TOLLAND, Conn. — On March 31, the NFL draft’s traveling circus descended upon Tallahassee as Jameis Winston and a dozen others worked out at Florida State’s pro day. An army of clipboard-and-stopwatch-toting NFL executives, including five head coaches, lined FSU’s practice facility three rows deep, rubbing elbows with dozens of camera crews, countless reporters and a cadre of cheering fans. ESPNU and NFL Network streamed the affair. Winston dazzled, captivating the football world during a 55-minute, 102-pass demonstration.
Simultaneously, 1,200 miles north in a sleepy central Connecticut suburb, another pro day occurred. The prospects: two players from Division III Wesleyan, a safety from FCS school Sacred Heart, a Canadian running back from Yale, and Mike Flacco, the 28-year-old brother of Joe, who played five years of minor league baseball before toiling on the Jaguars’ practice squad last year. This workout, too, occurred in an artificial turf-carpeted indoor facility. But these prospects shared the space with a youth lacrosse practice and power-walking soccer moms who, on more than one occasion, strutted dangerously close to the vertical jump test.
Despite the seemingly hodgepodge roster, representatives from all but three NFL teams showed up. There are two reasons for this. The first: strategically, it began just after the completion of the University of Connecticut’s pro day in Storrs, 15 minutes away, where intriguing cornerback prospect Byron Jones worked out. The other, equally important, explanation: This showcase was organized by Joe Linta, a talent evaluator who has earned the unquestioned trust of teams around the league. He is also an agent.
“If you get a guy Joe vouches for, you know he’s legitimate,” says Vikings general manager Rick Spielman. “Every year, Joe gives us his list of guys. We make sure we check all of them out.”
While draft hoopla usually centers around Winston and the other first and second rounders poised for insta-stardom, Linta represents a subculture that receives infinitely less attention. He is chief advocate for the NFL draft’s marginalia—players whose names will be called on day three, or maybe not at all.
Though he has represented more than 100 players over his 22 years as an agent, negotiated the largest contract in NFL history (Joe Flacco’s six-year, $120.6 million deal) and has three current starting quarterbacks among his clientele (Flacco, Zach Mettenberger and Brian Hoyer), Linta actively seeks out players snubbed by NFL scouting services who sometimes don’t make it through training camp. Of Linta’s current crop of 16 prospects, most are projected to be taken in the fourth round or lower and about half won’t be drafted.
“For me,” Linta says, “it’s like finding buried treasure.”
The fictional Jerry McGuire (or the real-life Drew Rosenhaus) might be the archetype of the sports agent, but the 55-year-old Linta isn’t a smooth-talker with a glossy office and an abundance of flashy promises. Rather, he’s a former Yale defensive tackle who moonlights as a high school football coach in Connecticut. He has a gruff voice, little tolerance for small talk and is known to drive budget rental cars. Five separate clients, when asked why they signed with Linta, cited a variation of this response: He’s a guy you’d want to have a beer with.
“You know he’s going to be honest and work as hard as he can for his guys,” says Steve Flacco, Joe (and Mike’s) father. “And nobody who has more respect among pure football guys.”
Of the approximately 800 NFLPA-certified agents, few command the attention of NFL front offices—or operate in unconventional ways—like Linta.
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For a window into how Linta cultivates his client roster, just ask him where he was two days before the 2013 NFL scouting combine. He’ll tell you about his near-death experience in a blinding ice storm, how he clutched the wheel of his rental minivan, slogging 20 miles per hour on I-70 to avoid wriggling trucks, of how he thought about his wife and children because he had zero visibility though his windshield and didn’t think he would make it through the trip alive.
The trip, by the way, was to check out some linebacker from Southern Illinois.
A few days earlier, an SIU coach had told Linta about Jayson DiManche, who already had an agent but wasn’t getting the interest he thought he deserved. The son of Haitian immigrants, DiManche suffered seizures growing up; in order to avoid football’s inherent violence, he spent much of his childhood playing soccer and participating in gymnastics. He got turned onto football in high school, though by his senior year he only had two and a half scholarship offers. He went on to garner some accolades for the Salukis in the mighty Missouri Valley Conference, but was he a legitimate NFL prospect? Hardly anyone thought so.
Linta, as he always does, watched the film. And soon enough he found himself plotting out a four-hour drive from Indianapolis to Carbondale, Ill. to work DiManche out. “I had to see this kid in person,” he says. “Somehow he fell through the cracks, but there was something special.”
Barely an hour after he hit the road, snow and ice began whirling. DiManche, meanwhile, sat alone on the mostly deserted campus, upset the workout would be cancelled. “Like my hopes and dreams aren’t going to happen,” DiManche recalls. “Then Linta calls. ‘Hey man, I’m pulling up now.’ ”
DiManche, feeling guilty about Linta’s treacherous travel, didn’t even warm up. Linta asked to see DiManche’s broad jump and the 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker leapt 10 feet, 10 inches. If he were invited to the combine, that would have ranked third best among linebackers.
Then a vertical jump: first try, 39 inches (would have been tied for second).
His 40-yard-dash, albeit hand-timed, had a 1.51 split (which would have ranked first).
Then Linta put DiManche through drills. He observed the way DiManche flipped his hips and exploded off the edge, two telling signs of an NFL-caliber athlete.
“Get in position,” instructed Linta, who spent nine years as an Ivy League assistant. Once DiManche was in his stance, the agent pushed and prodded, trying to knock him over.
“Catch these footballs with one hand,” Linta instructed as he fed DiManche passes.
