Three Reasons Why This Is A Horrible Time to be NFL Draft-Eligible

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If you’ve followed me on Twitter or read our content at Inside the League, you know I’ve been painting this coronavirus situation as especially dour for late-rounders. For those of you who don’t fully understand, let me explain myself.

Scouts are not going to have the access they usually have: One of the big benefits of pro days is that NFL teams gather reliable contact and agent information for literally thousands of players they might consider as undrafted free agents. The game plan to to fix this, as I wrote about here, is to call the colleges and ask them. This is a problem, however, because (a) a lot of NFL liaisons aren’t in the office these days and (b) most of them couldn’t tell you who represents their draft prospects. In all candor, most don’t seem to care and/or have other things they’d rather focus on. I can see lots of otherwise capable players falling through the cracks. But that’s not all the bad news.

Closing gyms is gonna have consequences: What if you were an agent? You spent around $10,000 per player to get him ready for his pro day, then just as he’s ready to go, half of the workouts are wiped out. Going on a three-mile run around the neighborhood does nothing to keep your starts crisp and your jumps explosive. If pro days do return, they won’t be back for at least two weeks. By then, some players won’t have trained for around a month. It’s almost like the money is down the drain.

No rookie mini-camps equals no tryout opportunities: Remember when Pete Carroll tried to pass on the goal line instead of giving it to Marshawn? The guy who swooped in for the pick, Malcolm Butler, was an ex-tryout player. In fact, we’ve told his story in this space. Dozens of players that go on to become reliable special-teamers, and sometimes even starters, began as guys who went to camp without a contract. Here are a few other names of ex-tryout players. Unless things change drastically (and quickly), rookie mini-camps will be a casualty of the coronavirus. If you’re a person who reads this space regularly, you know how that impacts the hopes of hundreds of NFL hopefuls this spring.

In the grand scheme of things, this is probably nothing, I know. But we don’t write about the grand scheme of things here at Inside the League. We focus on the business of the game, and there’s just no way to candycoat the obstacles so many players will face this year.

Read more about the strangest NFL draft season ever in this week’s Friday Wrap, which comes out at 6:30 p.m. CT. You can register for it here.

 

 

Ask the Scouts: How Does the Coronavirus Shutdown Affect the NFL Draft?

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The coronavirus is here. Some famous people have contracted it. Some people (the elderly, the infirm, the very young) are especially vulnerable to it. Social distancing, hand-washing and other measures are important. If you’re already sick, you need to stay home, and take every precaution to not make others ill. All of this we know.

Still, sometimes, there’s a thin line between caution and panic, and we don’t live in a vacuum. We won’t know for weeks, maybe years, if the various league shutdowns, postponements and delays were warranted, but we know, categorically, that the response to the medical emergency will have an unintended impact on many people. Among them are the thousands of players competing to land on 90-man rosters in 41 days.

Without trivializing those for whom coronavirus may prove harmful or fatal, we reached out to several NFL scouts to see how the cancellation of pro days and T-30 visits would affect the draft. Did they see it having a substantial impact?

  • “Hard to say. Like the spread of the virus itself, lots of unknowns. (T-30) visits are a great opportunity for many to endear themselves to decision-makers above and beyond the tape. Pro days can have the same effects on area scouts, where a positive impression can motivate a scout to push all-in on a recommendation.”
  • “Really will affect the guys who would’ve tested well who were under the radar who warrant another look, as well as the small-school guys who pop out of nowhere. Film will matter more than ever for sure.”
  • “Uncharted territory. We would probably be more accurate if we drafted now before the fog of confusion sets in. They haven’t played a game since January. Biggest concern would be medical scores for non-combine guys.”
  • “It’s going to have an effect across the board. Teams won’t be able to relieve character or mental concerns on players who they have questions on. Late-round and undrafted guys who can usually separate themselves by testing well won’t have that opportunity. Who knows how combine medical rechecks will be effected?”
  • “Huge repercussions. Affects every level of the draft. The film will take precedence. Combine performances will be bigger influences now, more than pro days. Teams always want more info, (and) they’ll feel restricted.”

