SOMEWHERE IN AMERICA — Prospect X runs over the four bags lying on the field, stepping lightly to show off his footwork. He trips on the last bag as he turns to run upfield, an uncharacteristic miscue. He shakes his head and wipes a layer of sweat off his brow as he walks back to the first bag to restart. “I can tell you’re nervous,” barks one of the two NFL offensive line coaches running this private workout. “That’s normal, but it’s just us hanging out. Take a deep breath.”
It’s a little after 9 a.m. on a sunny April morning, and aside from the chirping birds there are only five souls—two coaches, a scout, a reporter and PROSPECT X—at this tiny college stadium. One side of the now-empty bleachers is built into a steep hillside and the trees and scraggly bushes lean into the stadium, giving it the feel of a protected oasis. But X isn’t experiencing that sense of calm today. As a small-school product who wasn’t invited to an all-star game or the combine, he knows he has more to prove than the guys from the big programs, and he hasn’t let himself relax for one moment during the draft process. Especially not now, when the scout has an iPad trained on him, taking video to bring back to his team—a team that X happens to really like, and one he thinks he’s made a good impression on.
The drills continue. X runs a pulling guard drill over and over again until his face is bright red. “Haul ass!” the coach yells. “I want to bring this back to [my head coach] and say, This kid can move!”
The scout, meanwhile, politely declines the other coach’s offer to hold the bags while X punches it from a down-on-one-knee stance. He’s seen the damage X can do on the field. “If he’s anything like he is in his tape, I’m f---ed,” the scout says. “I don’t need to experience that.”
The MMQB spent the past few months searching for the most overlooked prospect in the 2019 NFL draft. After surveying evaluators, watching tape and reading the tealeaves, we landed on a player who we believe is the draft’s best-kept secret. We will reveal his name in a follow-up after draft weekend, but for now—for the sake of interested NFL teams—we will protect his identity as best we can. For now, he is simply “Prospect X.”
X was a late bloomer at a tiny high school who didn’t get any offers from major programs. He was a local recruit for his college, becoming a three-year starter on the offensive line and a team captain as a senior. And he assembled a nasty senior season highlight reel. But his performance wasn’t properly appreciated—he was not invited to a single all-star game or the NFL scouting combine.
“He’s the best prospect I’ve ever had,” his head coach says. “And I’ve had a Senior Bowl guy, I’ve had a guy drafted.”
X was expecting at least an invite to one of the smaller all-star games, but when a teammate received one and he still had nothing, he knew it was never coming. “Scouts who have pull can’t see talent like his,” says one scout who works for a team that brought X in for a pre-draft visit. “He doesn’t get it done in an athletic way. He wins with power and physicality and he is very intelligent in how he plays.”
X believes he can play in the NFL, and two teams have flat out told him they want to draft him, but he still feels like he’s on the cusp of legitimacy. He was on the list of reserve offensive lineman for the Senior Bowl who would get the call if someone got hurt. No one did. He called the scouting combine staff several times to check his status, and on the day before the deadline, they told him, “We’re still figuring it out.” He never heard back. So X watched the offensive line combine workouts from his couch. He was glued to the TV, and when he saw their 40 times his frustration turned into excitement. He’d been training a faster 40 time than any of the combine offensive linemen.
X worked out at two different pro days, a bigger school nearby and his own. After seeing the results of X’s first pro day, one scout gave this review, “He blew it up.” That scout gave him a fifth-round grade in his report for his team. Another scout in attendance, who had previously told X that his team wasn’t interested in drafting him but wanted to sign him as a priority free agent, wasn’t pleased with the attention X was attracting from other teams after his workout. He approached X’s significant other and said, Man, I was hoping he would run a little slower today.
He was so popular at his second pro day that he had dinner with an NFC North team the night before, met with an NFC West team before the workout started and booked the rest of the day with: lunch with an AFC North team and coffee with another NFC West team. And when he returned from his last scheduled visit last week, the same NFC West team sent a coach to have dinner with him in his college town.
As he’s become more and more in-demand, X hasn’t forgotten that he still has doubters. He’s a small-town guy and, at least until this winter, his world was pretty small. He’d only taken two flights in his life before this month, and now he’s taken seven flights in two weeks to seven cities he’d never seen before. He lives two hours from the closest airport, so his significant other has to take time off work to drive him to and from the airport for each visit. She also keeps him organized with a big wall calendar and a color-coded planner where she keeps track of his flights. She’s got all his visit itineraries saved to her phone, ready to pull up at a moment’s notice, like when he can’t remember a team employee’s name. It seems like every day she’s adding something new to the calendar. “I love planning,” she says. “A month from now, we could be anywhere, which is just really killing me.”