“Honestly I had never done some of those drills before,” DiManche says, with a laugh. “Like one handed catches for a linebacker? Really? But I could tell right away his football knowledge was extremely high.”
The two grabbed burgers at a local diner and chatted football, family and faith. Linta spent the night in a motel, then returned to Indianapolis unscathed. A week later, he was officially DiManche’s agent. Six months later, DiManche became a household name when, in one of the final episodes of HBO’s Hard Knocks, the undrafted free agent received a call from Bengals coach Marvin Lewis saying he had made the 53-man roster. After a moment of bare bliss, cameras showed DiManche dialing “Mommy” on his phone. She shrieks.
A large reason DiManche landed with the Bengals: their linebackers coach (and now defensive coordinator) Paul Guenther is longtime friends with Linta, trusted his evaluation and brought DiManche in for a pre-draft visit.
“Joe isn’t the guy who will butter you up,” DiManche says. “He’s the guy who says, ‘I believe in you, and if you continue to work hard I know I can get you the opportunities you deserve.’ For someone like me, that’s really all you can ask for.’ ”
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It seems odd that the man who earned a cut of the NFL’s richest contract seeks out pet projects of scouting service castoffs—but, in truth, “odd” describes most of his clients. Flacco didn’t generate much interest during his collegiate career at Pittsburgh and then Delaware. Linta was the first agent to show up.
During the run up to the 2008 draft, others tacked on in the recruiting process. Rosenhaus, for example, tried swaying Flacco by having fellow New Jersey native Greg Olsen, the then-Bears tight end selected in the first round a year earlier, call on his behalf. “A lot of agents came on late, but Joe was the only one who actually showed up,” Steve Flacco says. “He was true to us the whole time.”
After negotiating Flacco’s contract, Linta gained notoriety. For the first time in his life, he became a headline (thanks to comments he said, and later tempered, that he had “never seen a dumber move” than the Ravens not locking up Flacco in 2012). Linta also began fielding inquiries from higher profile college players. “Everyone began knowing me as the quarterback guy,” he says. “But really, I’m the same idiot I was before.”
Linta lives comfortably in Branford, Connecticut, and insists that at this point in his career it’s not about the money. If it were, he wouldn’t spend 20 hours a week in the fall coaching a high school football team. He’d spend that time on the road, recruiting clients.
He goes on roughly 25 recruiting trips a year, sometimes to schools geographically clustered, other times to locations as remote as Carbondale. In identifying players, Linta doesn’t throw darts at rosters. Each client is a referral or has some connection.
For example, one of Linta’s highest-regarded picks this year is Tyler Varga, a 5-foot-11, 224-pound running back who grew up 100 miles west of Toronto. Incredibly muscular with massive hands (his parents were professional body builders), Varga projects as a fourth-to sixth-rounder. Varga attended Yale, Linta’s alma mater, an obvious connection.
Gordon Hill, a 5-foot-11, 212-pound strong safety (or undersized outside linebacker), is another Linta favorite this year. He fits the Linta credo: Not invited to the combine, not thought much of by anybody—yet.
Hill’s recruitment was about as organic as it comes. One of Linta’s former players at Hamden Hall Country Day School earned a scholarship at Sacred Heart. When Linta made the 30-mile drive to SHU’s Fairfield, Conn. campus, a coach pointed out Hill. “I kind of fell in love with him,” Linta gushes. “I went to three or four of his games, met him each time. At this point, I pretty much have everything but a Sacred Heart foam finger.”
Spielman met Linta 20 years ago when Spielman was a Detroit Lions scout. The agent was recommending Southern Connecticut State offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi, who went on to play nine NFL seasons and was a starter on three Patriots Super Bowl teams.
“I will have two scouts check the guys on [Linta's] list every year,” Spielman says. “I won’t tell you which guys we have this year, but there are some on his list this year we have targeted.”
Linta, who receives about 40 emails a month from players at all levels asking for representation, is choosy. He first watches film to ensure the player has the skills to make it (“I don't really care if McDonald's wants to do a football commercial with my guy,” he says. “All I care is, ‘How is he gonna block the defensive tackle on the run play?’ ”). Then meets with them to ensure they’re up to his character requirements.
The inexact science of scouting services—two major companies doing “initial grades,” which drive much of the conversation on a player through their college career and up to the combine—has played to Linta’s advantage. He loves finding players who have fallen through the cracks, and has made a living identifying and promoting players nobody wanted. Over the past few years, about half of Linta’s clients who weren’t invited to the combine have ended up on NFL rosters.
“He’s the guy who stands in your corner when nobody else will,” says one of those clients, James Davidson. This time last year Davidson, a defensive lineman from UTEP, was, as Linta says, “left for dead.” But the agent liked the film and went to work. He sent roughly 25 emails to teams, and placed maybe 25 phone calls, politicking for his client.
Davidson spent most of 2014 on the Giants’ practice squad. He was promoted to the active roster in December.
“He does film work with guys and then works them out before he’ll put his stamp of approval on them,” Spielman says. “The only guys he wants are the guys who are passionate about football. Joe finds guys who love football.”
“These guys require more work than a high pick from a big-name school,” Linta explains. “So you have to truly believe in the kid, you have to like the kid, and you have to feel invested in him, like he’s part of your family. You don’t make nearly as much money on these kids as you do the higher picks, but the fulfillment is much more significant.”
After a long pause, he adds: “And I’m very arrogant, and I like to be right.”
Photo credits: Frederick Breedon/Getty Images; Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire; Fred Vuich/SI/The MMQB; Courtesy Sacred Heart Athletics; Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire; David Kohl/AP; Jeff Fusco/Getty Images
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