We’ll look at the impact the of the virus and the way various schools, conferences and leagues have responded to it in today’s Friday Wrap. It comes out this evening at 6:30 p.m., and if you’re in the business (or aspire to be), we encourage you to check it out. You can register for it here.

 

Mock Draft Philosophy: An Interview with The Athletic’s Ben Standig

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If you follow this blog, you know our 11th annual seminar, the TEST Football Academy ITL Combine Seminar, was last week. This year, we took a slightly different tack and handed out several awards in an effort to recognize excellence in the football industry.

One of those awards went to The Athletic’s Ben Standig, who won The Huddle Report’s mock draft contest for 2019. Mock drafts have simultaneously fascinated and vexed me for a long time. On one hand, they’re easy bait for clicks and follows, thoroughly enticing to fans (and therefore not for serious members of the football business community), and for the most part, no one ever reviews the work of the top names in the business. On the other hand, they’re undeniably fun, and some people (like Ben) are quite good at it.

Curious as to his methodology, I asked if he’d discuss his philosophy and strategy, and he was kind enough to discuss his mock draft aptitude with me this afternoon. Here are my questions and his answers.

As you complete your mock drafts, what is your ratio of talking to teams and getting a feel for what they’re gonna do vs. your own assessment of players and team needs? 

“Well, the first time I won the contest, it was 100 percent (my own study and assessment of team needs). I was the typical writer trying to figure this out. It’s still probably 80 percent me, and the other part is, when I do talk to teams, throwing out ideas (to them) and asking, what do you think? I don’t break down a ton of tape, but what I try to do is, figure out what are the teams looking for, what are the strengths and weaknesses in the class, and where does it make sense for a team to address their top needs vs. where can they wait and find that in later rounds.”

How much of your work is reading teams, trying to decide their draft-day patterns, and  predicting their selections based on previous philosophy and strategy?

“Sometimes there is that for sure, but there’s so much turnover. I mean, the team I cover (the Redskins) just changed their whole situation, and two other teams in their division changed head coaches. But yeah, there is something to be said for that. For example, with regards to the Redskins, I think I did 20 mocks last year. In the first 19, I had defensive players picked every single time, and then at the end, when I decided (Ohio State QB) Dwayne Haskins would be there, I thought, the owner would say, ‘let’s go with Haskins,’ and that’s what happened.”

What is your mix of your own analysis of players vs. what you think a team is gonna do?

“I would probably say my good fortune in these mocks is such a bizarre thing, but I often check my personal ego at the door. I never say, this player is better than another player, so I’m gonna put him ahead. I try to read the room. Just because I think Player X is better than Player Y, I’m not gonna go the other way (if I feel teams disagree). It’s reading of the room.”

I think one of the criticisms of mock drafts and the people who create them is that there is so much mimicry and outright stealing from others. How much do you look at others as you compose your mock drafts? 

“I certainly look. The reality is, there are people on the NFL Network and ESPN who are talking to way more people than I do. I have sources, but so do other people. They’re probably not overlapping, so it’s interesting to see what other people are saying, and what’s being thrown out there that doesn’t make sense and what does. I then run it all through my own filter, and this is gonna sound insane, but I kinda equate it to that scene in A Beautiful Mind when the numbers all seem to float around and then out to (the protagonist). He sees the puzzle. When I’m putting the pieces of the puzzle together, some things just seem to make sense. I can’t explain why. I had (Notre Dame DT) Jerry Tillery to the Chargers all 20 times I did a mock last year, and I can’t explain why, and then it happened. A lot of it is instinct.”

When the draft is about to start, do you usually think, OK, I got this? Or is there almost a sense of dread because something could happen and make you feel like you have no idea of what’s next?

“I have no idea (on draft day). Just one thing could change it. This year, I think everyone feels good about Burrow and Young 1-2, but if there’s a trade at 3, does the next team take (Ohio State’s Jeff) Okudah or (Alabama’s) Tua Tagovailoa? If Detroit were to trade up to 3 and take (Clemson’s Isaiah) Simmons or Tua, it doesn’t affect one pick, it affects several. You’re always one pick away from disaster. After the top 10, there’s much more randomness. I never feel great about these things.”

