Predraft camps have become big business

During the 1998 fiscal year, prominent NFL player agent Pat Dye Jr. spent zilch in predraft training costs. Seven years later, the investment for Dye to prepare his draft prospect clientele for this week's combine workouts and subsequent campus auditions in front of NFL scouts will exceed $50,000.

In a business that is all about pumping up a player's draft value, about maximizing image in the well-trained eyes of NFL evaluators, preparation costs clearly represent the biggest inflationary item on every agent's ledger sheet.

Such expenditures have, indeed, escalated from nada to notable in a dizzyingly short amount of time.

"It's gone from being a zero-line item to a significant investment," said the Atlanta-based Dye, the son of legendary Auburn coach Pat Dye Sr. "Given my background, and having been around the game most of my life, I was a guy who believed that the best place for your clients to train before the combine and the draft was right on campus. But I am a willing investor now, because I do think there is a benefit to it, and I've seen the pluses. So, yes, I've become a convert."

Which makes Dye and most other high-profile player representatives like him zealous disciples in a burgeoning congregation.

Just a few years ago, preparing prospects for their NFL job auditions was essentially little more than a niche endeavor. There were a few trainers who specialized in the craft -- like Chip Smith of Atlanta, Tom Shaw from New Orleans, and the staff at the Bradenton, Fla.-based complex owned and operated by IMG -- and cornered the market. But the onetime cottage industry has exploded into a full-blown undertaking now.

At Smith's complex in Duluth, Ga., the four dozen draft prospects who have spent the last several weeks working there agree the name of the company, Competitive Edge, is an apt one. Competitive Edge has become one of the top predraft workout meccas, and its clients certainly demonstrate a religious fervor in readying themselves for their appearances center-stage in front of league scouts.

In the era of New Age football, when the game is a full-time job and specialists abound, players view the predraft concentration as the equivalent of an SAT preparatory course.

"This is the Princeton Review," said Northwestern linebacker John Pickens. "Our school was really concerned about getting you to be the best football player you can be. Here's it's all about 40 time. It's getting you to perform your best for the NFL scouts."

The basic rationale is simple one. In terms of player evaluation, time, quite literally, is money. Shave a tenth of a second from a 40-yard time and it could be the difference between being a second-round choice or a second-day selection, a disparity that translates into several hundred-thousand dollars.

Most agents, who now invest $10,000-$12,000 per client in preparation costs, understand the scope of the potential dividends that can be realized. And, because of the technology now involved in assessing what is known in scoutese as the "measurables," it is easier to reconcile the initial costs.

Dye recently visited in Montgomery, Ala., with draft client DeMarcus Ware, a defensive end/linebacker and a fast riser on early draft boards, at the complex where the onetime Troy State star is preparing for this week's combine sessions. On a computer screen, Dye watched, side-by-side, an analysis of Ware's 40-yard dash from a month or two ago, and one that he ran that same day. The improvement, Dye said, was graphically illustrated.

"You can't deny the progress," Dye said. "It's right there in front of your eyes. And, I mean, by the time these kids get to the combine, they can do all the drills they're going to be asked to do there in their sleep. It becomes second nature to them."

Not every agent, though, agrees that the personal training regimen, and the investments being made in them are imperative for every player.

Jimmy Sexton, one of the most prominent NFL representatives, still has some clients in the 2005 draft pool training on their respective campuses. Those players, Sexton said, feel comfortable working with trainers they have known throughout their college careers, and insist on staying close to home, rather than perhaps living in a hotel for several months.

"Every kid is different," Sexton said. "There are some players who are so self-motivated that you can just leave them alone, let them do their own thing, and they'll be ready for the combine. Other guys need more structure. But, just in general, there's no doubt that the cost of preparing guys for the draft has skyrocketed. You kind of have to view it, in retail terms, as a loss leader. If a kid wants it, you pretty much have to do it, and you just assume you'll recover the cost somewhere along the line."

Make no mistake, most draft prospects want the personal training, and have now come to expect it from agents. It has become, essentially, a service that agents now push when they are pitching a potential client. Fail to offer the training, most agents have discovered, and you probably won't land the client. The more an agent offers -- and we're referring here only to the legitimate inducements permitted under NFL Players Association rules -- the better chance he has of signing a player.

The rising costs typically now include training fees, meal allowances, lodging, perhaps transportation, and even sessions in which the prospects are tutored for the one-on-one interviews that all teams conduct at the Indianapolis combine. Ken Herock, who worked for more than 30 years as an NFL personnel chief, has developed and marketed a very successful program in which players are tutored on what to expect in such interviews, and how to answer teams' questions most effectively.

Herock typically takes on about 75-80 clients before the combine. The demand is such that he could double that amount if time permitted. The agents who retain Herock to work with their clients certainly pitch their relationship with him when they are out recruiting players. His business has become a selling point, another service that agents can tell their clients they have available. It is, indeed, part of the predraft package in which agents now invest so heavily.

And those packages have mushroomed in recent years, in part because players have come to expect such perquisites.

"It's part of the competition of vying for a [draft prospect]," said one agent. "It's like the 'What can you do for me?' mentality. I mean, you've got players who you know aren't much more than seventh-round picks, and maybe you'll never really recoup all the money you're going to invest in them predraft, but they expect to have this stuff done for them."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.