This week, an established agent from a top-10 firm who’s been a longtime friend had some time to kill while waiting on a plane, so he texted me with a couple observations from early recruiting. It turned into a lengthy text exchange on the present and future of the game.
It was pretty illuminative for me, and sparked a lot of thinking about what’s happening in the business, so I thought I’d break down the main points of our conversation here. Today’s post is a little long, so bear with me. There’s a lot to cover.
- NFL teams are still furiously trying to pick the analytics lock: I think there has been a perception that the failure of former GM Sashi Brown in Cleveland ended the analytics push in pro football. Not so by a long shot. Teams are still looking for the Rosetta Stone when it comes to sifting out talent from pure numbers, and most seem determined the answer is in there somewhere.
- This creates incredible volatility: Already, these picks from 2017 have been cut: Seahawks DT Malik McDowell (2/35), Raiders FS Obi Melifonwu (2/56), Jets WO Ardarius Stewart (3/79), Broncos WO Carlos Henderson (3/82), Patriots OT Antonio Garcia (3/85), Giants QB Davis Webb (3/87), Broncos DC Brendan Langley (3/101), Seahawks WO Amara Darboh (3/106), Packers OB Vince Biegel (4/108), 49ers OH Joe Williams (4/121), Bucs OH Jeremy McNichols (5/162), Cardinals OG Dorian Johnson (4/115), Colts OT Zach Banner (4/137), Bengals PK Jake Elliott (5/153), and Packers WO DeAngelo Yancey (5/175). And while this is far from an exhaustive list, that’s eight players drafted in the second or third round! Maybe 2017 was just a bad draft class. On the other hand, it seems like teams are less willing to live with and develop their picks than ever. There’s a disposable nature to the draft that we haven’t seen before.
- Agents — even veteran agents — are scratching their heads: Do modern NFL teams want good football players from traditional powers? Most of the players listed above check those boxes. Or do they want former rugby players with lights-out measurables like Eagles OT Jordan Maliata (7/233, 2018)? Or ex-basketball players who look great on pro day, like Cowboys TE Rico Gathers (6/217, 2016)? Or players from other countries like Bengals TE Moritz Bohringer (6/180, 2016, drafted by the Vikings)? Or giants without any real position that they can mold, like Army-captain-turned-Steelers-starting-OT Alejandro Villanueva? Nobody knows.
- Solid middle-class agencies are seeking shelter: These questions are pushing the middle class of agencies out of the business, or at least to look to other sports like baseball that have fewer risks. The friend I texted with said he thinks that within a couple years we could see 95 percent of all NFL players represented by about five percent of agents. He was exaggerating, of course, but he’s not far off. There are hundreds of good agents — rank-and-file guys that love their clients, work hard for them, and care about them, as well as the game — that are either trying to find a buyer/merger partner, or worried about how they’re going to stick around long enough to pay their loans and/or investors.
- Uncertainty across the board: As teams become schizophrenic in their preferences, the trickle-down is starting to affect training facilities. As recently as 3-4 years ago, the perception by agents was that a $10,000-$15,000 training cost was baked into every player signed. There’s been a market correction, however, and fewer contract advisors are willing to go that route. That’s forcing some trainers to limit their work with draft prospects.
- Players haven’t caught up to this yet: Unfortunately, for lots of reasons, the draft prospects themselves aren’t aware of this cycle. The number of players leaving early is trending up, and the number of lesser prospects that expect to get the same training deals their buddies got remains constant. This is why we’re starting to see parents whose sons have NFL dreams rationalize that part of the money saved by a college scholarship can be spent on combine prep.
- The new leagues are a wildcard: As we discuss in today’s Friday Wrap (register here), there are a lot of ways the new leagues, the Alliance of American Football (AAF) and the XFL, could move to take advantage of this volatility. With a work stoppage expected in two years, there are plenty of variables to weigh and opportunities that could be exploited, if the leagues so choose.
Obviously, the winners, both on and off the field, will be the ones who figure out how to exploit these opportunities and think in new ways. I think we’re going to see scouting and evaluation change drastically in the next 10 years, along with player representation, in ways as drastic as we’re seeing the on-field game change.
At the end of the day, these new trends will benefit the innovators and cripple those unwilling to adapt. I guess that means it’s a great time to be young and interested in working in the game, and not as great for those writing checks and hoping.