One of the biggest events of this year’s entire NFL Draft occurred Thursday and Friday in Indianapolis. You just wouldn’t know it, because it wasn’t televised, broadcast, or publicized. It had little to do with actual football.
About 150 prospects and 64 medical personnel — the team doctor and head trainer from all 32 teams — gathered for in-person physicals and other medical checks. Those invited were the 75 or so top prospects in the draft, and another 75 players who have medical red flags that the team doctors want to see for themselves.
This year’s NFL Combine was canceled, and with it the ability for team doctors to get a hands-on look at 330 of the top prospects. Team doctors also weren’t allowed to visit with prospects at their pro days, and teams were not allowed to invite players to their facilities for pre-draft visits. Last week’s event helped fill in some of the gaps.
“The fact that they can go to Indy and do the physicals with the team doctors and team trainers is really a positive thing,” said agent Drew Rosenhaus, who had nine of his 10 prospects invited to the medical check. “For players that have a medical issue, it’s extremely important that team doctors and trainers can do a hands-on and do their assessment. I think it’s critical to the draft process, and I’m so grateful that nine of our guys were invited to that and teams will have an opportunity to really get a feel.”
Of all the hoopla of the pre-draft process — the Senior Bowl, Combine, pro days, interviews — the medical component ranks right at the top in terms of importance. At the Combine, a player spends the first 1½ days of his four-day trip taking physicals, MRIs, heart exams, and whatever else any of the 32 teams requests.
This year, because of the pandemic, most physicals were reduced to tele-medicine. Instead of having 330 players congregate in Indianapolis, the NFL assigned 10 prospects to each team to conduct a physical over Zoom. The information was then shared among the 32 teams.
Players also were responsible for ensuring that their colleges were properly sharing their medical records with NFL teams, and that the medical records were accurate and comprehensive.
“I think it was a great learning lesson that this is pro football,” longtime agent David Canter said. “The college liaison isn’t going to babysit you and fill out stuff for you and hope that you’re good.”
This weekend’s medical check also was scaled back. Usually a team will bring four or five doctors to the Combine, but it was limited to just the head team doctor and head athletic trainer.
NFL teams are certainly not in the dark about the players’ medical history. But nothing can replace the importance of an in-person physical examination.
“As you can imagine you’re not as thorough over the telephone, and it’s a lot easier to miss things,” said Dr. David Chao, who was the Chargers’ head physician from 1997-2013. “I’ve been there before where we look at a player and go, ‘Whew, we’re a little worried.’ And another club looks at him and they’re OK with him. So you don’t get those nuances with tele-medicine.”
NFL teams are all dealing with the same medical information for most of the draft prospects, but rarely is there a consensus about the severity or importance of an injury.
“Medical isn’t completely black and white. There’s a lot of gray,” Chao said. “Just like there’s not always consensus on who the top players are in the draft. This is why 32 teams go to a workout — everyone wants their own look at the guy.”
The NFL at least allowed the top 75 or so prospects, plus the top 75 guys with some medical red flags, to be examined in person in Indianapolis. Rosenhaus represents two players, both potential first-round picks, for whom these checks will be especially important. Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley had a microdiscectomy procedure on his back last month (the same procedure Rob Gronkowski had three times throughout his career). Miami edge rusher Greg Rousseau opted out of the 2020 season, and his physical status was a mystery to most teams.
“It’s less about opting out and more about some of the previous injuries that he had, where teams can go back and take a look at his older injuries and see that he’s healthy and clear him,” Rosenhaus said of Rousseau. “Every player’s got some type of injury that they’ve gone through at some point in their life, and you’re holding out hope that each of your clients will in effect pass their physicals and get cleared in some capacity.”
But not all draft prospects were lucky enough to get the invite to Indy. Alabama fullback/tight end Carl Tucker, represented by Marblehead-based agent Sean Stellato, tore his tricep in December. Tucker and Stellato have been providing updates to teams and hope he can be a late-round draft pick.
“I had a team call three days ago asking about recovery, where he’s at percentage-wise, a detailed dictation of the injury,” Stellato said. “I always advise all my guys, just be transparent and disclose what’s going on, because they’re eventually going to find out.”