If you look at most mock drafts, the top 10 or so picks are very similar. It’s when you get into the back half of the first round that it gets tough. How are you able to have success in picks 16-32?

“I typically do two-round mock drafts; I leave it to others to go seven rounds. But two rounds is helpful because it gives me a feel for what are the strengths and weaknesses of the class. For example, for this draft class, in a normal year, (Alabama’s) Jerry Jeudy or (Oklahoma’s) CeeDee Lamb are locked into the top 10. But this year, because there are so many receivers, it feels like they’re gonna fall a little bit, maybe outside the top 10, because teams know they can get receivers down the line. If you want a pass rusher, there really aren’t that many past Chase Young. (LSU’s) K’Lavon Chaisson may be the next one, so if you want one of them, you might have to jump up earlier than you want. You just have to stay on top of the teams as much as possible. Once free agency starts, that will help a lot, too.”

Teams always pride themselves on taking the “best player available.” From your observations, is that true? 

“I’m always of the belief that it’s the best player available at a team’s position of need. If the best player available is a QB and you have Aaron Rodgers, are you gonna take a QB? I think that’s too dogmatic. I don’t think that makes logical sense, though there are some circumstances where that might change. To use the Redskins, you’d probably say their biggest strength is their defensive line, but they’re probably gonna take a defensive lineman because Chase Young is that good. It makes sense, he will help the team, but there are way many other positions they need besides defensive line. But he’s so good that to take another player would be a reach.”

Read more about our big night in Indianapolis, Ben’s acceptance of our award, and plenty of other good stuff about the football business in today’s Friday Wrap, which comes out this evening. You can register for it here.

2020 NFL Combine: 10 Thoughts After A Chilly Week In Indy

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Every year, the NFL Combine is a time for networking, renewing acquaintances, and of course, holding special events for our clients (we had three this year, more than we ever have). But it’s also a time for learning. Here are a handful of things that I thought were especially interesting.

  • We’ll have more of this in next week’s Friday Wrap (register for it here: http://tinyurl.com/qduqv7p), but our award winners Wednesday night were San Francisco, Best Draft 2019 Award (they won by just a single vote out of 108 votes cast by scouts); Bears Executive Scout Jeff Shiver, C.O. Brocato Memorial Award for Distinguished Service to Scouting; Arizona State Director of Athletics Ray Anderson, Eugene E. Parker Memorial Award for Lifetime Service to the NFL agent community; and Ben Standig, Best 2019 Mock Draft Award. It was an incredible night, and it meant a lot to have not only 49ers GM John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan attend, but for them to bring their entire scouting and coaching staffs, as well.
  • Today, I had a friend in the wealth management business tell me that players don’t hire them based on how much they know about money and investing. They hire them based on how much they like them. That’s an important distinction, and probably as good a description of why so many players get taken advantage of by unscrupulous money managers as any.
  • Here’s something a lot of NFL fans don’t know (and I didn’t know until today). Combine prep whiz Tony Villani of XPE Sports was discussing with me how the NFL has wised up and is now weighing players twice — once when they arrive (when they are “watered up” to appear bulky and thick) and once immediately before workouts. That’s an important distinction. I wonder if the NFL will start publishing the second weights?
  • In that vein, another trainer told me that one tight end lost 16 pounds between first and second weigh-ins. I don’t even know how that’s possible in three days.
  • One other thing — players are now arriving at the stadium four hours (!) before they actually run the 40. That’s a long time. Prior to this year, right before they ran, you’d see guys practicing their starts and getting stretched out in the hallways of the convention center and downtown hotels. This year, they have to do all that on their own once they actually check in for workouts. This might be reflected in performances.
  • Had an interesting talk with a handful of sports management students from Lynn University this week. Associate Professor Ted Curtis brought them there to really see what the combine looks and feels like. I’ve always wondered why more schools don’t do that. I mean, there’s another school offering a sports management major every day, yet you never see groups of students walking the halls of the Indiana Convention Center.
  • Had a growing agency ask me for referrals this week on young agents who are really on the rise. Was equally as rewarding to put four contract advisors with this firm as it was to be trusted for my insights. You can really only do that at combine time, when everyone is in town at the same time.
  • In our coach representation seminar on Wednesday, it was interesting to me that Chad Chatlos of Ventura Partners — who totally killed it, by the way — said that he’s getting more and more calls from athletic directors who are seeking superstar college personnel directors. Not surprised at all. People who’ve been reading us for a while now know we’ve been talking about this as a rising profession. I could see a day where colleges rely far less on the recruiting services and more on their own evaluation. In fact, after his coordinators and his strength coach, Chad said a head coach’s success is most contingent on who he hires as personnel director.
  • By the way, Chad presented and answered questions for about 90 minutes. I mean, if any of our attendees had any questions about how search firms work; how much they cost; how the college search process is conducted and how long it takes; what schools are looking for (and how they communicate that); the vagaries of identifying and hiring talented people; and how you can get your client needed exposure with the people doing hiring, I can’t imagine they still do. Chad was just phenomenal. And everyone there left with a valuable new contact.
  • Actually, two key contacts. It’s hard to imagine someone more composed, professional and organized than Northwestern’s Director of Player Personnel and Strategy, Cody Cejda (our other speaker). It’s easy to see why NU has “sent up” more personnel and operations assistants to be NFL scouts than any other school  in the last decade. As for South Carolina Senior Deputy AD Chance Miller, a longtime friend staggered by the flu this week, get well, soon, my man.

