Not long ago, within the last few years, a prominent NFL agent was hanging out at a bar one spring night in a Southeastern Conference college town after giving a speaking engagement on campus. He recognized another man sitting at the bar, and after a minute, identified him as a young NFL scout.
The agent went up to the scout to make some small talk, but the scout said he didn’t have the time right then.
“It’s a typical Thursday night, bar is starting to pick up, and the next thing you know all the football players from Pro Day start coming in,” said the agent, who asked that his identity not be revealed. “They’re ordering pitchers and shots, the usual stuff, and they have no idea what’s going on. I’m watching the guy, and he’s just watching them. He’s a spy for a team, he’s there to make observations, and he stayed there the whole night, just watching them and taking mental notes.”
“That is de rigueur in the NFL. That’s not rocket science. That’s done by every team around the league, if they care enough.”
NFL teams morph into private detective units between the end of the season and the draft, which will be held Thursday-Saturday in Chicago.
Most teams go to tremendous lengths to discover everything they can about a prospect, particularly the ones being considered for the top of the first round, with several millions of dollars and potentially the future of the franchise at stake.
Not every prospect faces the same scrutiny. This year, the bull’s-eye is on Jameis Winston, the immensely talented quarterback from Florida State who has had more than his share of slip-ups off the field — a sexual assault allegation, a shoplifting incident involving crab legs from a supermarket, suspensions from FSU’s football and baseball teams, and more.
The Buccaneers are considering him for the No. 1 overall pick — many believe he is the heavy favorite — and Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht has done extensive homework on Winston.
When a lawsuit emerged April 16 from Winston’s alleged sexual assault victim, Licht responded, “It was not a surprise to us.”
“We’re very confident in the amount of work we’ve done,” Licht said last Monday. “Maybe 25 years from now, I’ll write a book. But we feel very confident in the amount of work we’ve done internally, we’ve had work done externally through third parties, and on and on. There have been no surprises.”
The concept of doing background checks is nothing new. Every team has a security director — usually a former local or state police officer or someone with FBI experience — who sifts through a player’s legal history.
He’ll speak with the police that arrested the player in a given incident, or with the prosecutor and defense attorney involved in a matter, to get a feel for whether the incident was simply a sign of immaturity or something more concerning. He’ll find out how many speeding tickets the player has, and whether they were paid on time.
And if the player is important enough, the team will go back to his college, high school, and sometimes middle school to speak with his coaches, principals, teachers, and others to get a better picture of the prospect.
“Everything matters,” Ravens assistant GM Eric DeCosta said last week. “We scrutinize everything, every piece of information. We don’t do this in a vacuum, we consider everything. We talk about all the different facts of the matter and talk to people.”
Obviously, the higher the pick, the more scrutiny involved. Teams will try to find information about their low-round picks but don’t go to the same lengths they do with first-rounders.
All hands on deck
The security director is only one piece of the information-gathering puzzle. Most teams will employ every person in the organization — coaches, scouts, doctors, interns, secretaries — to gather intel on a player.
Winston faces even more scrutiny than most elite prospects because of his volume of incidents and the position he plays (the Buccaneers would be counting on him to be the face of the franchise). But he’s hardly the first prospect to undergo such intense examination.
Former Buccaneers GM Mark Dominik, now an analyst with ESPN, relayed a fascinating story last month about receiver Justin Blackmon and the 2012 draft.
The Buccaneers sent a scout to Blackmon’s college town and hung out at a popular bar from 3-11 p.m. every day. The scout saw Blackmon come into the bar too many times, and Dominik, picking No. 5 overall that year, took Blackmon off his draft board.
After a trade of picks, Blackmon instead went No. 5 overall to the Jaguars, and has since been arrested for DUI and possession of marijuana in separate incidents, and he is currently serving an indefinite suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on substances of abuse.
But Dominik said Blackmon was hardly the only target of the “spying” technique. He did it similarly with several prospects in 2010, when the Buccaneers had the No. 3 overall pick.
“We certainly did a lot of work on [Ndamukong] Suh and [Gerald] McCoy, spent as much resources on those two as we did in 2012,” Dominik said. “Gerald McCoy gave us no reason to be concerned, but we still dug into his character, visited his high school, all those items to make sure this is a guy you want on your football team.”
Dominik said his college scouts were a “critical” piece of the background checking, often getting him better information on a player’s background than would his security team.
