NFL combine workout boycott threat alive while agents fight for their prospects

·9 min read

NFL agents from around the country, ones who often compete tooth and nail against each other for clients, are coming together to discuss what they plan to do with their draft prospects when the NFL scouting combine begins next week.

The most likely road they could take — assuming combine boarding conditions don't change — is to encourage their clients not to perform the on-field workouts at the combine, according to conversations Yahoo Sports has had with multiple agents, as well as from various other reports.

The workouts are the bread and butter of the NFL's TV element from the event, which is broadcast on NFL Network.

As of now, agents and agencies representing more than 150 players have spent the weekend discussing how best to protest what they collectively deem to be unsuitable living conditions for the combine, which is set to begin with player arrivals starting on Monday and will run through March 7.

The league invited 324 players to the event. The threat of nearly half of those players opting out of workout has raised the attention of the NFL. Agents we spoke with indicated that communication has been slow, both between the various agents and with league officials, but that talks remain ongoing with about a week until the event begins.

It's not easy bringing the agent community together. But this year's combine controversy has brought out cohesion in them, fighting a common goal of wanting what's best for their clients.

What the agents are most upset about

The NFL sent out a memo last week indicating that players essentially would be in a "bubble" for the week because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A bubble environment would restrict players from visiting anywhere in Indianapolis except for the players' hotel, the Crowne Plaza, and Lucas Oil Stadium, where the on-field workouts, medical evaluations and some interviews occur.

As one agent considering advising his players not to work out at the combine said to Yahoo Sports, "Player (COVID) testing just stopped in the playoffs. They just had a Super Bowl in L.A., and no one was wearing masks, and that's California, where the guidelines are (more strict).

"So now you go to Indiana, where the laws are less strict, and you give (prospects) completely unfair conditions for the biggest job interview of their lives? Explain it to me like I am an 8-year old. It makes no sense. It's not for safety, so I don't know what it's for. We never had a bubble before, but now we do? With the majority of players already vaxxed and boosted?"

Added another agent, one who is actively involved in the discussions: "It's pretty simple. COVID (restrictions should be) over. Don't (punish) these kids."

The league attempted to walk back the bubble idea Monday. In a message to attendees, the NFL said it would recommend players stay masked and don't leave the "secure combine areas," but that those restrictions are not required.

There also has been backlash among the player representatives about the fact that the NFL has said it will restrict the number of people who may attend the combine with the players. According to the new combine guidelines, players are permitted to only have one medical support person accompany them to Indianapolis, rather than the full team of coaches and trainers they reportedly desire.

Some trainers and coaches also have voiced their displeasure with the combine setup this year.

The NFL also addressed that issue Monday, saying players can get their training team approved to enter secure areas.

Instead of boycotting the event entirely, the agents' focus appears to be centered on trying to secure more optimal working conditions for the combine. Short of that happening, several top agents' prospects could opt to skip the on-field testing and other workout portions of the event but participate in the remainder of the combine's events: medical evaluations, interviews, psychological testing and media duties.

Those players who skip combine workouts can run 40-yard dashes, perform the bench press and do the remainder of the combine-style drills at their respective pro days, which are heavily attended by NFL evaluators.

"They use the combine as a TV event for the workouts, and the TV event generates revenue," one agent said, "so taking a big chunk of that away (with the threat of opt-outs) might be the best way to get the message across."

That agent believes the NFL could be receptive on the matter.

"I still think they could change some of this," the agent said. "I think some of this is coming directly from combine officials at NIC (National Invitational Camp, which selects the players who attend and runs the NFL combine) and not the league itself. There might be some pressure from up on high to get this fixed quickly."

A call to National Football Scouting president Jeff Foster on Monday was not immediately returned.

Agent: 'All I really want is for a player to be at his best'

Chicago-based agent Mike McCartney — who worked in player personnel previously — tweeted Sunday night hiss frustration with the situation.

We reached out to McCartney for clarity on the matter. Prior to boarding a flight, McCartney wrote: "My tweet started with 'I struggle.' I certainly don’t condemn the combine. It started with physicals only and has grown into this big media event.

"The NFL cares more about money than a player's well-being. So all I really want is for a player to be at his best. Well-rested and fed well."

Priority Sports, McCartney's agency, currently represents two possible top-five prospects for the 2022 NFL draft, Michigan EDGE Aidan Hutchinson and North Carolina State OT Ikem Ekwonu, as well as other combine-bound prospects such as Minnesota EDGE Boye Mafe, Virginia Tech OT Luke Tenuta, North Carolina State WR Zonovan Knight, UCLA DL Otito Ogbonnia and Alabama LB Christopher Allen, among others.

Just last week, Hutchinson told Yahoo Sports he planned to "light up" his combine workouts. Will combine conditions improve in short order? Or will Hutchinson and others be compelled to bypass the combine and hope for big workouts at their respective schools' pro days?

Examining the future of the NFL combine in light of these concerns

The NFLPA sent its support on the matter, and it spotlights an issue that's lingered for some time. The union and many agents have complained about the combine's procedures in the past, arguing that it's a spartan, laborious process of getting players imaged, interviewed and being shuttled around night and day in a very restrictive fashion.

Now new restrictions are in place for this year's combine. The pandemic started in the weeks following the 2020 NFL combine, and the 2021 event was canceled in its entirety, with only certain players with major injury concerns were invited to Indianapolis last year for that portion of testing.

The NFLPA's annual address to the agents, which typically occurs during combine week, will happen this Thursday virtually. It was scheduled in this way this year to assist agents who were not planning to attend the 2022 NFL combine, whether for COVID-related reasons or otherwise.

It's not known whether the combine conditions will be part of the Players' Association's main presentation as it updates league business. But if it's not, the topic certainly will be raised during the post-presentation Q&A session where NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith typically fields questions from agents.

Many were already nonplussed by the combine regimen of yore, but the new limitations have rallied them to potential action.

"It's like basic training," one veteran agent said, "a lot of 'hurry up and wait' for three, four days. And that was in the past, before COVID. Now they're making it even worse? No way. It's been bad for years, but this is not helping at all."

The number of prospects competing in the on-field drills at the 2022 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium could be smaller this year. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
The number of prospects competing in the on-field drills at the 2022 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium could be smaller this year. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The threat of mass boycotts comes at a time when the future of the scouting combine hangs in the balance. It's possible that the even, which has been held annually in Indianapolis since the mid-1980s, could move elsewhere in 2023.

The league's contract with Indianapolis is up after this event, although it's possible the event could remain there. Los Angeles, Dallas and Indianapolis all are reportedly bidding on hosting future combines, and Las Vegas reportedly has shown interest as well.

There also have been reports that the league NFL could consider making the NFL combine a traveling road show, a la the draft itself, moving from one city to the next year to year. But the new NFL Network studios adjacent to SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles certainly make that a likely favorite for next year's event — and possibly a permanent landing spot.

But if players threaten to sit out the testing portion this year and go through with sitting it out, it raises the question of whether the combine would remain a made-for-TV event worth the millions of dollars it costs in production, even at a potentially more convenient location.

After all, without the big names running in tights, who would watch?

Right now, the league's agents, combine officials and league representatives are watching how the next week-plus unfold. The result could be a drastic change in the pre-draft process — both for this year and going forward.

Will the league meet some or all of the agents' demands? Will NFL teams encourage the league office to relent on the "bubble" plan or other combine limitations? We should have some answers in the coming days.