TODAY'S PAPER
Good Afternoon
Good Afternoon
SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

The hurdles are not virtual for players, agents

Sports agent Drew Rosenhaus on the field prior

Sports agent Drew Rosenhaus on the field prior to an NFL football game between the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions, Monday, Oct. 14, 2019 in Green Bay, Wis. Green Bay won 23-22. Credit: AP/Aaron M. Sprecher

Drew Rosenhaus was on his way to Miami International Airport late in the afternoon on March 12, about to fly to Detroit for the University of Michigan’s pro day, when he got word that the event had been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. He turned around and returned to his Miami Beach residence.

He hasn’t been on the road since.

“This is my 32nd year as an agent, and I usually travel three, four days of the week, every week,” Rosenhaus told Newsday from his home. “I’ve discontinued that. I usually get together with at least one or two clients on a daily basis, and I’m not doing that right now. I’m accustomed to going to pro days and owners meetings this time of year, going to meet with teams and going to recruiting meetings in college, and all of that is now taking place over the phone.”

It has been a life-changing transformation for everyone impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic. But with the NFL still operating at a crucial time in the offseason, player agents who normally spend countless days on the road meeting with clients and teams must find different ways of doing business. They now must  help their draft-eligible players prepare for one of the biggest moments of their lives without the benefit of in-person interactions. The only face time they get with their players is FaceTime, along with other interactive services.

“It’s different than any other year we’ve had, and a big part of that is there aren’t the regular team visits and workouts that the players have before the draft,” prominent agent Tom Condon, whose agency CAA represents presumptive No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow, told Newsday. “The players are still excited about their potential entry into the National Football League, and the families, too. So we’re doing the best we can under different and novel circumstances. Young people are optimistic and believe they’ll get through this, and it will pass at some point, and they’re still excited and looking forward to hearing where they’ll go.”

Condon has long been one of the leading voices among the agent community. He was an offensive lineman for the Chiefs and Patriots, served as president of the NFL Players Association from 1984-86 and now represents many of the league’s top players. Condon's clients include Drew Brees, J.J. Watt, Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan, and he represented Peyton and Eli Manning during their careers.

But he has never been through a situation like this before and isn’t quite sure how or when the league can resume normal operations.

“If things stay like they are now, then there’s no chance of that occurring,” he said. “But we’re at the beginning of April, and we’re talking about a season that will really get going sometime in August [with training camp]. It all depends on what goes on here in the next several months.”

Agent Alan Herman of Jericho believes there’s a very real chance the season will be canceled.

“I hate to think it, but I can’t look at this and be optimistic that we’re going to have a season,” he told Newsday. “It would be good if we could, but you’re going to have thousands of people in the stadium when the virus is still alive, and they’ve said the virus could return in the fall. Even if it dissipates in the summer, if it’s expected to come back in the fall, how do you have a season? I hope I’m wrong.”

Rosenhaus believes NFL games will be played this fall.

“I think by the time we get to the season in September, hopefully there has been enough time to put together a system, whether they play the games without fans, whether they have a system of testing everybody on a daily basis to make sure everyone’s healthy, whether they have a system to take teams to a remote location in training camp and sequester them,” he said. “I have to believe the NFL braintrust is discussing various plans, but there’s still enough time to plan a way to have a season.”

NFL executives said Tuesday that they plan to have a full season, although the league’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, told NFL.com’s Judy Battista later in the week that widespread testing will be needed to resume normal operations.

“If one guy gets the virus in training camp, forget it,” Herman said. “They’re going to have to close the whole thing down. The players are sweating, they’re pounding against each other, they’re in classrooms. How do you have all these guys together in close quarters? How do you practice social distancing on a football field?”

In the meantime, the NFL is proceeding with the draft, set for April 23-25. It will be a draft unlike any other, with agents now preparing their players as best they can despite the daunting circumstances.

The biggest issue the incoming rookies face: an inability to meet with and work out for individual teams because all but a handful of pro days and all individual visits have been canceled.

“It’s back to the old days, where there weren’t interviews and personality testing and all that stuff, and if there was, it was very light,” Condon said. “The NFL used to evaluate and draft based on watching the film 90% of the time.”

That may be the case again this year, because most of the information teams now have is college game video, plus Combine workouts and interviews from late February.

“If you’re a good football person, and you’ve been doing it a long time, you can watch the film and see if an offensive tackle has nice feet and long arms and competes and does all those things,” Condon said. “But if you’re trying to decide between two offensive tackles, then you probably want to see which one is brighter, which one runs faster, and which one from a personality standpoint will fit into your locker room. Especially when you’re picking at the top of the draft and the variables are close, you want to be able to get a better idea of that.”

Players at the top of the draft are known entities, and teams deciding on blue-chip talent have the benefits of a much greater base of information. It’s the lesser-known players who don’t have that luxury under the current circumstances.

“Missing out on a pro day can really affect those guys,” Herman said. “The players who miss their pro days were denied the opportunity to show how fast they are, their functional football speed, three-cone drill, 40 times, all those things that are a guide to how quick a player is. They’re clearly at a distinct disadvantage going into the draft, because they’ve prepared at training facilities for their drill work, and unfortunately, they weren’t able to perform. Teams will just look at film, so they’ll have to estimate the players’ speed, which in some cases hurts a player. Some players are faster than their film, but now they can’t tell how fast a player really is.”

