The Draft: A Year Inside the NFL’s Search for Talent by Pete Williams
Review by C. Douglas Baker
The Draft: A Year Inside the NFL’s Search for Talent is a detailed look at what players, agents, and NFL teams go through leading up to the annual NFL Draft where teams select college players. The author, Pete Williams, is a journalist writing about “the business of sports” for several publications. Here, he follows several players, agents, the Florida State and University of Virginia football teams, and the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons leading up to the 2005 NFL Draft. It is organized in chronological order from the first contacts the players have with agents and culminates in the 2005 draft. Despite following specific people, the book is a bit dry and impersonal. Following are the highlights of what the book covers.
Williams chooses several players to follow for this book, some first rounders and a few who start with great promise but ultimately flounder in the draft for a variety of reasons. There are three main things that stand out about what players go through leading up to the draft. First is the feeding frenzy with agents jockeying for their attention. The more talented and greater the potential, the more demand there is a player’s time and attention. Agents communicate with them directly when they are allowed (and sometimes when they are not) and often try to woo their parents, girlfriends, and anyone else that they think might have influence on the player’s decision on which agent to go with. Secondly, there is a lot of money involved and many temptations to break NCAA rules. It’s illegal for players to take money or gifts from agents while playing college football but it undoubtedly happens. Third, is that the NFL selection process is a meat market. NFL scouts are watching players, many from high school through college. The best players have agents hanging around them, especially their senior years in college. After their college careers are over they are faced with extensive training for the NFL combine, working out for teams at their schools or at team facilities.
The NFL Combine, where the NFL brings any eligible player that wants to participate, is really the centerpiece of the entire draft. Here players are put through all kinds of drills, timed in the 40 yard dash, interviewed by team representatives, are poked and prodded for physicals, and given an intelligence test called the Wonderlick. Most players go to specialized training facilities paid for by their agents just to do well at the combine to improve their draft status, whereas some locks for the first round skip it fearing a bad performance could drop their draft status.
And then, of course, there is the emotion of draft day of either going in the round you thought you would go in or slipping to later rounds and realizing the amount of money you just lost as a result.
Are the agents greedy sharks looking to make their livelihood off of young millionaire players, or hard working men (there are few women) in a very competitive business doing their best for their clients? Undoubtedly there are unscrupulous agents but for the most part Williams paints them out to be in the later category. They sacrifice their personal life to recruit players and then work to make sure they maximize their potential in the draft and negotiate the best contract possible for them with the team that chooses them. Williams paints the profession as extremely cut throat. As noted above, agents talk extensively with players’ families, spouses, girlfriends and anyone else that they think will help them get an edge in signing a player. Then they must spend their own money for specialized training to get players ready for the NFL Combine or workouts before pro scouts. In the meantime they are constantly worried about other agents poaching their clients after they have invested so many resources on them. Further, since agents get only a 3% commission off contracts, if a player doesn’t maximize his potential they often find themselves in a hole instead of making money. On the flip side, when they have a solid stable of highly paid players, the profession can be very lucrative. It’s an odd profession and one that many look at with a jaundiced eye. They do perform an important service for the players they represent but it is also clearly a profession that makes its money on the backs of the players.
The most important thing for teams in the draft is to pick the most talented players they can in the appropriate round who will fit their team concept and fill needed positions on team. That is all they care about. And they spend a lot of time, money, and effort to study every angle, from raw physical talent, intelligence, and good character. A bad draft can significantly impact the prospects of the team, and a great draft can greatly enhance it. Scouts spend much of their life on the road watching games or watching game film, evaluating every aspect players available for the draft. All the poking, prodding, interviewing, and even background investigations on potential draftees is important as teams stake their future on the success of the players they select for their teams. It comes down to figuring out what combination of physical talent, character, and intelligence will best fit the team.
This book did not focus as much on the schools, but it did have a good deal of coverage of the Florida State Seminoles and their compliance director and Virginia Cavaliers head coach Al Groh. It’s important for schools to facilitate appropriate contact with agents and help players fulfill their potential in the draft. Schools worry about the distractions, and even worse, possible infractions, as players interact with agents. Especially damaging is players taking money or gifts from agents before they are finished their careers, which could cost the team sanctions by the NCAA. It’s a tough job when you mix young immature players and aggressive agents with money to throw around. On the flip side, if a school is seen as helping players improve and make it in the NFL, it helps them recruit talent.
Overall this book is journalistic in its approach relying on extensive interviews and closely following the entire draft process. It is well organized and the chronological structure works well. That said, the writing style is not the most exciting, and it mostly reads like an extensive, in-depth newspaper article at times. Despite focusing on specific individuals and teams, the book often is very matter of fact, and less emotional or personal in its approach. Nevertheless, it does bring out the not so dirty secret of professional sports – it’s about money and lots of it. Avid professional football fans should find this book interesting. Non-football fans would likely find it tedious and boring.
Overall I would recommend this book to NFL fans for the insight it gives into an important aspect of the sport.