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'Back in the first round!' Selling an NFL future

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How one NFL agent turned a third-round prospect into a first-rounder in four months.

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"So I'll sound like a crazy person for much of the night, but I just need to throw out all these scenarios to get through the evening."

It's been a busy day for Andy Ross, an agent in Octagon Sports' football group, which is responsible for managing 12 players in a 2013 NFL Draft that starts in a couple short hours. He's representing two players in this year's class, one a potential first-rounder who could hear his name called on Thursday night. While preparing for what he calls an agent's Super Bowl, he's had to spend a good portion of the day handling concerns of clients already in the league. One client is facing a legal issue which requires Ross to coordinate with the player's attorney in a series of calls throughout the week. Another veteran free agent is trying to get a new deal, something Ross is managing on a hourly basis as he works with teams to arrange a new contract.

This juggle is all taking place at his home, where he's set up for the first round. If you're one of the agents who doesn't already claim to have ADD, draft night will ensure that no one item keeps your attention for very long. Camped out in his basement in suburban Washington, D.C., Ross is comfortably nestled into his couch in a T-shirt and shorts. In front of him are five televisions, a projector screen, two phones, two computers, and several sheets of data he's assembled over the past five months. Much like your average fan or blogger, he keeps a fullscreen of Tweetdeck up on one computer while sifting through spreadsheets and his browser on another. Those sheets keep track of every interaction he or his clients have had with each team -- whether it's a pro-day session, team visit, combine interviews, or any other form of interest a team rep may have taken in one of his clients. The printouts track every player at the same position as his clients, as well as the teams targeting those positions. There's also a blank log where he'll manually keep track of the draft with pen and paper.

Ross has been smoking a sundry of barbecue items all day, and his neighbors and friends come and go, grabbing food and beer and cracking jokes while he scrolls through his phone and re-checks all the info in front of him. Despite the array of audiovisual equipment, the scene is, at times, remarkably normal -- similar to the fantasy draft in a friend's house with the best basement setup (or in Rovellian terms, a "man cave"). Predictions and opinions on various players are tossed around the room and much like any draft get-together, it's an ostensibly casual affair. And then you realize that, unlike your fantasy draft party, for someone in this room, once the picks start rolling in, hundreds of thousands and potentially millions of dollars will be gained or lost with each announcement.

It's a constant state of paranoia, bouncing from best-case to worst-case.

Ross is one of four agents in the Octagon Football group, representing 12 players in the 2013 NFL Draft. He and other Octagon employees are hopeful that five of those players hear their names called in primetime on Thursday, but Oregon pass-rusher Dion Jordan is the only surefire first-rounder. C.J. LaBoy, Ken Landphere, and Doug Hendrickson are the three other agents with Octagon Football, and all three are assisting in the representation of Jordan.

This year, Ross represents Missouri linebacker Zaviar Gooden and Syracuse offensive lineman Justin Pugh. The latter is a versatile tackle who had steadily risen up mock drafts into the back end of the first round by the time draft week hit. Gooden is a potential second-day pick, but could also fall as far as the top of the fifth round on Saturday afternoon. With the draft now spread out over three days, Ross spends much of the week managing expectations. On Wednesday night, he has a conference call with both families, answering questions and ensuring that the players keep their phone lines open and their voicemail boxes empty. He tells his players to be prepared for both the ceiling and the floor, reiterating to Pugh that he may need to be ready to fly out to his new team if he's taken in the first round, but at the same time not be disappointed if he drops to Friday. It's a constant state of paranoia, bouncing from best-case to worst-case and trying to keep your clients grounded in the understanding that they now have no control.

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Ross is a short, well-built man with what he calls a motormouth (that seems to be a stereotypical requisite for an agent, constantly pivoting from one call to the next). He's gregarious on the outside while churning away on the inside. He calls me "bro" within the first 15 seconds of meeting him, and he's continually referring to the "24/7 grind" that is an agent's life.

Octagon is the only place he's ever worked, and he's certainly not someone who walked into the business with a network of connections in place and hefty commissions at the ready. As a senior in high school in Northern Virginia, Ross signed up for a sports marketing class because it included a free trip to Disney World. In that class, an internship opportunity came up at Advantage International, a predecessor to Octagon. Ross sought the aid of his high school instructor, Paul Wardinski, and learned to put together a résumé and write a cover letter in order to apply for the internship.

