The woman in the Facebook picture is attractive, with auburn hair and icy blue eyes. She is flanked by several other women, each armed with an inviting smile and curvy features. Along with the photo is a hopeful note from the female "fan" asking to be added to a player's personal networking profile.
The twist? These women don't actually exist, at least not in the way that some unsuspecting NFL prospects are led to believe. Indeed, they are a figment of one NFL team's imagination – a phony Facebook profile, used as a tool by one franchise in the pre-draft vetting process. A Trojan horse that, when used effectively, unlocks a door to a world of Internet pictures and information which most NFL teams are now consistently compiling to help polish their dossiers on draft picks.
"It works like magic," said a personnel source that was familiar with his team's tactic of using counterfeit profiles to link to Facebook and Myspace pages of potential draft picks. The source directed Yahoo! Sports to one of the team's "ghost profiles" – a term he coined because "once the draft is over, they disappear. It's like they were never there."
The practice may have an underhanded, back-alley feel to it, but most NFL teams are unapologetic when it comes to picking through the lives of prospective players. And with the tentacles of the Internet extending further than ever into the lives of athletes, online information has offered a wealth of fresh ammunition for teams. Whether it's networking sites like Facebook, Myspace or Twitter, personal blogs, or just the random bits of information that can be found with an hour of free time and a powerful Internet search engine, NFL teams are gleefully delving into new cracks and corners that didn't exist even a decade ago.
"Twenty years ago, if you weren't getting a lot from a [college team's] coaching staff or a family, you might put weeks into gathering good information on a couple guys," the personnel source said. "Now, we can do a lot of it in a few days. We can sit down with 20 guys that we might be looking at, and have a pile of pictures and background things to hit them with. And every once in a while you come across something that probably saves you from making a big mistake. Not as much as you might think, but if it happens every couple years, it keeps you ahead of the game."
Uncovering players' secrets
Rick Spielman remembers one Myspace page, the kind that makes a personnel man sit up in his seat, reach for a pencil, and push a particular question to the top of his list. He refuses to divulge the name of the player involved, but concedes that the Minnesota Vikings ran into the profile "a year or two ago." One that the Vikings looked at very closely at the league's annual scouting combine in Indianapolis, then grilled privately over some of the things he had posted on his networking profile.
"He had a big picture of a bunch of drug money and drugs on a carpet," the Vikings' vice president of player personnel said, shaking his head. "It was the kind of thing that, you know, it was under his name. So when we had some time with him, of course we were like 'What is this all about?' … It was an interesting conversation. He had a legitimate explanation for what happened and we followed up on it and we believe it was what he said it was. But that's one of the things that happens [with networking profiles]."
Spielman said the Vikings, like most NFL teams, now have someone assigned to monitoring the profiles of potential picks. Their task is simple: pull together as much information as possible that can be used in interviews or to aid background checks. The more questionable the content found, the better armed NFL teams can be when it comes to making a final call on players.
It has been a lucrative pursuit, too. One NFC North coach said his team has gotten particularly adept at collecting information from networking sites. The team combs through pictures, goes through archived "comments" sections, breezes through friend lists for other potential contacts, and spends untold amounts of time dissecting pages of information based on the potential draft status of a player.
And the process of "ghosting" – creating fake profiles to get added to the private pages of some draft picks – isn't isolated. Executives from three NFL teams admitted that at one point or another, they had used a similar method to get information. And all three suggested that it was something that was likely used by the investigative sources of all teams.
Sometimes these searches produce nothing. Other times, they pan out with suggestive pictures or interesting tidbits of information that open other doors.
"It all depends on the context," said Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz. "On the surface some things don't necessarily matter. But if it's something deeper, if it's a sign there are some deeper problems, sure, it matters."
In many ways, NFL teams have no choice but to keep tabs on what has begun to filter out onto websites. With the rise of powerful blogs like Deadspin and ProFootballTalk.com, rarely does an embarrassing photo or damaging information go unnoticed. In recent years, it has become common to see suggestive photos of some of the NFL's high profile players. Party pictures of high draft picks like Matt Leinart and Vince Young have leaked out over the last two seasons and helped form a media and fan perception of those players. But they haven't been alone. Look hard enough, and you can find "social" photos of half the league's starting quarterbacks – Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Kyle Orton, and many others.
And few are typically posted by players. Many are the product of surrounding people using cell phone cameras, then sending the pictures to friends or posting them on blogs or networking sites.
"Nowadays the cameras are everywhere," said Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy. "You almost expect something is out there with guys, because people are taking pictures of them everywhere they go."
Explaining the past
This season's draft picks aren't immune, either. Former Georgia quarterback Matt Stafford – potentially the No. 1 overall pick in the draft – has been living down photos that where taken during a NASCAR race when a then 19-year old Stafford was captured lifting a beer keg over his head. The pictures were considered relatively harmless, but they were enough to prompt Georgia coach Mark Richt to reprimand his starter.