If you’re part of ITL (or would like to be), and I missed you this week, please accept my humble apologies. It’s just such a fast 3-4 days. But I look forward to catching up with you next year.

Catching Up With Seven Top Mocks as the 2020 NFL Combine Nears

As you know, we like to take periodic looks at some of the bigger-name draft personalities at key points in the draft process. With the NFL Combine next week, we thought this would be a good time to take measure of their latest work.

We have stayed with the same seven mocks we’ve surveyed since we started — Pro Football Network/Tony Pauline; Pro Football Focus; Sports Illustrated; Bleacher Report/Matt Miller; ESPN/Todd McShay; The Athletic/Dane Brugler; and Walter Football). It’s worth noting that the most recent mock from Pauline that we could find was pre-Senior Bowl, so it’s a little dated. All the other mocks have taken place in February.

And away we go.

  • Twenty-one players who were rated by at least one service as a first-rounder during our last survey no longer carry such a grade by any of the seven mocks. They are Stanford DC Paulson Adebo; Missouri TE Albert Okwuegbunam, Oregon OB Troy Dye, Stanford OT Walker Little, Georgia OG Solomon Kindley, Florida DE Jon Greenard, Alabama OT Alex Leatherwood, Florida St. DT Marvin Wilson, Alabama OB Dylan Moses, Texas OT Sam Cosmi, Boise St. DE Curtis Weaver, Alabama WO Devonta Smith, Ohio State DC Shaun Wade, Michigan WO Donovan PeoplesJones, Purdue TE Brycen Hopkins, Virginia DC Bryce Hall, Clemson OH Travis Etienne, California FS Ashtyn Davis, Georgia OT Isaiah Wilson, UCF WO Gabe Davis and Auburn OT Prince Tega Wanogho. Obviously, several of them didn’t enter the draft (Adebo, Little, Leatherwood, Moses, Cosmi, Smith, Wade, Etienne and Marvin Wilson) but others apparently aren’t as buzz-worthy as they once were, at least with mock draft analysts.
  • The real movement appears to be at wide receiver. Our last snapshot of mock drafts  had Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy, Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb and Colorado’s Laviska Shenault on every one, in that order. Today, that order still holds, but primarily because Pauline had him a 6 in January. He’s at 12, on average, based on the other, more recent, mocks. However, Lamb is closing the gap quickly and two mocks (Brugler and Sports Illustrated’s Kevin Hanson) even have Lamb going first (Brugler has Lamb 12 and Jeudy 13, while Hanson sees it as 9 vs. 13).
  • Also of note: only Brugler (at 23) had Louisville OT Mekhi Becton in the first round in December. Now, only Pauline doesn’t have him as a top-11 pick (which probably changes in Pauline’s next mock). Brugler has him at 7.