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Andy Ross and son Photo by Andy Ross

When he called the company for the address to send his application, he was told the internship had been filled. Encouraged by his teacher, he put on his only suit, a cheap J.C. Penney number, and went to the Advantage offices, where he asked for Senior Vice President Tom George. He sat in the waiting room for hours until George walked out and said, "Do I know your parents?" Ross told him no, he was there for the internship. When George, a well-established figure in the sports business world, said the opportunity had been filled, Ross told him he'd work for free stapling documents or sorting paper clips, whatever was asked. That response was enough to get George to at least look over the résumé. Ten minutes later, an incredulous assistant emerged and said, "I don't know what you said to him, but he wants you to be here on Monday."

Ross has worked his way through the Octagon structure in the ensuing 18 years to become the representative for multiple first-round draft picks. After selling sponsorship opportunities to events, he worked his way over to the sports side of the company, setting up sponsorship deals for five sports. Ross took a particular interest in football, where he apprenticed under Octagon's agents in San Francisco. Most of his time was spent helping support those more seasoned agents, but he was allowed to dedicate a small percentage of his time recruiting college players.

His first big break came in 2008 when he signed eventual Houston Texans offensive lineman Duane Brown, a fellow Virginia Tech product. Brown is considered by some as the best left tackle in football, and Ross helped negotiate what was the largest contract in Texans history prior to last season. One year after the Texans took Brown, two more Ross clients landed in the first round -- Aaron Curry and Ziggy Hood. Curry, selected fourth overall, remains the highest picked client. But Ross has established a track record for pushing players into the first round -- starting with Brown, continuing with Hood, and most recently this April again along the offensive line with Pugh.

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Once Thursday rolls around, the teams have all the power and Ross has to decipher what's a smokescreen and who's taking serious interest in his clients. He's mostly a passive actor, digesting info that's relayed to him while following reports across Twitter.

At the start of the week, Ross says that Pugh could go anywhere from 25 to 40, but by Thursday afternoon, several mock drafts had Pugh slotted at No. 19 to the New York Giants. One team in the top 10 tells Ross that they have Pugh rated as the third tackle behind Luke Joeckel and Eric Fisher, and that they're contemplating trading back to get him in the middle of the first round. But after getting that info directly, Ross sees a Tweet from reporters saying the same thing, so he begins to wonder whether it's smoke or real interest -- an exercise he calls a game that makes the draft exciting.

Unlike the average viewer, Ross does have some control the week leading up to the draft, holding on to information for a strategic time to leak to the public. He discusses the selective approach to each bit of info he comes across, choosing to either relay it right away or waiting until draft week to try and change the narrative or momentum as the teams get closer to being on the clock.

Ross is hoping that there's a run on offensive lineman at the top of the first round -- a distinct possibility given the lack of highly rated skill position players. Joeckel and Fisher are the two top rated tackles, both in position for the No. 1 pick. Reports on Thursday tabbed Fisher as the Chiefs' likely choice. Watching a red carpet interview with both tackles, Ross immediately calls out that he can tell, based on the side-by-side demeanor of each, that Fisher has been told he's the guy.

By Thursday night Ross is saying that he thinks the highest Pugh could potentially go is No. 18 to the Dallas Cowboys, who took an interest in the offensive tackle during the pre-draft process and recently reiterated that interest. But all the draft day momentum coalesces around the Giants at No. 19. Twenty minutes before the draft officially starts, Ross gets word from the team that Pugh is indeed in play for them at 19.

According to Ross, there are two types of teams -- those who "lock" in their board, and those who draft on emotion, and it's the emotional teams that are affected by a run on a certain position. The ideal run on Thursday night would include five offensive lineman going in the first 10 picks. The longshot fantasy scenario would involve six offensive lineman going in the first seven picks, potentially bringing even Tennessee in as an option at No. 10. But Ross maintains that this is just another scenario that makes him sound like a "crazy person" and one of the many that fire across the synapses as 8 o'clock approaches.

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Roger Goodell takes the podium to officially open the proceedings, and Ross exclaims, "Let's get these offensive linemen off the board!" The Chiefs oblige, and as expected, take Fisher with the No. 1 pick. "One down," says Ross with more than three hours left in what has become a less casual and more tense evening.

Things continue to go according to plan, and for the first time ever, offensive tackles go 1-2 with the Jaguars opting for Joeckel. The first curveball of the night occurs at No. 3, where the Dolphins move up in a trade with the Oakland Raiders. Miami is also in need of a tackle, and the first inclination is that they're going with Oklahoma's Lane Johnson. Another offensive lineman off the board would help Pugh and Ross. Instead of Johnson, the Dolphins take Dion Jordan, which is still cause for celebration as he's a company client. "Nice, c'mon Octagon!" reverberates with Philly, and Jordan's former coach at Oregon, now on the clock at No. 4.

