFLPA gives you three years to get a player on a team, even during the offseason when rosters are at 90-man limits, and if you don’t do it, it’s sayonara. You have to recertify — take the test again, pay your initiation fees again, the whole works. It’s a bad scene. It occurred to me that I’ve never addressed this on our blog, so I thought today would be a good time to do that, since we’re about two months away from the deadline.

August of your third year in the business is a bad time to satisfy the roster requirement. First of all, teams are looking to cut players right now, not add them. Though all teams maintain short lists, if your client hasn’t already made that list, he probably won’t be added late.
You have to be on a player’s standard representation agreement (SRA) prior to his addition to the roster. This means you have to play a guessing game, first identifying players that you think will be late adds, then approaching their agents and trying to sweet-talk them into letting you on the SRA (naturally, this requires begging, agreeing that you won’t steal the client, that you won’t accept any fees, etc.). Not an easy proposition.
Very often, an agent is scrambling in Year 3 because he blew off Year 1. This is easy to do. After all, being an agent is essentially commission sales, and that’s not an easy job. What’s more, you don’t get the go-ahead to start recruiting until after you’ve been certified, and you don’t even find out your test results until well into September. That’s after schools have had their agent days, and often players won’t talk to agents during the season. That means you’re left scrambling for leftovers in December/January, and at this point, it’s a pretty shallow talent pool.
For all these reasons, if you’re considering certification, or you’re waiting to get your test results back, make sure you don’t pass up Year 1. You just don’t want to be stuck making rookie mistakes in Year 2, and the later you start, the quicker the deadline arrives. We can help when you’re in dire straits — we do it all the time — but it’s not where we, or you, want to be.

Wrapping up the ’16 NFLPA Exam

It’s been almost a week since the ’16 NFLPA exam, and I’ve had several conversations with the 400-plus people who were there. Here are a few observations.

  • My initial observation was that the NFLPA made the test a lot easier after last year’s exam cut the passing rate by about 30 points, from about 70 percent to just under 40 percent. After talking to more people, it seems they might have made it a little easier, but not appreciably.
  • Where I think they changed things is that they made the pre-test seminar a lot better and more thorough. Last year, especially on the second day, the seminar was a bit of a blow-off; they even ended the seminar early and almost started the exam early. They must have taken fire last year from some of the candidates that failed.
  • My impression is that Mark Levin, who’s one of the better officials at the NFLPA and certainly one of the more knowledgeable of the CBA, played a bigger role this year. If that’s the case, that’s a good move on the NFLPA’s part.
  • If you’ll permit me to brag a bit, the people that seemed most confident about the test used our practice exam. We expanded it this year, and I think the 40-plus questions gave people an excellent look at what to expect. At least that’s what everyone told me.
  • On the other hand, I spoke to one test-taker who freely admits he wasn’t prepared and didn’t perform well (and probably failed). This is incredibly refreshing. There are so many big egos in this business, especially when they’re first getting into he business, but this young man (who has an NFL background and who was fresh out of law school) essentially laughed at how not-ready he was for this test, and how lightly he took it. I mean, it was classic what-not-to-do-when-taking-the-exam stuff. We’re at least six weeks away from even getting the results for the ’16 exam and we’re already working with him, getting him ready for ’17.
  • I think the era of the easy NFLPA exam is over, for several reasons. One, the NFLPA doesn’t really like agents, especially lower-tier agents. Two, the PA really struggles to vet all the applicants (every year, there are several applicants that don’t even find out they’re approved for the exam until a week or more beforehand). Three, the PA is always hearing from the big firms that there are too many agents. Four, the PA sees agent applications as an insatiable, renewable resource (and that may be right). No matter how many agents fail the exam, and no matter how many leave the business each year, they’re still going to have about 300 people taking the exam.
  • I think you’re going to see an uptick in the size of the agent class this year, but it won’t be a landslide. Many of the 200 or so that were back this year for a second whack at it will pass (at least a hundred, I’d say), plus the 200-plus new test-takers were, generally, better-prepared, I’d say (we worked with an awful lot of them), so I’d guess at least a hundred of them pass. So my guess is that we get an agent class that’s more in line with the usual 150-200 that pass.

That pretty much wraps up our coverage of the ’16 agent exam. On to next year.

A Scout’s Words of Wisdom: Scott Aligo

We wrap up our conversations with scouts today with a conversation with former Browns scout Scott Aligo, who’s pretty wise for a young scout. Scott worked with us during the ’16 draft helping connect agents and their clients with teams, and his work really made a difference. I knew he’d be willing to help out on this project, and I knew he’d have good things to say.

From here, I’ll turn it over to Scott and Mark.

  1. What is the one thing NFL draft fans don’t understand about the evaluation process, and about how NFL teams scout players, that they should know? 

“The biggest misconception is (that creating a scouting profile for a prospect is not) a 2-3 year process, instead of just the hot name. The time that is invested . . . no one really has a concept of (and) how much digging we have to do on that. Fans are usually like, “how did you not know that?” It’s about building relationships at the schools and getting to know the players without doing illegal activity. It’s underlooked.”

  1. We all know the best advice for a young man hoping to play in the NFL is to play his best football this fall. However, as a former scout, what would you tell a young man’s parents? 

“The agent is not the most important deal. The scout and the agent are going to be embedded with each other, no matter what anyone wants to say. There’s a lot of (agents) who say, “we hate scouts,” and there’s a lot of scouts who say, “we hate agents,” but no matter what, they will always be embedded together. And whether they admit it or not, it’s a beneficial relationship. I think the parents need to know that the evaluation on the field is probably the most important thing. All the other fluff, when it comes down to it, is, can he play?”

  1. If a young person asked you how to break into the scouting business, what advice would you have for him? 

“Quick advice is, you better have thick skin and you better look up the word ‘sacrifice,’ because if you are going to be in this business, you are going to have to sacrifice a lot. Be patient. Everybody says they want to be the GM by 30, and you have to be patient and embrace the grind of it. You might make ($17,000) for five years while all of your other buddies are making $70-80,000 going to happy hour three times a week. Well, you might get to go once a month or you only get one month a year to do stuff. The young group needs to embrace the whole ‘grind’ aspect of it and know that they have to be 100 percent patient and that it is not going to be a quick-and-easy process. You are going to sacrifice everything. Family. Friends. Girlfriends. Where you live. Everything.”

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