By Rob Rang, Senior Analyst, NFLDraftScout.com
TEMPE, Ariz. -- With millions of dollars at stake over tenths of a second in a 40-yard dash or eighths of an inch in a vertical leap, pre-draft training has exploded into a highly competitive -- and big-money -- industry the past decade.
The training landscape began a seismic shift when former Boston College defensive end Mike Mamula worked with strength and conditioning coach Jerry Palmieri (now the Giants' strength and conditioning coach) in 1995, and parlayed eye-popping workouts at the Combine into the seventh overall pick.
If a classic 'tweener like Mamula could turn a dominant workout into millions, what kind of numbers would an elite athlete generate if similarly prepared?
Soon facilities like Athletes Performance Institute, the Michael Johnson Performance Center and IMG Performance Institute popped up around the country, and are now every bit as integral to the pre-draft landscape as the Senior Bowl and the East-West Shrine Game.
Agents are willing to foot the bill to help their clients shave fractions of a second off their dash times, so I accepted an invitation to visit the API facilities in Arizona to see first-hand how several top prospects are honing their skills in advance of next week's Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
I watched as Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith eased himself into the most important stance he has learned in his life. It isn't the two-point stance he played throughout much of his career in the Big 12. It isn't the three-point stance NFL teams want to know if he can effectively run block out of. Instead, it is the stance from which Smith plans to run the 40-yard yard dash in front of scouts at the Combine.
He takes his time. He's balanced, with just enough weight on his hand stretched across the tape meant to mark the official starting point. His back is arched. His legs are staggered. His mind is focused on the first explosive steps he needs to make in the first 10 yards. Scouts are interested in his 40 time, but it's the burst he shows in the first 10 yards that could push him to the top of this year's talented tackle class.
Smith elected to go directly to Athletes Performance following his senior season rather than attending the Senior Bowl.
"When I started playing, I thought to myself, whatever year I came out, I wanted to be the highest-rated offensive tackle. I feel that way now," Smith said.
He's one of 23 players Mark Verstegen and his staff at API are training for this year's draft. Wake Forest outside linebacker Aaron Curry, Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo and Illinois cornerback Vontae Davis - all likely first-round picks - are also here. As is Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, who represents API's best chance at continuing its three-year streak of producing the No. 1 overall pick.
There's no time to compare All-American accolades or peer at mock drafts with the internationally recognized Verstegen and his crew of trainers, performance specialists, nutritionists and media coaches on hand - especially considering the emphases on maximizing each moment to give the players the "Perfect Day."
The "Perfect Day" is the expression Verstegen uses to describe what the athletes at API go through. Every athlete that enters the facility is taught to focus on his or her core values, "mind-set, nutrition, movement, recovery." While the focus is on making the individual player better, the camaraderie and sense of team throughout API is everywhere.
While future NFL stars are working on explosive starts, Major League Baseball players Dustin Pedroia (Red Sox) and Andre Either (Dodgers) are among those perfecting their swings.
Players arrive Monday morning, hydrate and are served an individualized breakfast. Each meal is prepared by a culinary staff tailoring the type and serving portions of food based on the recommendations of the nutritionalists.
"It is quite individualized," Verstegen said. "One player may get 3.5 ounces of salmon, whereas another gets six ounces of salmon, for example."
After breakfast, the players get some time to relax and digest before beginning their workouts. This begins the supplementation process that will continue throughout the day. Power shakes and vitamins are provided as pre-workout, during-workout and post-workout supplements and are placed in cups with players' names on them.
Verstegen serves as the Director of Performance for the NFL Players Association and helped create and implement the NFL's policies on player safety and welfare. He might know the NFL's rules better than team doctors, so there's no concern about players ingesting illegal or harmful supplements.
