There is no NFL offseason.
This time of year, it's the same question seemingly on repeat: "Now that the Super Bowl is over, what do you do?" Well-meaning friends and family ask this of me and other media members all the time. It isn't just us who field the questions, as agents and team personnel all look at the final game of the season as one last breath of fresh air before the busiest time of their year.
This year, more than others, the NFL will be a year-round product, as the league has shifted the date of the NFL draft from its normal spot in April to May 8. It's just a tiny shift of the schedule, but it could have big consequences to the way this offseason operates. Ultimately, it may have bigger consequences to the game at large as well.
Why would the NFL do this? Are they just tinkering with the schedule for giggles?
The answer, as it normally is with the league, is money. The NFL hasn't gotten to where it is by giving up a chance at a few extra bucks, and it has never met a revenue stream it didn't like. The draft is big business, and eyeballs equal money.
Long story made short: The NFL is turning two weeks of dead period—where the league and its media properties and partners had nothing to talk about—into two weeks of draft talk. I don't know how many Brinks trucks full of fat stacks that will equate to for the league, but it's worth a shot considering there's little to no risk involved.
No risk, however, doesn't mean the NFL is not ruffling a few feathers. After the announcement, Sports Illustrated's Peter King quoted a couple anonymous decision-makers:
Talked to one personnel czar last night on the phone. "Hate it. Absolutely hate it.'' Saw one owner at dinner last night, and he said (sarcastically) his GM "would just love this ... more time to obsess on final decisions he made a month ago."
Logistically, the change actually might help team personnel who shuttle nearly the entire front office across the country for all-star games, regional combines, pro days, etc., and rack up enough frequent-flyer miles for a few trips to Jupiter in a short time span. Maybe, just maybe, the extended pre-draft schedule will give a scout or two a chance to remember what his family looks like.
The Pre-Draft Industrial Complex Churns On
"It might be a problem if you’re flying across the country for six weeks and will never see the trainer again—you’re looking to start with square one."
Chuck Smith played nine years in the NFL, was an All-Pro in 1997 and went to Super Bowl XXXIII with the Atlanta Falcons. After a short stint as the defensive line coach at his alma mater, Tennessee, he started training athletes on his own. It's an understatement to say he's been successful.
He's trained Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller, Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins and plenty more of the NFL's best. This year, he's got defensive linemen Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt from Notre Dame, Florida State tackle Timmy Jernigan, Auburn pass-rusher Dee Ford and a host of other prospects.
He sees his extra time with them as a blessing.
"Pass rushing," Smith says, "is a curriculum. You ask most kids what the most important thing in a pass rush is, and they'll say 'get-off.' I tell tell them, 'if you don't have vision, you're just getting off to get blocked faster.'"
Smith, wisely and among others, preaches a more long-term commitment to training than some fly-by-night pre-combine trainers. Many of his students start with him long before they even consider the draft and will stay with him long after they've been in the league.
For Smith, a couple extra weeks before the draft means a couple extra weeks of working on things most of us don't even think about when it comes to pass-rushing specialists. Ford, whom Smith likens to former NFL great Derrick Thomas, "needs to get his fourth step down." That's something they'll have extra time to work on.
Of course, someone has to pay for all that training, and that is almost always the agents who do that. While agents don't always draw a lot of sympathy, it's worth noting that very few are the "super agent" types with unlimited resources at their disposal. Many work with multiple clients, and two extra weeks of per diems and training fees (much of which won't be paid back) is pocket-draining.
No agents complained to me about it, but it's at least something they've had to worry about and has changed the way they do business.
Marc Lillibridge, a former NFL player and personnel man—also, disclosure, a friend and former B/R columnist—is now an agent representing Baltimore Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb, among others. He says that two extra weeks of loans is an issue, but so is down time for potential draft picks to get bored.
Smith, too, mentioned that time management would be an issue, especially for those prospects with later pro days. Overtraining, Smith says, may be an issue for guys who are looking to peak at the right time in terms of 40-yard-dash times and other workout numbers. Lillibridge also pointed out that undertraining might be a bigger problem if those athletes don't stay committed.
Post-Draft Free Time is a Thing of the Past
That free time, Lillibridge pointed out to me, used to be on the team's plate.
For years, the schedule dictated that players get drafted (or signed post-draft) and go to rookie minicamps. Then, a "dead period" of a few weeks before training camp would allow those young players to go back home.
In a cynical view, that time back home for a recently drafted "NFL star" can be problematic. While issues weren't rampant, it's never a good mix to send a newly minted millionaire back to a bunch of people he might have trouble saying no to—especially before he's received his first game check.
So, now the NFL gets players straight through. As King pointed out last year:
The upshot will likely be the elimination of rookie minicamps for many teams. In this age of more and more rookies playing opening day, that's like taking away Spanish 101 and moving right into the second year of it; catch up if you can, rookie. The league will be cutting the number of weeks between the draft and the opening weekend of the season from 19 to 16. It's another way to sacrifice quality to keep the NFL on the front pages longer.
As much as Smith loves having that extra time to train his guys, Lillibridge echoed King's concerns, pointing out this will mean two less weeks of learning, two less weeks of one-on-one development. Along those lines, the players with more acquired skill might get a bump over those rawer prospects with better physical tools.
Still, let's not throw the baby out with the bath water quite yet. It's possible to take a look at the potential impacts, but the NFL is not about to fundamentally change because of a few weeks shifted around.
It's important to remember that the league has never and will never view itself as a finished and perfect product. Changes to processes around the game are just part of improving the game we love and expanding it into the power it has become and will continue to be.