"You like the ceiling, but we also got to pay attention to the floor."-Andy Ross

The Eagles go with Johnson, which you'd think would prompt another celebration. But Ross has conflicting views on the selection -- another offensive lineman is off the board, but Philadelphia, Pugh's hometown, was one of the best backup options at the top of the second round. "You like the ceiling, but we also got to pay attention to the floor," he says as he considers a potential wait for Pugh until Friday's second round.

At No. 5, the Lions could be in the market for yet another offensive lineman, specifically Alabama's D.J. Fluker. One hour into the draft, Ross is trying to keep his expectations in check but notes, "If Detroit takes Fluker, it makes me really think that No. 19 is a real possibility." Instead, the Lions take Ziggy Ansah.

Arizona and Buffalo are on the clock, and Ross thinks offensive linemen are a possibility for both. The thought and rumor is that the Cardinals will take Fluker, and the Bills will likely go for guard Jonathan Cooper. But Arizona tabs Cooper, and the Bills drop out of their slot in a trade with the Rams. After Cooper goes, Ross entertains the possibility of the Titans, a team with money in a young quarterback and multiple running backs, which has said they like Pugh opposite Andy LeVitre, giving a look at No. 10. But with Fluker and his Alabama teammate Chance Warmack still on the board, he knows it's still too early.

Warmack is the choice at No. 10, and Fluker goes one pick later to the Chargers. That makes six offensive lineman in the first 11 picks, the ideal run on the position that Ross and Pugh needed at the top of the draft. The first hour and a half play out just as they had hoped, and Pugh is left standing as the highest rated lineman, holding a first-round grade with 21 picks remaining on Thursday night. He's cautiously optimistic.

Ross and Pugh exchange texts assessing the developments so far, but it will likely be an hour until the next team needing an offensive lineman is on the clock. The Dallas Cowboys, holding the 18th pick, have told Pugh they really like him, and the Giants one pick later are already known as a possibility. There was some buzz around Florida State's Menelik Watson as a potential first-round tackle ahead of Pugh, but Ross has heard from plenty of sources who say that's all smoke.

As expected, teams in the middle third of the first round pass on offensive linemen and Pugh. Ross is checking his phone furiously, waiting for any word from the Cowboys or Giants. During these picks, he's forced to negotiate with his 3-year-old son in order to put him to bed, exchanging cartoons and breakfast in bed for the toddler going to sleep without a fuss. He's able to get back downstairs, where he quiets friends and guests in order to watch a 13-year-old St. Jude's patient announce the Saints' pick at No. 13. It was Ross who told Curry back in the 2009 Draft that it would be cool to have a child from Jude's join him on draft day -- an experience Curry granted. Ross asks everyone to pipe down, proudly reminiscing as he watches a Louisiana boy from St. Jude's announce the name of Kenny Vaccaro alongside Roger Goodell.

Two hours into the draft, the Dallas Cowboys are set to come on the clock and it's the first real opportunity for a Ross client to go in the first round since both Curry and Hood in 2009. He's concerned that defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, who some projected as a top-five pick, is still available in the second half of the first round. That may be persuasive value for the Cowboys or Giants, who likely didn't expect Floyd to be around.

The Cowboys, however, never make a pick as the 49ers trade up into their spot. It's an unexpected draft night development, and it sends Ross scurrying for his sheets of data with team needs and best available. "Why are they trading up in front of the Giants?" he ponders as he hurriedly pores through any info he has trying to read into what the Niners may have planned. Moments later, San Francisco selects Eric Reid, a safety from LSU.

The Giants are now on the clock. They appear to be the likely destination, but they never brought Pugh in for visit and only met with him at the combine. It was the only meeting they had.

Ross sticks with his printouts, furiously scratching off names and double-checking his work based on what's happened through the first two-plus hours of Thursday's opening round. He's barely on the edge of his couch, scanning from notes to cell phone to Tweetdeck to Excel. "OK, Giants, c'mon!" he yells, realizing that looking over all the data in front of him isn't going to change a damn thing about the next 10 minutes. He lifts his head to zero in on the television screens, squinting his eyes with a pensive look and finger pressed to his chin.

NFL Network's Mike Mayock, who was one of the mock drafters with Pugh at No. 19, takes control of their desk and says the pick should be clear -- the offensive tackle from Syracuse. For several minutes, he praises Pugh's versatility and says he's the perfect fit for the Giants organization as the clock ticks down. The chryon at the bottom of the screen lights up, flashing "Pick is in." While that dangles on the television, a worried Ross groans "But Mayock, you're not a GM. I wish you were right now!" That's shortly followed by "They didn't call."