X has learned to think about every move he makes in this well-choreographed and strategic pre-draft process. When choosing what he’d workout in this morning, X opted for a gray t-shirt instead of black, so that the coaches can see his sweat through his shirt and know he is working hard. And after each top-30 visit, X will mail a signed letter to the general manager of the team, a follow-up note to thank him for the opportunity. As part of the quest for information, teams ask prospects what other teams they have visited. X has been coached by his agent to keep all upcoming visits confidential, unless he knows the team asking him already knows about a certain visit. There's one team X visited that he and his agent won't even discuss off the record, per the team's request. On one top-30 visit with an NFC North team, the general manager pushed X further, “You know I can look this up, right? I know everything.” Still, X kept quiet.
On each visit, X tries to talk to as many people on staff as he can, everyone from coaches to personnel down to the team’s trainers. “You want to show that you're willing to talk to anybody,” he says. On one visit, the team held a dinner in their cafeteria for all of the prospects visiting that day. X noticed the club’s offensive line coach sitting at a table with a few other offensive line prospects. There was one open seat right next to the coach. “I darted straight to it,” he says.
X has seven pre-draft visits scheduled, and at the time of this workout, he’s already been on three—including one to the team of the scout and coach from that private workout. Because he takes this process so seriously, he dresses up in a black suit, white shirt and tie, chosen to coordinate in the team’s color, to each visit. He now has a drawer in his bedroom dresser stuffed with colorful ties. One assistant general manager noticed his red tie and commented on it as soon as he walked into the room.
X wears the same suit for each visit, and because he’s a big guy on a job interview, there’s a fair amount of nervous sweating. “The dry cleaner knows me now,” X says.
“When he came back from the two visits right after another, whew, that was bad,” says his significant other.
On the day before his first team visit, X came down with a bad stomach bug. He tried to sleep and drink as much Gatorade as humanly possible until he had to get up to leave for his evening flight. He took nausea medicine on the plane and somehow soldiered through the day-and-a-half visit, forcing himself to eat so he didn’t lose too many precious pounds. Many of these visits include a meal together with prospects and staff, and X says for offensive linemen, team personnel closely watch what the guys eat. There’s a certain pressure to prove he can eat enough to maintain his weight. On one visit he ate steak, salmon and chicken in one sitting.
On his second visit, the day after his first, he couldn’t make himself eat any more, and he weighed in at 300 lbs, well under his playing weight, and not good for an offensive lineman. He was worried, but the team’s medical staff assured him that decision-makers would not see that number, it was just measured as part of his routine physical.
On that day in April, the workout is followed by a lengthy meeting with one of the coaches. Finally, around 2 p.m., X sits down for lunch with his significant other at their favorite burger and wings spot in town. He’s starving. He pulls out his phone, which he hasn’t checked for a few hours. “Oh shoot!”
He’s missed two calls from an AFC East team, a text from an NFC East team, and a text from an assistant coach from a team that he’s already visited, saying he enjoyed talking with him and they’ll see how the draft goes.
“I cannot believe he texted me,” X says. “How do I reply where I sound diplomatic but laid-back?”
For X, crafting the perfect reply to a text is almost as hard as going through a private workout. His significant other leans over his phone to scan the text. She’s much better at this part of the pre-draft process. “Start off by saying how training is going,” she says. “Or you could say, I enjoyed our talk, great meeting you?”
X nods and types in silence. His burger and tots are getting cold while he agonizes over the most appropriate punctuation. He settles on a short and direct four-sentence text, with every sentence ending in a subdued period.
“You can’t send exclamation points with this guy,” his significant other says. “But if [X] sent me a text like that, I’d be like, Oh he’s mad at me, because there are no exclamation points.”
X really liked this assistant coach and he wonders if the coach is texting every player who visited or just him? And the part about seeing how the draft goes… “Is he being secretive or is he breaking up with you?” his significant other asks. X has doubled the contacts in his phone during this pre-draft process, and makes sure to save each new contact with their title and team together in the name slot to make sure he doesn’t get any scout or coach or general manager confused.
He’s feeling confident enough in his chances in being drafted that he recently decided to have a draft party with family and friends on the Saturday of the draft, the final day, rounds four through seven. He’d be the 15th player in the history of his school to be drafted.
His agent thinks he could go as high as the fourth round. ESPN reached out to his college to get video of him for their draft coverage. There’s one team in the mix with a bad need for offensive linemen and multiple sixth-round picks. If X had to make a bet, he thinks that’s where he’ll end up.
A scout who works for a team that brought him in for a visit is pretty certain X will be drafted. “Hopefully it’s us,” he says. “I’ve already convinced everyone that he can help us.”
After lunch, X heads back to his apartment just off campus. He and his significant other sit next to each other on the couch and play with his dog. He has five more days until his next visit and he finally starts to unwind. But then his phone rings. It’s his agent on the other end.
“When would they want me to come out there?” X says. “Oh, tomorrow? O.K. It’s kind of late to schedule this, but I can’t turn down a visit.”
Before he’s even hung up the phone, his significant other has already pulled out her pen and her color-coded planner. That night, they’ll search three different stores—J.C. Penney, Macy’s, and finally, a big & tall store—before they find the green tie they’re searching for.
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