Herman was at the Monmouth University pro day on March 12 when one of his clients, running back Pete Guerriero, who led the FCS last season with 1,995 rushing yards, had his workout cut short.  

“Toward the end of the workout, everybody was told to leave,” Herman said. “Some scouts wanted to speak to [Guerriero], but the teams called their scouts and indicated they had to get on a plane or get in a car and drive back home. They were told to leave immediately, so they didn’t get a chance to put [Guerriero] through individual drills.”

Herman now is attempting to make up for the loss of contact by reaching out to teams to discuss Guerriero and his other draft-eligible clients.

“I’ll talk to area scouts, talk to general managers, indicate the players’ strengths and why the teams should spend a little more time on film with these guys,'' he said. "Some teams will accept the information, some teams won’t, so we’ll see what happens.”

Ron Slavin agrees the lack of individual workouts and team visits is a significant obstacle for incoming rookies.

“Their draft stock can go up a lot in the month of April with these visits and one-on-one workouts with coaches,” said Slavin, who represents Boise State offensive tackle Ezra Cleveland  and defensive end Curtis Weaver, along with Baylor wide receiver Denzel Mims and defensive tackle James Lynch. “That’s been the tough part for my guys. I have a really good group of guys who would be helped with the one-on-one attention.”

Mike McCartney has tried to reassure his players who might have misgivings about not being able to visit with teams.

“One of the things that we try to do is give our players confidence that they’ve been evaluated,” the longtime agent said. “I’m not this doom-and-gloom guy who thinks that teams are at a huge disadvantage. There will be the same number of draft picks, the same number of guys signed, and teams that rely on their scouts who do a great job in the fall are going to benefit.”

McCartney does pay particular attention to one of his clients, Ohio State defensive tackle Jashon Cornell, who wasn’t at the Combine and who has recovered from a late-season injury.

“We got him to video some of his workouts, making sure he can post it online so a team can see how he moves and changes directions,” McCartney said. “He’s doing really well, is now 100%, put on 10 pounds of muscle.”

Agents  also are involved in helping players, including clients who already are with teams, find ways to work out. With gyms and other athletic facilities in most states now closed, it can be a daunting challenge.

“With the veterans, it’s finding them places where they can work out, which is pretty much nowhere,” Slavin said. “Guys are trying to build makeshift home gyms. Let me tell you something, besides toilet paper and paper towels, the hardest thing to buy online is workout equipment. It’s tough for these guys to get the right stuff. I know it sounds petty, and I don’t want to make it sound like it’s important because of what’s going on, but it’s definitely a challenge.”

The ongoing free-agency signing period for veteran players has presented other challenges for agents. The league decided to forge ahead with the start of the league year March 18, although players were prohibited from visiting with teams before signing.

“One of the most substantial issues is the mechanics of getting a physical,” Condon said. “Obviously, that is going to require some travel, and the player will be in close proximity to other people.”

The NFL has agreed to allow players to get physicals with doctors near where they live, but in many cases, there has been a delay between the time a player agrees to terms on a new deal and the contract being officially executed after a physical. The idea has been floated that teams can renege on a deal with players who reach agreement on a new contract but aren’t able to sign it before the draft because they haven’t been able to get a physical.

Condon believes teams will not flout that rule.

“I’m not terribly concerned, because I don’t think the NFL is going to allow something that doesn’t have any integrity to it,” he said. “I think that part will work out OK.”

There are other challenges to completing contracts, up to and including getting them signed properly. Case in point: When McCartney completed an extension for Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, he had to get Cousins to physically sign the contract and then get it returned so it could be filed to the league.

“So Kirk and I agreed to the extension on Monday morning [March 16], the new league year is starting on Wednesday at 4 p.m. Eastern, and we have to get our contract in to the league,” McCartney said. “We get it in Wednesday morning, we do our e-signatures.”

Only one problem: The NFL requires an actual signature on each page of the contract. So McCartney, who didn’t have the use of his office because he was working from home, downloaded an app that allowed him to scan the pages of the contract. He got it to Cousins, who then had to sign the pages and go to a nearby business he knew of to scan the contract back.

The offseason remains a busy time for agents, just not in the way they’ve been used to.

“It’s driving me nuts,” said Rosenhaus, who represents top 10 prospect Derrick Brown of Auburn. “I’m a very active guy, I’m used to being productive, and it’s really an unsettling feeling. But look, I don’t have any complaints. My family is healthy, we have everything we need in my house, and I’m not one to complain. And I do get to spend time with my wife and two kids. I’ve spent more time with them in the past three weeks than I have in the past six months, so the family time has been a positive.”

For Rosenhaus and other agents, the focus now turns to the draft. They’re anticipating an exciting, albeit sobering, experience for their clients in the new normal that the pandemic has created.

It’s a time to celebrate a milestone achievement for these young athletes, but they won’t be able to enjoy the moment in the traditional sense. No hugs with commissioner Roger Goodell. No big draft parties because of social distancing.  

“One of my players said, ‘I’m going to get drafted, then going to go to bed,’ ” Slavin said. “No parties, no going out, no big group gatherings. Hug your mama and go to bed.”

New York Sports