For more analysis of these seven top mock drafts, make sure to register for our Friday Wrap, where we’ll go much deeper. You can do that here. It comes out every Friday evening at 6:30 p.m. CT.

Also of note: on Wednesday, we’ll be honoring The Athletic’s Ben Standig for having the top mock draft last year as graded by The Huddle Report, which tracked more than 100 mocks — including all of the seven we’ve tracked here — that were filed shortly before the actual draft last April. Sports Illustrated’s Kevin Hanson is a previous Huddle Report champion.

At any rate, Ben will be on hand at the 2020 TEST Football Academy ITL Combine Seminar, our 11th such event and the place to be if you’re interested in networking with people in the football community. You can find more details here, and if you’re an ITL client, you’re invited. See you there!

Want To Be An NFL Scout? Start with the XFL

The XFL’s opening weekend was a smashing success, both from a broadcast standpoint as well as attendance, and it has the full attention of those in the football business community. Still, there’s a facet to the excitement that I think many are missing.

What do Bears Assistant Director of Player Personnel Champ Kelly (indoor football GM), Browns area scout Gerald McCully (CFL scout), Tampa Bay scouting coordinator Cesar Rivera (AFL scout), Chiefs national scout Cassidy Kaminski (scouted for an Australian team), Colts NFS scout Mike Lacy (AFL scout) and many other NFL evaluators have in common? They all got their start in alternative leagues. The XFL has a long way to go before it shows the staying power of the CFL (or even the now-defunct Arena Football League), but the early returns are promising.

This is great news for aspiring NFL scouts. While the best routes into scouting remain working in college personnel or, even better, having a father who’s in the NFL, there’s an opportunity here. However, you have to know how to take advantage. Here’s what I recommend.

  • Reach out: Daryl Johnston and Bob Morris (Dallas), Blake Beddingfield and Randy Mueller (Houston), Trip MacCracken (New York), Jeff Bauer (St. Louis) and Tony Softli (Seattle) are all XFL (and former NFL) scouts and evaluators on Twitter. Most of them are also my friends, and I can attest to them being good people. If you reach out to them with the right attitude, you’ve got a great shot at making contact. God knows they have plenty on their plate and could probably use some help. But first . . . .
  • Make it clear you’ll do anything: Every XFL team has a bare-bones evaluation staff, and that’s by design; the league has made an affirmative decision to reduce costs by centralizing evaluation. Still, these teams are playing to win and they need help sorting out the good players from the bad. But first, you have to prove that you are hard-working and reliable. That means you might have to run errands, load and unload, make copies, bring coffee, whatever. Make it clear you are elated to do this.
  • Don’t send scouting reports: Believe me, I get it. You want to show your passion for football. You want to show that you are fluent in the game. All those things are important. Still, the first thing most aspiring scouts want to send is a resume and scouting reports, and the last thing most scouts I know want is same. You need to impress upon them your willingness to do anything before you assert your eye for talent.
  • Be there: This is the one thing that is most often overlooked. If you already live in an XFL city, you have a huge advantage over everyone else. The same is true if you’re trying to volunteer with virtually any team in any league. Maybe it was Woody Allen who said, “showing up is 80 percent of success. Maybe it wasn’t. It’s still true.

Do all these things and maybe you’re the next Will McClay, Vice President of Player Personnel for the Cowboys. Back in 2001, he was Director of Player Personnel of the XFL’s Orlando Rage.

Want more ideas on how to break into the NFL? It starts with knowing what’s going on behind the scenes. You can get a really good handle on that by reading our Friday Wrap, which comes out this afternoon. You can register for it here.

2020 XFL Kickoff: Reasons for optimism and pessimism

It’s an interesting time to be a football fan.

