Boiler Room: NFL Style
April 24, 1996. It was a typically beautiful San Diego day as I finished a beach run to relieve some usual draft-weekend stress. The first round had just started when I got back and saw that Keyshawn Johnson was the first player off the board. I made some breakfast, took a shower and checked the TV again. Only three picks were off the board. “Damn,” I thought, “it’s going to be a long weekend.”
That year, I represented my Texas A&M-Kingsville foursome of OT Jermane Mayberry, G Jorge Diaz, C Kevin Dogins, and WR/PR/KR Karl “The Truth” Williams. I was working both ends of the spectrum in this draft. Jermane was a potential first-round pick, while the rest of the guys were snubbed by the Combine and all-star games, which meant they’d probably be undrafted free agents.
After a few painstaking hours, the Eagles finally picked Jermane in the first round with the 25th pick. I was ecstatic, jumping around, screaming, couldn’t believe it. This was perfect for him. They were in big need of a left tackle, and Juan Castillo, his college coach and mentor for three years, had just been hired as an assistant O-line coach. Plus, Philly is my hometown and the Eagles were a part of my DNA. I was looking for someone to high five or hug or celebrate with, but the house was empty -- a downside to the job. Not too many friends, girlfriends or family want to be around an agent on draft weekend.
That night, I took my staff of one and my buddy out for a nice steak dinner to celebrate my first first-rounder. But the celebration was short as I had to be focused to handle the calls for Sunday’s undrafted free agents.
Sunday, it was only the fourth round, and Ravens O-line coach Kirk Ferentz (currently Iowa’s head coach) called me for the third time in three days. He’d been recruiting Jorge Diaz for three weeks and told me that he had to have him as a UFA. He convinced me the Ravens were the right place for Jorge. I really liked Kirk, still do, and built a relationship with him over the previous three years, which started when he came to La Jolla in 1993 to work out Todd Rucci and another client. The four of us went out afterward for a Chart House dinner and a few rounds of beers. Kirk is extremely personable, honest and instantly likable -- just a few reasons he’s successful at Iowa.
I all but handed him Jorge before the draft was complete. He put in more time recruiting him than anybody else. He was invested and motivated to see Jorge make the team and succeed.
As the seventh round rolled around, I already had 12 calls on Jorge, four on Dogins and only two on The Truth. When the last pick went off the board, I had 14 teams aggressively going after Jorge. A matter of fact, someone from the Vikings was talking directly to Jorge and never called my office to speak with me. He would not let Jorge off the line. He simply refused to hang up until Jorge was on board and even offered him a signing bonus. Jorge finally got off the phone and called me discuss the calls. He told me that he felt strongly about the Vikings, who had also called him on Friday and Saturday. At one point in our conversation, Jorge said, “I’m going to have a tough time saying no to the Vikings.”
I quickly put Jorge on hold as my three-line phone was lighting up. My assistant had Rustin Webster on the line. Webster was the Bucs scout who took the time to work out The Truth in Kingsville when nobody else would. I agreed to send Karl there for a modest signing bonus. I had my assistant call the only other team, Dallas, and tell them Karl was done.
Back to Jorge. It was about 20 minutes after the draft, and my phone was still lighting up like a Christmas tree. Jorge told me his phone wouldn’t stop ringing and he just wanted to “get this over with.” I told Jorge to relax, that we were going to take a deep breath and sort through the all the proposals. I told him, “If the teams are really interested in you as they say, they won’t go away. If they’re just looking for a camp guy, they’ll move on to the next guy on their list.” In the meantime, my assistant was taking messages every minute, mostly for Jorge. Many were repeat call, including Kirk Ferentz.
I called Kirk back and asked him if he was willing to wait on Jorge while I sorted through his opportunities, narrowed it down to three and helped another client. He said he would wait as long as he had to. I told him he was one of the three.
