T-Minus 84 Days: The World of Combine Training

Thursday February 5th, 2015

PHOENIX — Just 20 miles from the site of the 49th Super Bowl, the next generation of NFL players are training for what has become the league’s most curious initiation ritual. At the EXOS facility in Phoenix, 30 men—all likely to be drafted into the NFL—spend their Saturday in high-intensity bench press sessions, pushing up 225 pounds to mimic the test they'll perform at the upcoming combine.

Rabid shouts, most prominently from Nevada’s Brock Hekking, a pass-rushing prospect with a Brian Bosworth blond mullet, drown out the hip-hop. There are no high fives or embraces after a set well done—this is a desperate competition between relative strangers.

“It makes you want to fight more because you know the guys around you are fighting for the same thing,” says former LSU defensive end Danielle Hunter. “So when it gets down to that last rep, you can’t give up on it.”

The training is comprehensive, including tutoring on nutrition with an emphasis on recovery, but it is the least football-specific work done here. Every year the EXOS Phoenix training center (formerly Athletes Performance) hosts a class of approximately 30 prospects preparing for the league’s underwear Olympics. EXOS coaches estimate 30% come back the next offseason for a lower intensity course that includes more position specifics. For now it’s about 40-yard dashes and agility drills for guys like Arie Kouandjio, an offensive lineman from Alabama who will probably run 40 yards downfield once in a blue moon as a pro.

“The combine is something [NFL evaluators] like to see, so it’s something I’d like to do my best at,” he says. “I’m doing it because they like it. Right after the combine I’m going to focus on getting stronger, more football. But as far as the combine goes this is the best place to prepare.”

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We visited EXOS during Super Bowl week partly out of convenience of the location. But it is also one of the most respected and popular offseason workout facilities in pro football, part of a burgeoning multimillion dollar industry that includes names like IMG, D1 and XPE, with sites all over the country.

Agents say that within the last two years incoming rookies have come to know which workout facility they’d like to attend before they pick their agent. “That was one of the biggest reasons I went with the agent I went with,” says former Texas State linebacker Mike Orakpo.

About half of the class of 30 in Phoenix are EXOS recruits, and the other half come from player referrals and/or agents whom EXOS regularly deals with.

“Our agents play a key role for us because they’ve had good experiences,” says EXOS NFL combine program director Adam Farrand. “The last couple years we’ve been very active in it. I want to educate kids on what’s available, whether that’s through a direct mailer or social media.”

Agents can expect to spend up to $20,000 on behalf of a player for six weeks of a program plus housing in the area. There have been instances of players dumping representation after the combine; most agents now include clauses in their agreements that allow them to recoup losses should a player move on.

“These programs are not a waste of money, but it’s being oversold,” says NFL agent Blake Baratz. “I think a great trainer is a great trainer. He can take you in the back yard and get the most out of you. It doesn’t have to be a fancy gym.

“With the players, it becomes keeping up with the Joneses. The kids start giving demands. I should get this and this other player gets this. They talk about the draft all day long until everyone’s blue in the face. What’s more important is that these guys are staying in shape after the draft to be ready for OTAs.”

EXOS organizers say the program does just that, primarily from an education standpoint, with classroom sessions on how to be a pro.

“The combine is such a different event than these guys are normally preparing for. It’s more like a track meet,” Farrand says. “They’re doing very specific tests. It’s very different than our NFL offseason program. On the education side is where we have the most impact on helping these guys for the rest of their career. The things they need to do to maintenance on their body.”

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EXOS Director of Performance Education Nick Winkelman says that the balance between NFL prep and combine prep has been an internal topic of discussion. EXOS, which has facilities in Arizona, Texas, Florida, San Diego and Carson, Calif., trained 87 players for the combine a year ago, and they offer a discount to players returning during their first NFL offseason.

“We’ve been talking a lot about it lately,” Winkelman says. “When we talk about the rookie process we say ‘The most important step is the one in front of you.’ But you find that in preparing for the combine, you’re still gaining physical skills that translate to the game.”

Some players swear by EXOS’ combine prep and programs like it. Both Odell Beckham Jr. and Demaryius Thomas returned to facilities shortly after the season. Their motive? Recovering “that combine speed.”

* * *

We’ll get to know the NFL-bound younger brother of a three-time Pro Bowler, hear what a Super Bowl-winning coach thinks of Jameis Winston and give a 2014 rookie a draft season do-over. But first, a cautionary tale about NFL publicists.

Sam's Rep He Was

Actually, this guy isn't an NFL publicist, per se. He helps celebrities come out as gay, most notably actress Meredith Baxter and former NBA player John Amaechi. He was part of Michael Sam's inner circle, invited by young agents Cameron Weiss and Joe Barkett to rep Sam in the press. A week after Sam came out to several major media organizations, I reached out to introduce myself. I said I didn't know when Michael would be available, but I'd love to chat with him when the time was right. Here's what I got back from Bragman:

I am the rep for Michael Sam

I am

He would not like to chat with the press

In a suit or in a dress

He would not like them

Here or there

He would not like them

anywhere.

He would not like them

in a house

He would not like them

with a mouse

He would not do them

on a box

He would not do them

with a fox

He would not,

could not,

in a car

You may want him.

You will see.

You may want him

in a tree

He would not, could not in a tree.

Not in a car! You let him be.

A train! A train!

A train! A train!

Could he, would he

on a train?