Tomorrow, after a pretty exciting end to the 2019 NFL season, the XFL kicks off its first weekend of play since 2001. I expect ratings to be pretty good this weekend, and attendance, as well (I was told they’re expecting about 20,000 in Houston as the Roughnecks host the Los Angeles Saturday).

Fans are essential, of course, but readers of this post aren’t fans, by and large. Like me, most are asking themselves this question: will the XFL really have legs? Is this league any different from all the other attempts at a new league?

To me, here are the reasons to believe and the reasons to have doubts. First, the pros of the XFL.

  • Money: The XFL seems to be far more responsible about its spending. I spoke to one friend in an XFL team’s front office yesterday and he said the big difference he’s seen from his AAF experience is that his team is willing to spend for the big things, but is much tighter on frivolous purchases. That’s good news.
  • Experience: We’ve never seen a new league start up while the wreckage of a previous, viable new league was still smoldering. Many of those who served in the AAF are back with the XFL. We’ve also never seen a league owner come back for a second bite of the apple. No one can say Vince McMahon doesn’t know what he’s getting into.
  • Contracts: There was a lot of hullabaloo when player salaries were announced last. year. Some players even elected not to play, but to me, the league has to be wise about its expenditures. The facts are, this is what the market dictates players be paid. It might even be a little on the high side.

Now for the cons.

  • History: There’s a reason these leagues don’t survive. From football fatigue to competition for the entertainment dollar to a lack of talent across the board, we’ve seen dozens of leagues give start-up football a go without success.
  • Team sites: One area where the AAF really excelled was in giving the game to cities that have always sought an NFL franchise. The XFL, however, went in the opposite direction, even seeking out NFL-sized venues. That’s a real dice roll.
  • NFL labor peace: When the league was in its early stages, it looked like the NFL may be in for a work stoppage. That’s looking less likely now. That means it will be business as usual across the board for the NFL news cycle, i.e., free agency, the draft, etc.

Make sure you weigh in on the chances for the XFL’s long-term success in our Twitter poll. We’ll also have thoughts from people around the game in today’s Friday Wrap. You can register for the Wrap here, and if you aren’t already receiving it, I hope you do. It arrives in inboxes at 6:30 p.m. CT.

The Browns Turn the Page (Again): What Is Berry’s Biggest Hurdle?

As you know, it’s been a pretty interesting week for the Dawg Pound. Cleveland set sail on several of its top evaluators while bringing in a new GM, Andrew Berry, who, though highly regarded, was also part of a previous unsuccessful Browns regime.

Berry, 32, gets the unenviable task of turning around a team that has missed the playoffs 17 straight seasons and has had only two winning seasons since it was reconstituted in 1999. The problems are various and substantial. However, I see three as most pressing.

  • One of the head coaches on the sidelines Sunday, San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan, was Cleveland’s offensive coordinator five seasons ago. Until Dec. 31, the Browns’ GM, John Dorsey, was the man who built the other team, the Chiefs. Meanwhile, Green Bay went to the NFC Championship game with a defensive coordinator, Mike Pettine, who was Cleveland’s head coach as recently as 2015. None of them got more than two years in Cleveland. Why in the world would a talented coach or executive come to Cleveland?
  • The GM prior to Dorsey, Sashi Brown, was tasked with making analytics front and center in Cleveland. He tried without success, and his reward was getting unceremoniously dumped after just two years. Meanwhile, the presumed architect of all things analytical, Chief Strategy Officer Paul Depodesta, remains. Is Berry going to have the flexibility to experiment until he finds the right mix? Will DePodesta allow that?
  • I get it that, more and more, you better have instant results to last more than a year in the NFL. Still, during the ownership of Jimmy Haslam, five head coaches have had at least one full season. Just oneHue Jackson — got more than two years. Meanwhile, Berry is the fifth GM Haslam has hired. Not one of them so far — not Michael Lombardi, Ray Farmer, Brown or Dorsey — has gotten more than two seasons. That’s high-octane dysfunction.