The Cowboys were calling on the other line. They wanted the other two Kingsville players, Dogins and Diaz. I told them no way on Diaz as they had All-Pro guards and some depth. Maybe Dogins, although I thought they drafted a center in the third. Call you back, Dallas. Next, Jerry Angelo from Tampa Bay gave me a sales pitch on why all the guys should go there.
“We’re very shaky at our guard positions, and one of our starters will be a free agent next year,” he said. “We also have no back-up centers.” I pulled the trigger on Dogins. Done deal in Tampa. My assistant called back the other three teams to tell them Dogins was done.
Back to Diaz and his 14 options. It was now about two hours after the draft, and I called Juan Castillo to get his input because he had recruited and coached Jorge. He didn’t have room for him in Philly and didn’t want to push his luck as a first-year coach. He told me that Jorge could play in year one and would compete and fight in camp, so I shouldn’t be afraid to send him somewhere he could play right away. Jorge and I quickly eliminated about six teams because of their draft picks, depth and style of line play.
Two hours had passed and about eight teams moved on. The others were still putting on the full-court press. I finally got a call from the Vikings. The scout gave me his pitch and made it sound like Jorge had already made up his mind and would become a Viking. Not yet, I told him. We were still sorting though his options. He got mad and told me I was doing Jorge a disservice. I told him to be patient, that we had a process to select the best team. He hung up and immediately started working on Jorge again.
It was now four hours after the draft and we were in dangerous territory, as the free-agent market was all but complete for most teams. However, the calls were still coming in from teams about Jorge, and the callers were now the top of the food chain (GM Rich McKay, owner Jerry Jones, more GMs).
By this time, Jorge and I had narrowed it down to four – the Bucs, Vikings, Ravens and Bears. We debated each team’s situation, depth chart and draft. The Ravens drafted Jonathan Ogden that year, and he was the missing piece of their puzzle. They also signed two more linemen in free agency. But Kirk was still high on Jorge for the same reasons Juan was. It was now hour five, and I called Kirk and said, “Kirk, you’ve put more time into recruiting Jorge than anybody. I know you want him, but if he were you son or client and you knew the Ravens had a solid O-line and the Bucs had a great opportunity and drafted no one, where would you send him?”
The phone went silent for a good 30 seconds. Then he said, “Jack, I would have to lean to Tampa based on their situation, but I still would like him here.” And I said, “I appreciate your honesty, and that’s where I’m going to send him. Thanks, Coach.”
I called Rich McKay and worked him over for a premium signing bonus and promised Jorge to him. The contract would arrive on Tuesday. It was six hours after the draft and all three of my clients landed in Tampa with new unis and a new head coach in Tony Dungy. I was emotionally and physically exhausted. Jorge was happy to be joining his teammates.
Monday morning after the draft, 5 a.m. It was Jorge calling.
“I think we made a mistake,” he said. “The Vikings keep calling me and are willing to triple the signing bonus to $15,000. They really want me bad. I told them I didn’t sign the contract yet.” I told Jorge that I had already given my word to Tampa. I couldn’t go back on it now because this is how the UFA process works. Jorge agreed.
When an agent gives his word and has a done deal, the contract paperwork is done later. I settled Jorge down, called the Vikings and told them to “stand down on my client, it’s over.”
Jorge made the team, started by the sixth game and didn’t give up his guard position for five years. It turned out we made the right move. Karl also started and Dogins was a solid back-up for many years as well.
I really don’t think I can truly describe the feeling of pressure, chaos and second-guessing that goes on during the worst hour in football. I believe my ability to stay calm and focused through this time helps me make good decision with and for my clients.