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The knock on Justin Pugh throughout the pre-draft process is that he has short arms, which inhibit his ability to play tackle on the outside in the NFL. It was a narrative that dogged him in every evaluation across several months in the NFL scouting crosshairs.

Pugh, who spent four years at Syracuse, made the decision to come out with one year of eligibility remaining. The start of the pre-draft process wasn't easy or encouraging. He submitted an application to the NFL Draft's Advisory Council, and they returned a lukewarm third-round grade. With one year of eligibility still left, the Advisory Council's report only amplified the stress of the decision to come out.

Ross did not start recruiting Pugh until the very end of the 2012 season because he was an underclassmen. He sent some information to Pugh through Syracuse and also sent recruiting materials to Pugh's stepfather. At the end of the season, Pugh and his family told Ross and Octagon that he was considering coming out. Ross' advice was to put in the application with the Advisory Board. As the still unsigned agent, he abstained from influencing the decision and was adamant that the family be comfortable with the grade returned before going any further. The third-round evaluation wasn't exactly an unequivocal endorsement.

Undeterred by the grade, the family said they were still strongly considering early entry and invited Ross up to the Philadelphia area to discuss the process further. The parties spent two hours going through the entire process, from pre-draft evaluation all the way through minicamps and contract negotiation. There was competition between at least six firms, but once the family made the decision to move forward, they called Ross and said he was the choice. He promptly made the trip back up to Philly and the partnership was official, starting a five-month process toward draft night.

Ross then went to work on selling Pugh to NFL scouts and evaluators. During the five-month stretch, he talks to two-thirds of the teams in the league, whether it's face-to-face at workouts or events like the Senior Bowl and combine, or through the many direct lines he has to different members of the front offices. From the start of the recruiting process, he thought the tackle possessed the versatility and athleticism to play multiple positions on the line, and that would be the key to a steady rise up draft boards and improved grades.

Pugh performed well in almost every interview setting. Part of the Octagon client prep includes the media training that is now de rigueur for almost every prospect. Ken Herock, who was profiled by The New York Times before last year's draft, tutors the prospects and preps them for interviews, particularly the interrogations from the team representatives. Herock is a former executive with the Falcons and Packers, but he's been running the interview training service for well over a decade now and he tells Ross that Pugh is the best interview he's ever had.

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The most significant critique is the refrain about Pugh's short arms, a physical deficiency that cannot be changed and may impact some teams' evaluations of whether he has the value of an offensive tackle. The agent and the player work to frame the negative as a positive. Ross tells his client that every time the topic of his short arms comes up in interviews, he should compare that length to tackles Joe Thomas and Bryan Bulaga. Both are now entrenched at tackle and are among the best in the league at the position.

Bulaga's team, the Packers, are thought to be one of the likely destinations for Pugh at the back of the first round. There's offseason chatter that Bulaga, considered one of the top right tackles in the NFL, may be moved over to the left side of a line that could be shored up with the addition of a first-round pick. With Pugh already mocked to Green Bay, it also made sense to talk about Aaron Rodgers' impending contract and it was a way for Ross to increase Pugh's exposure. He had Octagon's PR department set Pugh up with interviews in the Green Bay area, working to push the narrative that the coming investment in Rodgers needed an improved offensive line.

Opposite the PR work is the physical training, another investment that agents have to make for their clients during the pre-draft process. Ross typically sends his clients to Atlanta to work with Chip Smith of CES Performance. Smith and Ross are quick to cite their past success with Brown and Hood, training players for a push into the first round. Ross also has his clients use a company called Trigger Point Therapy, working to improve the muscles and break down scar tissue. It's a company he found while rehabbing his own shoulder injury, and as the agent making the investment, it's a place in the morass of training and therapy options that he's become comfortable with. Ross maintains it was particularly helpful improving the explosiveness and change of direction for his other client, Zaviar Gooden, a linebacker who went on to impress at the Senior Bowl.

While only a redshirt junior, Pugh, along with Fluker, made history during the pre-draft process by becoming the first non-seniors to get an invite to the Senior Bowl. He got the invite just a week before the game while he was training in Atlanta, and immediately traveled to Alabama for the all-important practice sessions where much of the evaluation is done.