At the end of the day, I think Berry’s biggest obstacle will be trying to satisfy an owner that doesn’t know what he wants. Berry has a five-year deal, but most certainly won’t live to see the end of it unless he either (a) has immediate success or (b) is able to convince Haslam that it’s a big job turning around an NFL team, and it doesn’t happen overnight.

Today, for our Friday Wrap, we asked dozens of NFL scouts what they think Berry’s toughest job will be. We got several meaty responses, and we’ll present them today at 6:30 p.m. CT when the Wrap goes out to thousands of people across the industry (and you, if you register here).

Meanwhile, you can let it be known your feelings on which of the three issues is the biggest in our Twitter poll, which you can access here. We’ll continue accepting responses until late this afternoon. Please vote!

Why Were Numbers Down at the Senior Bowl?

I call the Senior Bowl “Disney World for people in the football world.” If you’re in the business, you just have to be there. But I noticed something funny about my trip to Mobile this week. No one was there.

OK, some people were there. Plenty of people. Teams still sent scouts, and several GMs and head coaches, but not nearly as many as I’ve seen in the past. I was looking around on Tuesday, the first day of practices (and quite a cold day), and the sparse nature of the stands was unmistakeable. In fact, the shaded side of the field had barely any scouts at all, which many attributed to the temperatures (a friend told me the press box was quite crowded). All of that is understandable.

I tried to find out if registration was down this year, and I didn’t have any luck, so I just have to go off what I saw and what others said. One Senior Bowl veteran called it “uncharacteristic” of the usual numbers, and another agreed that this week it “definitely felt like it was lacking numbers.” I spoke to several scouts who agreed that there were fewer people in town than usual.

It’s odd, because the news on the fan side seems better than ever; the game is poised to move to a new venue in 2021, and ticket sales for this year appear to be robust. Still, presuming my eyes (and the eyes of so many others) weren’t playing tricks on me, here are five reasons why crowds might have been down.

  • One thing that was unmistakeable was the lack of assistant coaches. In past years, teams have sent their entire coaching staffs, lock, stock and barrel, to Alabama. Maybe this has become a net negative. Scouts often lament spending four months developing a complete picture of a player, only to see the board changed in February after vocal coaches spend three days watching practices in Mobile.
  • Could this be attributed to a coming work stoppage? Maybe. I don’t recall a similar dip in advance of the 2011 CBA negotiations, but it’s certainly not unusual for teams to tighten their belts in anticipation of a work stoppage. It seems like scouts are always the first group looked at when it comes to cuts.
  • There’s no denying that analytics are becoming a bigger part of the game, and teams are having to look at their budgets to see how they allocate funds to traditional scouting vs. newer numbers-driven methods.
  • The Patriots model (which requires less opinion-forming and more numbers-gathering from its scouts) has become undeniably prevalent among teams. However, in the past, even teams that share the Pats’ scouting philosophy still sent their staffers to the game.
  • Scouting numbers seemed to be down at other all-star games, as well, during this cycle. Maybe this reflects a new philosophy as the GM-head coach model flips and head coaches put less emphasis on evaluators.
  • The AFCA conference has continued to grow, and has eclipsed the Senior Bowl as the primary place to get a new job. Over the past several weeks, we’ve heard of many college head coaches declining to go to Nashville simply because they have staff openings and know the conference will be one unending solicitation.

There were other reasons some people I spoke to gave, from bad weather to staff vacancies. In so many other areas, the game has incredible momentum, and the future seems bright. Here’s hoping this is a fluke and not a trend.

For more on this topic and others related to the business of football, make sure to sign up for our weekly newsletter, the Friday Wrap. You can do that here.

Crunch Time: A Look at the Mental Side of Last Weekend’s Playoff Winners

The NFL’s divisional playoff round featured some great defensive performances and one stunning defensive collapse in Kansas City. Let’s unpack the action and see how mental performance impacted the games.

With insights from Lawrence Barnett (defensive back trainer at Traction AP and Eclipse DB Training), aka ‘LB,’ we’ll filter through the aftermath to look at how defensive backs got things right and wrong last weekend – and how their play impacted playoff storylines.