A good team
Plenty of history for Rosenhaus and Patriots
Drew Rosenhaus has been an NFL agent for 33 years and has represented hundreds if not thousands of clients. Yet he had never had a free agent bonanza with one team as he did with the Patriots last month.
The Patriots dominated the headlines thanks to Rosenhaus and his clients. When free agency began March 17, the Patriots signed three Rosenhaus players — tight end Jonnu Smith, defensive back Jalen Mills, and defensive tackle Davon Godchaux — and traded for a fourth, offensive tackle Trent Brown. The four players signed for $55.75 million fully guaranteed. A week later, the Patriots signed a fifth Rosenhaus client, defensive tackle Montravius Adams, who will be fighting for a roster spot.
“That’s the most amount of business I’ve done with one club in one offseason, at least in a short amount of time,” Rosenhaus said. “That was really a first. Obviously, glad it worked out the way that it did.”
Rosenhaus remembers first working with Bill Belichick in 1995 when, as the head coach of the Browns, Belichick drafted receiver A.C. Tellison in the seventh round. Rosenhaus has since had dozens of players come through the Patriots, including Rob Gronkowski, Ben Watson, Jabaal Sheard, Chad Ochocinco, Jabar Gaffney, Donté Stallworth, and many more. Rosenhaus currently has seven players on the Patriots — Josh Uche, Jakob Johnson, and the five players listed above.
“I have a lot of respect for Coach Belichick and I have a lot of respect for Mr. [Robert] Kraft,” Rosenhaus said. “The term I would use is there’s a lot of history. We’ve negotiated a lot of contracts over the last 30 years, and obviously we’re in a position where that history came into play this offseason.”
Rosenhaus said the Patriots’ free agent frenzy — they signed 23 players for $175 million guaranteed so far — has created a lot of excitement.
“There’s a real enthusiasm about this football team,” he said. “It’s obviously a very talented group, and everyone’s looking forward to getting together and turning that talent into a team. A lot of the new guys are excited to work with Coach Belichick and his staff and learn to become Patriots.”
Ready and able
With bag packed, Melifonwu stayed prepared
Former Grafton High and UConn star safety Obi Melifonwu was released by the Patriots last April, and the opportunity to continue his NFL career in 2020 never really came to fruition. Melifonwu, a 2017 second-round pick by the Raiders, wasn’t invited to a training camp and didn’t get much interest during the season.
But he was always prepared.
“Anywhere I traveled, I had to bring a to-go bag, just in case,” Melifonwu said last week when I caught up with him about his brother, Ifeatu Melifonwu, a top prospect in this year’s draft. “My agent was telling me, ‘Just stay ready, you never know when you’re going to get the call.’ So I just made sure I was in shape and ready.”
Melifonwu’s to-go bag included his cleats, shorts, gloves, and the rest of his workout gear, as well as clothes for up to five days. In 2020, prospects had to quarantine for five days before being allowed to enter an NFL facility for a tryout.
Sure enough, Melifonwu was visiting his girlfriend in Florida in December when the call finally came. It was from the 49ers, who spent the final month in Phoenix because of COVID-19.
Melifonwu impressed enough in his workout to get a contract offer the next day. He will compete for a roster spot as a special teams stalwart and backup safety.
“Sure enough, I ended up getting the call literally the week before the season was over,” he said. “I’m just glad I was prepared. If I slacked off at all I wouldn’t have been ready and prepared. So it ended up working out.”
With Brady, Buccaneers are a hot ticket
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have never been one of the NFL’s stronger home markets. A decade ago, they had a string of 13 local TV blackouts out of 15 home games because the games weren’t sold out. In 2019, as the Buccaneers limped to a 7-9 finish and Jameis Winston threw 30 interceptions, they had the second-lowest attendance in the NFL. They filled just 79.1 percent of capacity at Raymond James Stadium for the season, and averaged a shade under 52,000 fans per game. Only the Bengals were lower.
Enter Tom Brady.