Not on a train! Not in a tree!

Not in a car! Michael Sam! Let him be!

He would not, could not, in a box.

He could not, would not, with a fox.

He will not do them with a mouse

He will not do them in a house.

He will not do them here or there.

He will not do them anywhere.

Would he, could he, in the dark?

He would not, could not,

in the dark.

Would he, could he,

in the rain?

He would not, could not, in the rain.

Not in the dark. Not on a train,

Not in a car, Not in a tree.

He does not do them, Sam, you see.

Not in a house. Not in a box.

Not with a mouse. Not with a fox.

He will not do them here or there.

He will not do them anywhere!

Could he, would he,

with a goat?

He would not,

could not.

with a goat!

Would he, could he,

on a boat?

He could not, would not, on a boat.

He will not, will not, with a goat.

He will not do them in the rain.

He will not do them on a train.

Not in the dark! Not in a tree!

Not in a car! You let him be!

He does not like them in a box.

He does not like them with a fox.

He will not do them in a house.

He will not do them with a mouse.

He will not do them here or there.

He will not do them ANYWHERE!

* With apologies to Dr. Seuss

HOWARD BRAGMAN

Vice Chairman, Reputation .com

Chairman, Fifteen Minutes Public Relations

I was so... confused. I'd never met this guy, and here he is sending me a Dr. Seuss-inspired rejection letter. And on behalf of Sam, who is doing and saying everything he can to be taken more seriously. (Sidebar: How long did it take this guy to write this? Or is it a stock response? And which scenario would be more strange? I just don't have the answers.)

Sam and Bragman eventually parted ways, which you might have guessed if you saw their heated exchange during Oprah's documentary on Sam. Now a free agent, Sam is working out in Texas and is engaged to boyfriend Vito Cammisano. Here's hoping that was the last we'll hear from Bragman, but not from his wall-storming former client.

Draft Season Do-Overs

Nam Y. Huh/AP Nam Y. Huh/AP

Every week, we'll ask a current NFL player what he would have done differently in the time between his final collegiate game and the day he was drafted...

Brock Vereen, Safety, Chicago Bears (2014 draft, round 4, pick 131): “I would spend more time taking care of my body. Not nutrition, because whoever you’re training with will definitely make sure that you’re eating right. But things like body recovery and flexibility. You don’t realize it during the season but really you’re playing two back-to-back seasons with no break in between since you roll right from your final college season into training, then into your first NFL season. You definitely feel the wear and tear around Week 10.”

Better Know a Prospect

You know Jameis and Marcus, Amari and Melvin. Every week in this space, we'll introduce you to a lesser-known prospect of interest with whom you should become familiar...

Mike Orakpo, Linebacker, Texas State

Courtesy Texas State Courtesy Texas State Athletics

Coincidentally, our first prospect turns 24 today, making him the oldest potential rookie training at the EXOS facility in Phoenix. Mike Orakpo, younger brother of former Washington first-round pick and three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Orakpo, took an inconceivably rocky path to the draft. He split five years between Colorado State, Baylor and Texas State. He transferred from CSU after being arrested and dismissed from the team in April 2012 for his role in what was described as a “beating” of several CSU students.

“I have one of my former teammates training with me here,” Orakpo said. “We talk about it from time to time. It’s my journey. It was my experience, and I can’t erase any of it. I had a good time there. I don’t have any ill will toward Colorado State. I had to move on.”

He became devoutly religious and, after a brief stop in Waco, eventually landed at Texas State. He made an immediate impact in the weight room (a school-record 500 pounds on the incline bench) and became a starter at middle linebacker with 4.5 speed, sideline-to-sideline range and unique stopping ability between the tackles. He entered his fifth and final season on the Butkus Award preseason watch list, but tore his ACL and MCL against Navy in the season's second game.

“Coming into my senior year I had a good first game, and then second game, second series against Navy, boom, [my] whole season’s gone,” he says. “I’m a football geek, so it was tough not being able to be with my teammates. But I knew my leadership was still needed, so I needed to pick my head up and lead from the sideline.”

Orakpo has more played more football than most 30-year-old pros. He started playing tackle as an 8-year-old in Houston, actually before his older brother strapped on shoulder pads. (Brian, five years older, didn't start playing until high school.) Mike played in 24 games at CSU and a full season at Texas State before he was a senior. He projects as a late-round pick or a UDFA and hopes to work out for teams at a date closer to the draft when he’s closer to full health.

“I’m not 100% healthy yet, but I’m still getting valuable technique down. I’m a month ahead of schedule and still have time.”

Quote of the Week

“His agents will get him to a professional interview coach who will instruct him how to dress, act, sit and talk to the teams. He’ll learn some mantra about learning from his mistakes or how he has matured and is ready for the next step.”

—Brian Billick, the former Super Bowl-winning coach of the Ravens, sizing up Jameis Winston to the New York Times.

Stat of the Week

With National Signing Day having come and gone Wednesday, NFL.com offered a revealing look at the longterm accuracy of the prep ratings system. Of the 288 recruits designated five-star prospects by Rivals.com between 2002-2011, 57.3% went undrafted in the NFL, and only one of 26 five-stars from the class of 2011, LSU OT La'el Collins, is considered a potential first-round pick in the upcoming draft four years later.

Scorching Hot Take of the Week

The runner-up…

 

 

And the winner…

 

Adieu Haiku: Draft Edition

Haikus are wack.


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