Here are some other things that will happen after the draft that fans won’t get to see:
About 450 UFA negotiations in less than one hour. One time, I had a player named Aaron Boone, a WR out of Kentucky. About 20 minutes went by after the draft and I had no calls on him. Finally, Walter from the Cowboys called and expressed an interest. I could hear Bill Parcells in the background. I told Walter to put Parcells on the line because I wanted to see if he knew the player or was just targeting Boone as a camp guy. Bill got on and gave me the quick pitch. Then I say, “Bill, did you honestly do any film work on Boone? If so, tell me about him.” Bill, who has a memory like an elephant, said, “I saw him against Louisville,” and started describing specific plays. I said, “OK, you give me a $10,000 signing bonus on a two-year deal and we’ll do it right now. But if you hang up, I can’t make any promises.” Parcells, without hesitating, said, “We got him guaranteed?” I say, “Yes.” He said, “Done, Bechta.” I only got one other call on Aaron with no signing bonus offered. The call with the Cowboys lasted a whole three minutes.
Teams “slow playing” agents/players. When a team has to have a certain position filled, it will have several different people (coaches, scouts, GMs, cap guy) call three different agents for three different players. Their goal is to get the No. 1-rated UFA on their board but keep the other two on the line as insurance. A lot of times, you can tell if your guy is the “priority” if it’s the GM calling. If you get the area scout or some assistant personnel person you never heard of, you might be the insurance policy. The sad part about this process is that an agent might turn down other offers because a team leads him to believe it’s going to sign his guy. If the team gets its first option, the offer disappears, sometimes without a courtesy call.
I’ve been doing this long enough that when I get a call, I simply ask, “Is my guy your No. 1, 2 or 3? Can you do the deal now?” If they have to call you back and check with someone about a signing bonus and/or doing the deal, he’s not their first choice. A lot of inexperienced agents get worked over in this process, and their clients can end up without a deal or going to an inferior situation.
It has also gone the other way where the agent agrees with a team on signing the player, then a superior deal comes in and the agent takes the new deal instead. He will then call the first team back and say, “I know we had a deal, but the kid wants to play elsewhere and took the deal without my knowledge.” The teams know the agent is lying, and it may hurt him in the future, especially if the player turns out to be a star.
Agents holding out for bigger signing bonuses and losing deals. It happens, and the player can sometimes end up without a contract or signing bonus because the agent pushed too far. Some players and agents take the first deal that comes along.
Coaches as the Closers. Many teams incorporate their coaches into a big part of this process. It’s really hard for a player to say no to a coach. I realized this when I was a young agent and the Browns’ Marty Schottenheimer got me on the line. I couldn’t help but send him my player. I was only two years removed from playing college ball, and I felt myself reacting like I was one of his players.
Several years ago, I instituted a rule with my undrafted players: Don’t talk to the head coach. Have everyone call me right away. Four years ago, I broke that rule with QB Todd Mortensen out of the University of San Diego. We only had two options, the Ravens and the Lions. Ravens QB coach Rick Neuheisel was on one line and Lions coach Steve Mariucci was on the other. We were leaning toward Baltimore because the Lions had drafted Dan Orlovsky in the late rounds, and I thought Todd would get very little in the way of reps with him there. But I broke my rule when Mariucci asked if he could speak with Todd.
I put Todd on the phone and the next thing I know, these guys are talking west coast terminology, routes and formations. When he hung up, I said it was time to make a decision. “My gut and experience says the Ravens,” I told him.
Todd said, “I feel more comfortable with the west coast offense and Mariucci.” I told him that I was skeptical of the opportunity and my vote was firmly with the Ravens, but he chose the Lions. He barely got a rep in practice and virtually no snaps the entire preseason. Needless to say, he was cut and never got another good opportunity.
There will be 32 boiler rooms in action on Sunday, 450 players in less than one hour. I’ve heard that some teams have gotten 15 players signed within 15 minutes after the draft. The speed at which this process works leads to many mismatches for teams and players.
My opinion is that this system needs a thoughtful upgrade. The NFL’s hierarchy – Commissioner Roger Goodell and Players Association chief DeMaurice Smith – should consider a format in which no UFAs can be signed until 1 p.m. eastern on the Monday or Tuesday following the draft. This will give players, teams and agents a realistic amount of time to evaluate offers and opportunities without the pressure to make a quick decision.