After the morning workout, players are moved through a cold tub (50-55 degrees) and into a hot tub (102-104 degrees) to facilitate rehabilitation of the muscles. They then shower, eat lunch, digest and start the entire process over again in the afternoon. On off-days, when their muscles are allowed to relax, massages and the mental preparation of the Combine -- media coaching, test preparation and video breakdowns of their running and leaping -- is emphasized.
The process, with only minor differences, is being played out at facilities across the country. At Michael Johnson's Performance Center in McKinney, Texas, for example, Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree and Georgia running back Knowshon Moreno are among those hoping to improve their draft status with an explosive 40 time.
It isn't difficult to understand why Crabtree and Moreno chose to work out with Johnson, holder of 13 Olympic and World gold medals in track and field. Johnson is quick to point out, however, that his facility offers much more than his own reputation.
"Players at this level aren't going to risk their own futures based on my reputation," he said. "They won't take it that lightly. They're looking at who is getting the results."
In his first year of preparing collegiate athletes for the Combine in 2001, Johnson pupils LaDainian Tomlinson (4.46 according to NFLDraftScout.com records), Freddie Mitchell (4.46) and Will Allen (4.4) all boosted their draft stock with excellent 40 times. Last year, his first at his new facility, Johnson trained former Arkansas running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, who impressed scouts with their interviews at the Combine in addition to their on-field work.
"A lot of people know how to run," Crabtree said. "And a lot of people are fast, but it all comes back to that mental side, and what you keep in your head every day, and what you take in and what you take out."
"I do feel faster. Things like the 40 and some of the drills, it's all about technique, and why not learn from the best," Moreno said. "And I do feel a lot faster ... from the start of the season, even from when I first got here. You can really see things progressing."
Progressing is exactly what Verstegen and Johnson anticipate in terms of pre-Combine preparation on and off the field. Johnson sees more training facilities breaking down athletes' moves frame by frame on film, as he does, and teaching players to run step by step.
"I've never focused on what a guy's 40 time was when the came into camp," he said. "We're trying to teach the players better technique. We're looking at them bio-mechanically. Looking under the hood, so to speak, so as to teach them the better hip and ankle flexibility so that they'll perform when the lights are brightest at the Combine, but also on the football field."
Even what a player wears is carefully planned.
Verstegen is partnered with adidas, which has developed TECHFIT PowerWEB athletic apparel. Designed in tops and bottoms that can be worn under the uniforms for any sport, the TECHFIT gear is compression-based and features strategically placed powerbands that absorb the energy muscles create to produce a slingshot affect as the athlete moves, increasing speed, power and vertical leap, all while reducing muscle fatigue.
The intriguing claims made by adidas -- that the TECHFIT gear actually produces a 1.1 percent increase in speed, 5.3 percent increase in power and 4.0 percent increase in vertical jump -- has been independently confirmed by the University of Calgary - Human Performance Lab. API's 23 NFL prospects this year are preparing to wear it for the biggest workouts of their lives.
Said Penn State center A.Q. Shipley, "The compression fabric is more aerodynamic, so you feel faster. The powerbands stabilize the muscles around your back and thighs, improving your posture, and giving you an extra degree of power."
API's athletes won't be the only short-term residents of the greater Phoenix area testing the material. Many of the NBA stars competing throughout All-Star weekend will also be wearing the TECHFIT gear.
Now just imagine if Mike Mamula had access to that kind of technology.
Photos by Rob Rang, click to view full size
Penn State center A.Q. Shipley practicing his start for the forty yard dash.
Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith posing.
Wake Forest outside linebacker Aaron Curry showing off his vertical jump.
Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo and Curry preparing to show their explosiveness.
Athletes Performance main workout area.
Front of adidas tech fit top and bottom.
Back of adidas tech fit top and bottom.
Linemen performing drills... L to R - Michigan DT Terrance Taylor, Florida OT Phil Trautwein, Arizona OT Eben Britton, Penn State C A.Q. Shipley, Texas DT Roy Miller, and Baylor OT Jason Smith.