Tyler Wilson made his way down to Florida in early January. He spent about three months near the Gulf Coast, living in a two-bedroom condo with access to a new car, masseuse and a personal catering staff.
It was not, however, as glamorous or relaxing as it might sound.
The former Razorback quarterback didn’t spend his days taking advantage of the beautiful beaches and plentiful golf courses popular to tourists who visit the area. And Wilson’s NFL earnings weren’t being spent before he earned them.
This was a business trip.
Those three months were spent in Bradenton, Fla., home to the IMG Academy, a full-service training facility for athletes. IMG has become a popular spot for high-profile prospects hoping to hone their skills in preparation for a career in the NFL. The 23-year-old Wilson, an avid golfer, did spend his days cruising in a golf cart, but not on a course. That cart was the easiest way to get around the 400-acre grounds.
With millions of dollars at stake and position in this month’s draft potentially impacted by tenths of a second in a running drill or the first impression of a general manager, players like Wilson must maximize the months leading up to the NFL Draft. They want to do all they can to ensure they look good if invited to the NFL Combine or when participating in an on-campus pro day for scouts.
“I wanted a place that I could go that felt like training camp,” Wilson said. “You want to put yourself in a position where you’re not distracted. It was all-inclusive and you have everything you need all in one. That was big. And you get great weather too. You’re not battling the cold, not battling rainy days. That was good for me to get there and block out external distractions.”
Training is critical, and it can be costly.
Fees run as much as $40,000 per athlete, depending on what route an athlete chooses. One licensed NFL agent who spoke with Arkansas Business for this story said that, on average, an individual package — complete with housing, food, transportation physical training, position-specific instruction and personality/media training — costs $25,000.
Some athletes like Wilson have the cost of training paid for by the agent or agencies representing them. Others are able to train on loans offered by their agents, and some prospects are left to pay for services themselves or prepare as inexpensively as possible.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach. But athletes who have the means of attending an all-inclusive facility see it as a valuable investment.
“You’re trying to make as much money as you can,” former Razorback running back Dennis Johnson said.
Earning potential for players who wind up with a contract and a spot on a 53-man NFL roster varies, but even for an undrafted free agent, payday could mean an average of $480,000 per year.
Former Arkansas cornerback Greg Gatson, according to salary database Spotrac.com, signed a three-year deal worth $1.4 million as a San Diego Chargers free agent. Darren McFadden, a former Razorback running back, signed a six-year deal worth $10 million a year back in 2008.
Pre-draft training helped make those contracts possible. McFadden’s work prior to the draft supplemented what talent evaluators saw on film. Gatson, a little-used player at Arkansas, performed well enough at an on-campus event he was able to get teams interested in individual workouts and meetings.
Gatson opted for training in his hometown of Memphis. He and his agent, Little Rock attorney Judy Henry, evaluated options and considered a number of factors, including the cost, before deciding on a more local approach to training.
Henry said her approach with each client varies.
Finding a place where a player has a comfort level — with the staff, the facilities and the cost — is part of the process.
Ian Greengross represents former Razorback running back Knile Davis. He, too, likes to leave the decision of where to train up to his clients. Davis, Greengross said, wanted to follow in the footsteps of McFadden and chose the Michael Johnson Performance Center. Johnson, tight end Chris Gragg and safety Ross Rasner joined Davis at the facility near Dallas.
Davis, who had an injury-plagued career at Arkansas, wowed scouts with his bench press and 40-yard dash time at the combine in February. He was able to maximize his training in Dallas, and when scouts evaluate his pre-draft work with tape from the 2010 season, it’s possible he could go from a projected free agent to a late-round draft pick. A strong showing at the combine could have helped him generate an extra $400,000 over the four years he plays under his first NFL contract.
“At the combine you’re running specific drills and you know what the drills are,” Greengross said. “You already have the answers before you even take the test. … Knile went down there with a willingness to work and made the most of it.”
Regardless of where an athlete trains, Greengross hits on an important point. Like anything else in life or business, an opportunity is what a person makes of it.
Agent Tom Condon chose IMG for Tyler Wilson, but said the quarterback’s work ethic was a big reason they chose the all-inclusive training center. Condon, described by USA Today as the most powerful of NFL agents, picked 10 players in 2013 to train at IMG, an option he’s used off and on for the past 15 years.
Condon said the decision to send Wilson to Florida was an easy one. He didn’t have to wonder if the money spent would be worth it. Wilson was capable of going to training and providing a return on the investment.
An investment made in January could pay millions to his client when the draft begin on April 25. Wilson is projected as a second-round pick and, based on salary figures available from last year, it could be worth more than $1 million annually over four years.
“You want to make sure you have great character people who will take advantage,” Condon said. “You want to have guys that are intelligent enough to understand what this is doing for them and how every aspect is important, even if they don’t completely understand why they have to do some of it. Plus, you want players that have the skill to ascend.”
“It’s obviously an expensive proposition,” Condon added. “You want to make sure you get a guy who will make the most of it.”
Leveraging the Training Dollar
A player training for the NFL Draft doesn’t have to spend big money.
Former University of Arkansas offensive lineman Grant Cook and safety Seth Armbrust kept things very cost-effective last year when training. They were among a group of players who worked out on campus with the Razorback strength and conditioning staff to prepare for the 2012 draft.
Neither player feels that approach limited his options. Both said working with a training staff they were already familiar with was beneficial.
Armbrust said he had the opportunity to visit with a handful of NFL teams thanks to the strength of his pro day workout. Cook, who now works in sales for a commercial cleaning company, spent last season with the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings before retiring to “get into a little more normal life.”
Asked if he would have spent more to train if given another opportunity, Armbrust said it’s up to a prospect to have a realistic view of his situation. For some players, it makes sense. For others, like him, it isn’t a good use of limited resources.
Armbrust, who now works in medical sales, said he doesn’t regret the decision to not spend tens of thousands of dollars on training. Other than the cost of meals, he wasn’t out much money.
“I don’t think that mattered one bit,” Armbrust said. “I think I’d be doing what I’m doing now and saying, ‘Man, I just added to the student loans I already owe.’”