In a typical year, the NFL’s top prospects would leave college soon after their seasons end to train for the league’s draft, with funding provided by prospective agents. Eligible players would declare their intentions in December or early January and renounce any remaining eligibility. But 2020 has been anything but typical.
It’s only August and, due to COVID-19, a number of 2021 draft-eligible players have already opted out of the fall season. Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley, a projected first-round pick, was first when he announced his decision on July 29. Minnesota receiver Rashod Bateman and Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons—projected as high as a potential top-five pick—followed, as did several others. More will likely join, wary of the risks of playing during the pandemic or staying for spring ball if the season is postponed.
Those who opt out will start their training early. The added months, however, could come at a steep price, one that could deter a number of agents and agencies from offering traditional financial support or signing prospects entirely.
“All of these players are still going to expect to be trained before [the combine and draft],” former NFL scout and current Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said. “They’re going to expect agents to fund that. It’s one thing to fund that from December or January through February and March, it’s another if that training starts in September.”
In a typical year, agents will cover 6-12 weeks of training leading up to pro days and the combine, which can cost upwards of $50,000 between the housing, food, facility and training, a number of agents confirmed to Sportico. For some top prospects, that price tag can reach six figures and include items like advances for cars and other living expenses.
IMG Academy’s pre-draft training program (whose alumni include Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and DeAndre Hopkins) normally costs around $20,000 and has a limit of 20 players, according to conditioning coach Mo Wells. This year, IMG will take 24 prospects and offer a fall program. Wells expects most who show up at the Bradenton, Fla., campus will still have their fees covered by agents, even if they arrive as early as September.
“Where it becomes dicey is most of these agents who are used to paying for weeks of a program are now basically preparing for months of training,” said Steve Clarkson, a quarterbacks coach who trained Ben Roethlisberger before the 2004 Draft and has worked with Trevor Lawrence and Jalen Hurts. “So then there’s the question of who is worth representing? If you’re representing someone in the third round or beyond, you’re never going to see that money back.”
Clarkson notes that agents may have to add in the expense of filming workouts and potentially creating virtual pro days to send to teams.
Rookie contracts, outside of those signed by top picks, aren’t typically where agents make their money back. Approximately 60% of NFL players are on base-salary contracts, which in the new CBA, means $610,000 in 2020 for a player with less than one year of league experience—even for top pick Joe Burrow. Most of the money in Burrow’s four-year deal comes from his nearly $24 million signing bonus.
Agents are prohibited from taking commission on NFL contracts exceeding 3% of a player’s salary—or $18,300 of a minimum-salary earning rookie’s wages—but some take as little as 1.5% (less than $10k on the same contract) or no fees up-front. The signing bonuses for lower-round players are also far less. Notre Dame’s Khalid Kareem, the first player chosen in round five—where Burrow was projected to go prior to his senior season—likely earned $400,000.
Even at max commission, it could take an agent two to all three or four years of a rookie contract just to recover the average cost of training a player before the draft during a normal year. Said one agent: “It’s hard to make that investment back unless your player really hits and gets that second contract.” As a manager at another agency put it, they “bet” on the rookies and try to keep them through the second signing to make “the real money.” That bet is even riskier this year with players potentially costing agents twice as much.
Making those bets all the more uncertain is the fact that agents will be prioritizing clients based on less game film than before, relying even more on scouts’ assessments.
“Agents will be encouraging legitimate, draftable players to come out, get into the draft process and start their NFL clocks,” Nagy said. “But some don’t have the resources to pay for the extra months of training players. It gets really, really pricey. It’s already pricing a lot of agents out of the business. That’s why you’re seeing a lot of the big established agencies really getting their pick of players now because they do have the capital. This year could do that on a bigger scale.”
Marketing and endorsement deals are usually where agents cash in, as they can take 10-20% of those contracts. Far more lucrative than commission off of salaries for lower-earning players, those deals are built more around star power and influence, which few rookies have. And while players could theoretically begin marketing deals this fall, one agent expressed concern about distracting their clients from draft prep, to say nothing of the currently soft advertising market.
Agents, therefore, could be left choosing between fewer clients or covering fewer costs, putting more of the pre-draft financial burden on the picks themselves. Particularly for players who don’t have hope for first-round money, it’s a hefty investment to make.
“From the agent standpoint, I don’t think they’re going to be able to do this,” Clarkson said. “If you’re [an NFL] prospect, you’re going to have to fund this for the most part. Maybe you have to train on your own. I’ve always thought more of a working collaboration between agents and universities would be best. There’s a mutual interest for those players to succeed: schools want the recognition and agents want their clients to be at their best without having to go bankrupt over it. There’s 32 first round picks, most kids aren’t going to be those.”
Clarkson cites Seahawks coach Pete Carroll’s approach during his tenure at USC. Clarkson, who worked with Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, among others, said Carroll made the school’s training staff and chefs available to its players after the college season ended. It’s a branding opportunity and recruiting selling point for the school, and, Clarkson says, could cost the agents less than other programs. Carroll left the USC program in 2009 to coach the Seattle Seahawks, and the university was stripped of Bush’s Heisman and the 2004 Bowl Championship Series title as a result of an NCAA investigation.
And yet, still, despite all the uncertainty, competition among agents—even for players below the top tiers—remains fierce. Bryan Mills can attest. One of the top small school cornerbacks, Mills says 14 agents reached out to him in a single day after the news broke that North Carolina Central was suspending its season. “It was overwhelming,” he said.
They all offered the same package and timeline they would have in a normal year, which means support beginning in January. So Mills says he will take his time before picking one, returning to NCCU to resume classes and train at the school’s facility this fall. Without the opportunity to add to his football resume, he’s banking on potential all-star game and combine invites to raise his stock against highly touted competition.
Even top-ranked players are more likely to attend the Senior Bowl this year, according to one agent. “Nobody is going to turn down an invite to an all-star game,” Octagon football senior director Casey Muir said, even suggesting some may opt to play in multiple contests.
Getting on the field for a game or two could be the most normal aspect of what otherwise promises to be an unprecedented evaluation process for all involved.