“I felt like the scouts knew the layout of the land — he knew where the player lived, he knew the coaches, the campus,” Dominik said. “We still used our security and our people who could get background information, but they wouldn’t have the same type of feel as would an area scout.”
Teams now employ low-level staffers to monitor social media accounts of draft prospects — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and more. Team doctors will call the college doctors and trainers to get a better idea of a player’s injury. And anyone who comes in contact with a player — from the intern who picks him up at the airport to the secretary that signs him in to the doctor that checks him out — gets grilled afterward about the interaction with the player.
“The person that may take him to the medical checkup is definitely someone you’re going to check with,” said Joe Banner, a former Eagles president and Browns CEO. “Was he friendly? Was he on time? Did he sound like he wanted to be here? Did you feel like he’s a solid guy? What did he talk about?”
When the prospects meet with teams at the Combine, on campus, or at the team facility, they know they’re on a job interview. So sometimes the teams will throw the prospect a curveball.
“Some teams throw a little trickery at guys to see if some of the rumors about them being [a jerk] or being arrogant come out,” the agent said. “They’ll purposely be 15 minutes late picking him up from the airport. And that person will always report back to the personnel director or the GM about the personality of the kid. ‘Hey, he was great, asked me questions about the community.’ Or, ‘It’s clear he was out drinking last night, he passed out in the car.’ ”
Crossing the line?
The problem is that occasionally, teams can go too far. Former Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland got in hot water in 2010 for asking receiver Dez Bryant point-blank, “Is your mother a prostitute?” The agent said one of his clients, who had issues in college (but nothing serious), was a little creeped out before a recent draft when noticing all of the teams spying on him and trying to get a feel for his background. The agent said he thinks teams do “some NSA, spy-level stuff. I would not put that beyond any team.”
All eyes have been on Winston for the past three months, particularly in public spaces. After the Combine, a reporter tweeted that he saw Winston help push an elderly man in a wheelchair until an airport employee could take over (Winston was unaware he was being watched). Last month, one NFL scout reportedly watched Winston like a hawk while the two flew on the same plane.
But Dominik said the spying stuff is overblown, and that there are clear lines that NFL teams will not cross.
“There’s no such thing as a dumpster dive,” Dominik said. “We’re not private investigators. We’re doing everything that’s out in the public. There was a line that I thought was very critical to stay on the right side of, and everything we did were things you could see in the public.
“I kind of joke about Jameis Winston being followed on an airplane. Everybody was probably watching Jameis Winston on an airplane, not just a scout. I mean, it’s Jameis Winston.”
But as thorough as teams are in conducting background research, there are two major drawbacks. One is that if a player doesn’t have a rap sheet, there’s only so much you can learn about him. The Aaron Hernandez debacle certainly proved that.
“I would be lying to tell you that I didn’t have Aaron Hernandez on my board,” Dominik said. “I absolutely had him in a draftable position on my draft board. It wasn’t far from where he went. I thought it was a good pick at the time for New England.”
The second is that confirmation bias often gets in the way of an honest evaluation. Sometimes teams don’t want to know all the bad stuff about a player if he’s talented enough, for plausible deniability.
Cardinals GM Steve Keim joked last week that “if Hannibal Lecter ran a 4.3, we’d probably diagnose it as an eating disorder.”
“[Teams] tend to find the information they want to confirm the outcome they want,” Banner said. “If you really want to pick Winston, then you can rationalize what you know.”
NFL teams are still in the business of winning, and the possibility of missing out on a player because of perceived character issues can set the franchise back.
“If you walk away from a top-15 pick and he’s a really good Pro Bowl player, you’ve lost a good opportunity,” Banner said.
And college football players aren’t saints — it’s not easy finding a 21-year-old prospect with a completely clean record.
You can bet many teams wish they hadn’t downgraded Hall of Famer Warren Sapp, who went No. 12 overall in 1995, because of his marijuana issues.
“Bill Parcells used to say to me, ‘I’ve got to use a pick sooner or later!’ ” the agent said. “Sometimes you’ve got to draft the pot smoker.”
But you’d better be sure the prospect’s issues are minor maturity issues, not major character flaws.
“You’re hiring somebody, and it’s not a $50,000-a-year, entry-level sales position. You’re talking about committing $15 million-$20 million to somebody,” Banner said. “You don’t want to make a mistake just because you weren’t thorough enough.”