He bolted New England for Tampa, led the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl in his first season, and now the team is the hottest ticket in town.
The Buccaneers now advertise a waiting list for their season tickets on the team website. As noted by JoeBucsFan.com, fans can spend $250 or $500 per seat to get on a wait list for the right to buy season tickets.
“Currently, we cannot estimate availability or wait times due to our high renewal rates,” the team says on its website.
It’s possible the Buccaneers are holding back some tickets to create a little demand. But there’s no question they are fashionable now, and they have Brady to thank. At $25 million per year, Brady is probably the best value in pro sports.
17th game could help shatter all the records
Brady is the NFL’s leader in regular-season passing touchdowns (581) and is 1,154 yards behind Drew Brees for the all-time lead in passing yards (Brady has 79,204).
But with passing stats exploding over the past decade, and the introduction of a 17th game, it’s only a matter of time before Brady’s records fall.
“I’ve got mixed emotions on that,” Bills quarterback Josh Allen said last week, via The Buffalo News. “You change the complexity of the game as far as statistics. Now you have an extra game every year to develop more passing yards and more touchdowns. I’m sitting on both sides of the fence. So, I see it as an opportunity to play another game that I love, and a chance to go out there and put up more numbers and win some more games.”
Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, 36 in May, already is ninth all-time with 55,767 yards. Matthew Stafford, 33, is 16th at 45,109. If they don’t threaten Brady’s numbers, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson or Trevor Lawrence surely will.
It was a horrible and tragic week of off-field news for the NFL and its former players. Former practice squad wide receiver Travis Rudolph, who spent the 2017-18 seasons with the Giants and Dolphins and the 2020 season with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL, was charged with one count of first degree murder and three counts of attempted first degree murder in a shooting in Palm Beach County, Fla. Former cornerback Phillip Adams, who played for six teams from 2010-15, including six games with the Patriots in 2011, shot and killed five people and then himself in a horrific incident in Rock Hill, S.C. (Adams is now the second member of the 2011 Patriots to commit murder, joining Aaron Hernandez). And former Patriots receiver Kenbrell Thompkins was charged in Florida with scamming the state of California out of $300,000 in COVID-19-related unemployment insurance … The Deshaun Watson legal saga has gotten increasingly messy, and he doesn’t seem inclined to settle with his accusers any time soon. The NFL hasn’t done anything with Watson’s roster status, but if on-field workouts are to resume this offseason, Roger Goodell may have to put Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list. The NFL’s modus operandi is to not punish a player until his legal process is complete, but the commissioner’s exempt list has become a preferred half-measure that keeps the player away from the team but continues to pay him. The longer Watson’s lawsuits drag out, the longer it may keep him off the field. … Patriots restricted free agent cornerback J.C. Jackson still hasn’t signed his second-round tender, which sets his salary at $3.384 million. He has until April 23 to sign an offer with another team … Teddy Bridgewater to the Broncos? They badly need help at quarterback, and new Broncos GM George Paton was in the Vikings’ front office when they drafted Bridgewater in 2014. The only question is whether the Broncos would be willing to pay $10 million guaranteed for Bridgewater, or if they would ask the Panthers to pick up some of the cost … Former 11-year, four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Antonio Cromartie has resurfaced in the football world. Cromartie tweeted last week that he has joined Jimbo Fisher’s coaching staff at Texas A&M. Cromartie has no direct connection to Fisher, but Cromartie was a Florida State legend and Fisher coached in the program for over a decade … Big weekend for Trevor Lawrence, the presumptive No. 1 overall pick for Jacksonville. On Thursday, he attended Round 1 of the Masters and hung out with Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce. Then over the weekend he will marry his college sweetheart, per NFL Network … Am I the only one who raised an eyebrow at this quote from Tom Brady on head coach Bruce Arians last week? “He’s a great motivator — he’s got a great feel for the team — a great pulse for what’s going on in a locker room, great intuition, great evaluation of talent,” Brady said on “Good Morning America.” “When you’re in one place for 20 years, you think that’s the only way, and I think when you go to a different place you realize, ‘Wow, there’s another way that people do things.’ ”