For Pugh, versatility and agility are probably his biggest strengths. Ross claims he can play all five positions on the line if needed, but the preference is to stay at tackle. He's coming off a college career where he spent three years on the outside practicing against Chandler Jones -- a first-round pass-rusher who was successful early for Bill Belichick before getting injured. He's gone through the process as a tackle and was evaluated at that position, but because of that short arms knock, some teams think he'd be better at guard. Both media scouts and team evaluators are intrigued by his potential at guard and seem comfortable that he could make the transition. One team even asked Ross if Pugh could snap the ball. Ross didn't have the answer, so he called his client up on the spot and asked him. Pugh was willing to work out at center snapping the ball, and pulled it off without incident. That athleticism at multiple positions is the primary reason why the discussion of his short arms has faded during the final week and he's now tabbed as a first-rounder at the start of the draft.

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The span between the "Giants pick is in" displaying on the NFL Network screen and Ross saying "They didn't call" is enough for resignation. There have been no spoiler tweets yet, and the NFL Network crew stalls for several minutes despite the scroll below indicating that the Giants made their decision.

Ross, however, doesn't have to wait any longer, and that span of 20 seconds of doubt turns to celebration, as he gets word from his colleagues at Octagon, as well as reps with the Giants that his client is the pick at No. 19.

The five-month grind culminates here, at the mercy of an NFL general manager. Ross jumps off his couch and runs around his basement pumping his fist. "Back in the first round!" he yells, and high-fives his friends and family in the room. Mayock, who was Ross' unknowing best friend in the buildup to announcement, is heard saying, "It wasn't sexy, but I love the pick." Ross stops in front of the television to snap a picture of his client's big moment.

It took the perfect run on O-lineman at the top of the draft, and No. 19 was about as high as they had hoped for Pugh. There was no agonizing seesaw or wait, prompting a relaxed Ross to exhale, "Nice when it's the area you think they're getting picked and it comes through." His phone starts blowing up, congratulatory texts and emails flow in from the other Octagon agents, the president of his company, friends, his other 2013 client Gooden, and even rival agents.

The five-month grind culminates here, at the mercy of an NFL general manager.

A comparable, if not more rowdy, celebration is taking place at Pugh's home in Philadelphia. Ross first gets a call from Pugh's parents, as Justin is otherwise occupied with his friends. As you'd expect, it's probably the lightest conversation they've had in the entire process. Ross tells them the most stressful part is over, reiterating that the parents and family made the right call and that they knew the Advisory Council grade would be off, thanks in part to the work put in by both parties in the pre-draft months. Thinking ahead, Ross starts highlighting all the positives of Justin playing so close to home, particularly with the family not even needing a plane ride to go watch him play in New York. Ross is also happy to have him close to his home in the D.C. area, where he'll be able to watch him regularly play in the NFC East.

A few minutes later, Pugh himself calls. Ross screams into the phone with a resounding "Congrats, bro!" Pugh responds with "You did it! You did it!"

Ross tells him to be available over the next few days because the Giants may ask him to come up to the facilities for an introductory press conference, so continue to keep the lines open. Pugh responds with a few anecdotes from the moment he got the call, including how Giants head coach Tom Coughlin told the Philly native to burn everything Eagles that he owns.

While they're not in the same city, the agent and player have comparable experiences in buildup of the night, watching anxiously as the six offensive linemen came off the board in the first 11 picks. Pugh attempted to manage expectations, but his friends with him at his house celebrated as the scenario played out, telling him repeatedly, "Five down, you're the next one up." With four minutes left on the clock, he got the call from Coughlin, who told him he was the newest member of the New York Giants. Pugh summed up the atmosphere at his home with a quick, "We're just poppin' champagne" before pivoting to Ross, his advocate in the efforts to move into the first round. "Throughout the whole process, Andy said, 'Trust me and we'll get you into that first round.' I saw what he did with Duane Brown and Ziggy Hood, and it's happened again with me. I couldn't be happier with my selection of Octagon. I was set up perfectly."

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Before Thursday night comes to a close, Pugh calls back one more time while the end of the first round winds down, asking for potential contract numbers. Ross pulls open his computer and quickly references the deal for the No. 19 pick in the 2012 Draft. He tells Pugh that Shea McClellin signed a four-year deal with the Bears for $8.2 million, highlighted by a $4.4 million signing bonus and $7.5 million in guaranteed money. Ross smiles, and there's some jovial discussion about Range Rovers and Audis with a few more "bros" thrown around. It should be a nice payday for both and they hang up, knowing they'll be in contact daily as Pugh's professional career begins.

Thursday is another huge career-defining night for Ross, who is now tapping his pen on the coffee table while bobbing and dancing on the couch to the techno music from a commercial on in the background. It's in stark contrast from the apprehensive look and edge of the couch position he maintained for most of the night. That's the nature of a day where millions of dollars are made in the moment a name is announced.

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