While the game of football has drastically changed in the last 18 years, the draft process remains the same.
Prospects are required to jump through hoops for teams, while teams can turn around and stab them in the back at any moment.
There’s the NFL Scouting Combine, followed by pro days and pre-draft meetings scattered across multiple months. It all leads to the draft, where dreams can become a reality.
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Oftentimes, teams will speak ill of prospects they actually fancy themselves to – just so other franchises might not steal them away.
“It's almost like one big game in order for you to fall into that spot that they want you to,” 2005 first-round pick Shawne Merriman recalled.
Merriman, a retired three-time Pro Bowl linebacker, was in the middle of it all – being courted by teams, being criticized by others – all before his 21st birthday.
A University of Maryland alum, Merriman opted against working out at the combine. Instead, he chose to show off for teams at Maryland’s pro day, a decision that didn’t come without controversy.
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“Being surrounded by certain teams in a little hotel room, you've got the GM, the coaches and the staff, and they’re circling you up,” Merriman said. “... I remember teams asking me, ‘Who do you think you are? Do you think you're better than everybody else? So you're not going to work out here?’
“I'm just sitting there as a 20-year-old kid, just taking it in. You can't get mad, you can't get upset, because that's obviously what they're trying to do and see if they can get under your skin and see how you react. But I just calmly looked at everybody and said, ‘Hey, you'll come see me at the pro day or not. I'm gonna put on a show for the pro day and that's it.’”
The move paid off for Merriman, as his stock quickly rose after posting impressive testing numbers at his pro day. While his measurables looked great, the Maryland native still couldn't escape harsh assessments from certain teams. Many prospects this year are in the midst of that stage right now with just a few weeks until the draft.
“There was just a lot of talk, and teams bad-mouthing you because they want you to drop a couple of spots so you can get to them,” Merriman said. “Some teams not showing their hand, showing no interest at all during that period, And then all of a sudden, they’re talked about when the draft comes on, like ‘Oh, whatever team is looking at you’ and you’re like ‘Hold on, they never even talked to me. They never said anything to me at all.’”
Merriman was projected to go in the top half of the first round. But unlike many top prospects, he decided against attending the draft in New York City.
In a 2005 draft class that famously featured Aaron Rodgers waiting and waiting and waiting in the green room until pick No. 25, Merriman made a forward-thinking decision to pass.
“I saw many horror stories of guys being at the draft and having that camera zoomed in on you for two hours,” Merriman said. “You’re supposed to go top 10, and you end up in the bottom half of the first round, some guys even slip by that first round. To me, I said, ‘No way in hell that's happening to me, I'm not going.’
“I ended up renting a big house back in Maryland. All my high school coaches and family and friends, everybody came. Everybody had Dallas Cowboys jerseys because that's where they thought I was going to get drafted. Jerry Jones and Bill Parcells, I went to go meet with them before the draft, told me they were picking me and they went with another great player with DeMarcus Ware. But it was one of the best experiences, because you see your name called on TV and everybody's watching, not just the people in the house, but everyone in the country.”
The Cowboys passed on Merriman with the No. 11 pick, but the Chargers quickly scooped him up at No. 12. Using the pick they acquired from the Giants a year earlier in the famous Eli Manning-Philip Rivers trade, Merriman was suddenly dropped onto a rising contender.
As many players do, Merriman quickly realized that being the 12th pick meant that 11 teams didn’t choose him. Every year, players across all sports will find motivation in little ways like that.
“You’re fortunate to get drafted anywhere, right? Especially in the first round,” Merriman said. “But you do have this thing always, that there were 11 teams that passed me up. That’s the athlete's way of staying motivated. You find ways to get pissed off and find ways to create this thing inside – and I did that.”
After an eight-year career with the Chargers and Bills where he made three Pro Bowls and totaled 45.5 sacks, Merriman founded Lights Out Xtreme Fighting, an MMA league focused on developing the next combat stars.
The 38-year-old Merriman still has a passion for football, though. He often speaks with prospects about the draft process, considering how difficult it can be for young men to be judged so closely based on their every move.
“I always tell them to take their time,” Merriman said of the advice he gives prospects. “There's a lot of things that are going to be flying at you all at once. And what you have to focus on is what got you there in the first place – and that's taking care of what's on the field. You have to be successful on the field before these other things are thrown your way – the endorsements, the TV, the money, the appearances, everybody wanting you to show up somewhere at all times.
“You have to really manage your time. I tell a lot of these young guys coming in, ‘Manage your time and just take it slow.’ Because if you try to do two things at once, you’re going to lose sight of the most important reason why you get there, and that's to play football.”
The process is far from over with just under a month to go until the 2023 draft weekend begins. Even as the game evolves with new rules, NFL procedures from February through April remain unchanged – for better or worse.