It was Stafford's grasp of something else a couple of years ago that brought scrutiny.
And the pictures were something that, two years later, every NFL team has glanced over while preparing for the upcoming draft.
"We know about them. … Everybody went to college," Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson said with a shrug. "Everybody had fun in college. It sounds like to me, that's what is popping up with him."
For his part, Stafford has said that he regretted not thinking about how the pictures would be perceived – or how widely they would be distributed throughout his college career. But with NFL teams using every available resource at their fingertips, he has tried to embrace the opportunity to talk about any misperception.
"You've got to understand where they're coming from," Stafford said. "There are guys out there that they don't want as a part of their team. Maybe something like that sets them off. I've been completely honest with guys, and just tried to let them know who I am. It's been a pretty easy part of the process for me, to be honest with you."
Some players haven't escaped scrutiny so easily. Some personnel men still talk about the nightmarish rap turned out by the infamous "7th Floor Crew", a group of former University of Miami football players and students who recorded a song in a dormitory that became something of a cult hit on the Internet.
The song, which was hammered in the national media for its offensive language and depiction of women, was recorded by nine men in a Miami dormitory in 2004. At the time, several of the football players were freshmen. Now, four of them – Jon Beason, Greg Olsen, Tavares Gooden and Darnell Jenkins – have moved on to the NFL. Despite having already apologized after the song was leaked onto the Internet in 2005, Olsen and Beason have both dealt with further media criticism when they moved on to the NFL.
Even now, there are multiple Facebook groups and Myspace pages devoted to the "7th Floor Crew" and the expletive-laden song, which depicts wildly explicit sexual scenes. It can also be found on YouTube, complete with photos of the players in their NFL uniforms. And it serves as a perfect example of a red flag NFL teams are in search for when they are diving into social networking sites for information.
"I was 17 going on 18 [when we recorded it]," said Gooden, a third-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens last year. "We were all freshmen. It wasn't anything we were going to put out online. We didn't do that. Somebody actually stole it off this guy's computer. We were just all kidding around. We did it in a dorm room. We didn't even do it in a studio. Somebody stole it off this guy's computer and he found it funny and was like 'I've got some UM players rapping.' And he puts it online, which violated our privacy. We probably could have sued this kid, because we didn't put this stuff out there.
Gooden during his freshman year at Miami.
"There's always going to be some stuff out there – it's just, do you learn from it? For me, personally, I really don't care. Right now, I'm where I want to be at and just looking forward. My main thing is just not to worry about the past. If somebody else wants to chuckle and laugh about that, they can go right ahead. I'll just keep getting better and progressing while other people keep [regressing] looking at those things and trying to find some way to hold us down. All of us were young when we made that song. … That taught me, you've got to watch that you say, and who you do it around."
Avoiding the traps
For their part, draft picks are becoming more aware about the NFL's watchful eye. Part of it stems from college, where the NCAA and most major college programs sit down their athletes and lay out parameters for what they can and can't put on the Internet. Some colleges have discussed banning social networking sites altogether, but there has yet to be such a move by schools in major conferences like the Big Ten, Pac-10, SEC and others. However, Big 12 rivals Texas and Oklahoma each dismissed players last year after inflammatory items appeared on Facebook and YouTube, respectively.
Most NFL players and draft picks still have their own profiles on social networking sites. Every potential first-round pick in this year's draft currently maintains a presence on Facebook. But many of them learned long ago to scrub their pages of anything that would give teams ammunition to use against them. Perhaps they followed the lead of their predecessors.
"I have a Facebook page. I'm rarely on it. But when I was in college, I didn't have anything to hide," said Houston Texans defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, a 2007 first-rounder. "But I was just mindful of whatever was on there. If you had the slightest doubt that it might create some controversy [it wasn't on there]. My whole thing is that I live by the phrase 'You don't want to give anybody a reason.' "
Added Atlanta Falcons '08 second-round pick Curtis Lofton, "This is a very important time in your life. You've got to do everything possible to put yourself in a better situation and your family in a better situation. It would probably be best to just stay off those things until after the draft."
An investigative draft process is deeper than ever, smarter than ever, and more armed to pick apart draft picks than anytime in history. Whether it was a haunting party photo, a rap song from a dormitory, or merely the hoisting of a keg, nothing in the past stays there for long. And it doesn't take long for team to find it.
"I didn't know how deep it was going to go," Gooden said. "A couple of my high school teachers told me, and a couple of middle school teachers when I went out there, told me that some guys had asked some questions about me and called. That was crazy to me that they knew basically everything about my life and who to get into contact with."
Undoubtedly, someone from the NFL is always watching, looking, probing. And teams could be looking in from anywhere – even that blue-eyed, auburn-haired beauty who just seems to be another admirer.