  • The Texans couldn’t keep up and weren’t able to adjust

Let’s start with the track meet in Kansas City. After going up 24-0 via a few weird plays (a blocked punt and a Tyreek Hill fumble on his second punt return of the season), the Texans proceeded to get decimated by Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes and company, giving up seven straight touchdown drives.

What happened? One major factor was that they weren’t able to hold up for the length of time they needed to in coverage.

Usually, defensive backs have to cover for 3-4 seconds before the pass rush gets home. With mobile quarterbacks, though, that time can be significantly increased. (Deshaun Watson and Mahomes both averaged 2.82 seconds time to throw this year, an above-league-average mark that highlights their tendency to extend plays). On longer plays, the Texans, especially, suffered.

Take a look at what happened on Travis Kelce’s second touchdown of the day. As Mahomes rolls out to extend the play, Kareem Jackson is forced to chase Kelce for close to five seconds. Kelce uses the extra time to settle into a window, leaving Jackson in the dust for an easy catch.

It’s a big task for any defense to keep up with the Chiefs, but it was clear in Kansas City that the Texans weren’t able to lock in for long enough – and they weren’t able to adjust to that reality.

  • The Titans had belief in their fundamentals

The Titans may have put on the weekend’s most impressive defensive showing in Baltimore, where they held presumed MVP Lamar Jackson to one late touchdown in a dominating performance.

The key was that their secondary was able to fill the dual roles of pass coverage and run defense that are needed to contend with Jackson. Watch these highlights and you’ll see an example of DC Adoree Jackson holding up in man coverage and DC Logan Ryan securing the edge to keep Jackson from getting loose on an option.

Plays like these were the story of the game. Over and over, the Titans DBs held the edge. And over and over, they made big plays on balls in the air, totaling an impressive eight pass breakups. The Titans had belief in their fundamentals and their mental performance never wavered over the course of the game. The end result was a four-quarter clinic.

  • Richard Sherman showcased his knowledge of the game

Finally, there may not be a better corner to watch (or a better corner, period) than the 49ers’ Richard Sherman. He proved it again against the Vikings.

Take a look at his game-changing interception in man coverage against Adam Thielen. Thielen’s been a top-tier receiver, but Sherman is at another level. He stymies him at the line, runs the route for him, and ends up with the ball against his chest. He’s done things like this every week he’s been on the field for nearly a decade.

How does he do it? Sherman’s the perfect example of an elite mental performer at the cornerback position: he’s able to be hyped up and calmly intelligent at once.

From a scientific perspective, he’s tapping into the kind of functioning that allows Navy SEALS to perform at elite levels. This is only possible when the amygdala (the part of the brain that controls fight or flight) and the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls rational decision-making) are activated simultaneously. In the vast majority of the population, when the amygdala gets activated, the prefrontal cortex shuts down and you fight or flee. You don’t think.

Elite warriors, though, are different; they’re able to use the increased intensity while also thinking analytically. Sherman is doing the same thing. After the game, he described how he diagnosed the route to make the pick, making it sound like he was calmly picking up a tell in a poker game. Even in his press conferences, he operates at a high level of intensity while simultaneously making rational, thought-through arguments.

It’s how the best corners function. It’s impressive and it’s fun to watch.

  • Defense wins championships; mental performance makes champions

High-level skill and high-level mental performance make great defensive players. I help athletes maximize the mental side of their games, and I’m honored to work with consultants like LB, who’s a nationally recognized expert at teaching tactical skills.

The combination is what makes championship-level performance possible. It’s what Sherman put on display last weekend – and what will likely impact who advances to the Superbowl this week.

This week’s post is the latest in a series of guest columns by Donovan Martin, who heads Ft. Wayne, Ind.-based Donovan Mental Performance. Donovan and his team are doing exciting things to help athletes bring their very best to the court, diamond or gridiron. We introduced Donovan in November on our Friday Wrap, and he’s addressed topics like the mental side of being a kicker, how two great teams prepare for a showdownwhy some teams always win and others always lose and the pros and cons of perfectionism in this space.