Sheldon Rankins remembers one moment in his life where he was undeniably in trouble.
He was 6 years old back home in Atlanta, practicing wrestling moves he'd seen the week before on Monday Night Raw. He loved the tag team of Jeff and Matt Hardy, known as the Hardy Boyz, and was mesmerized by their finishing move: The Swanton Bomb.
The Swanton Bomb (pronounced Swan-Tawn) is a top-rope maneuver that involves a delayed front flip before the Hardy boy performing the move crashes down onto his opponent. All four limbs need to be extended outward, giving the appearance of a flying bird.
The Rankins' living room did not provide the same type of freedom and movement space. The couch was not as high as a regulation turnbuckle. Perhaps that is why Rankins' foot nailed a part of the front window on the way down, cracking one of the glass panes right down the middle. Before his mother, Cheryl, could see it, he attempted to cover the act with the curtains.
"I got in a little trouble for that," said Rankins, a versatile defensive linemen projected as a first-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. "I think my mom just wanted me to say something about it."
Other than that, Rankins has nothing to feel bad about. He doesn't go out too often. When his agency, Exclusive Sports Group, was helping him connect with a banker who could finance an auto loan for his first car, they were stunned by the results of a credit check, because there was no credit. The banker, who regularly works with college athletes coming into the NFL, said it was one of the first times a report came up completely blank: no credit cards, cell phone bills, cars, emergency medical bills. He could have successfully vanished from the planet if he had lost his social security number.
And that's just the way Rankins likes it. Boring in a good way. All about football.
As we approach another draft, that sort of clean slate is coveted by agents and players alike, and certainly affects the decision-making process for general managers. For Rankins, he says it's natural. But in a frenzied push for draft-stock growth, some will merely accept a well-constructed façade that comes at a steep financial price tag and ends up potentially muddling the evaluation process. Character concerns have altered the NFL in a significant and irreversible way. General managers and scouts who have always viewed character and talent as Yin and Yang are spending more time than ever grilling equipment-staff members, teachers, assistant coaches, parents and teammates to try and find out what is really going on.
"I'm just not one of those guys who gets away from home and starts acting like he wasn't raised by people with common sense," Rankins said. "It wasn't really a sacrifice for me, but I knew what I wanted to do. I came here to play ball and get to the next level."
At the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine alone, media in attendance watched as one promising prospect, Robert Nkemdiche, hurled his former teammate, likely top-five pick Laremy Tunsil, under the bus by saying Tunsil was there when Nkemdiche fell out of a fourth-story window and eventually was charged with marijuana possession. (Nkemdiche denied using marijuana.) Nkemdiche later walked the comments back in an interview on NFL Network -- saying Tunsil was with him in Atlanta, though not in the hotel room when the incident occurred -- but further damage to his reputation had been done.
Nkemdiche is part of a lengthy list of players who keep scouts up at night. Personnel types can answer, without hesitation, questions about height, weight, speed, hand size and arm length. Yet, they all struggle with the most basic human question: How can we tell if he is a good person?
How will that play out on the field, and how can we measure one's effect on the other?
How can anyone?
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Before we get into the ethics, here's a Tim Tebow story.
Tebow was preparing for the combine back in January of 2010. It was right before the Senior Bowl, and he scheduled a meeting with Ken Herock, a former player, coach, scout, personnel exec and now interview preparation expert for the stars. Herock's client rolodex includes some of the largest agents in the business: Drew Rosenhaus, Pat Dye, Hadley Engelhard, Joe Linta, Eugene Lee, Chitta Mallik, Ken Sarnoff and Joel Segal. Players fly him out on emergency calls before their pro days.
Herock mocked a combine meeting setup with a white board and asked Tebow to take a marker and draw out his base offense. Herock would then draw a defense, and the two would play a little chess back and forth.
"Which base offense do you want me to draw?" Tebow asked at the time.
"What do you mean?" Herock responded.
"Well, I know Florida's offense," Tebow said. "But the Dolphins are coaching us at the Senior Bowl this year. We managed to get our hands on a copy of their playbook and I memorized that just in case. I could run everything they are going to do."
"I said, 'You don't need me, Tim,' " Herock recalled in a telephone interview. "I knew he was going to be able to talk his way into the first round."
This is the kind of gold-leaf coating that gets a kid drafted far earlier than he should have been. Tebow could remember names, shake hands and smile. And he could also blend it with a unique, boyish charm. Resistance was futile.
But for every natural, there are combine and pre-draft interviews that end up becoming legendary for all the wrong reasons.
According to one executive who wished to keep the player's name and team private, a first-round pick with background issues walked into his office a few years back at the combine in Indianapolis. As the 15-minute clock started (official combine interviews are timed and cannot go past 15 minutes), the player was asked about a glaring mishap on his personal record -- an ordeal that had garnered some attention in the lead-up to the draft.
The player's response began promptly, but by the time he was done explaining just a portion of the issue's inner workings and subplots, the time was up. Fifteen minutes were over, and the team thanked him for stopping by.
The executive remembers looking around a near-silent room at a staff trying to hold in laughter.
"Shoot," the exec said to his cohorts. "I might have him in for an official pre-draft visit just so I can hear the ending!"
That gaffe might have cost the player, who is still in the league and playing at a high level, when it came to his ultimate draft position. The actual incident may or may not have been an indication of character, but a lack of polish in explaining it only enhanced a lingering issue.
In both cases -- with Tebow and the anonymous player -- there was something obscuring the central truth leading up to the draft. Tebow's ability as a public speaker and professional charmer muddled the fact that he eventually was going to struggle with the implementation of these offenses and concepts. The anonymous player, who is still one of the better players at his position, had all the ability but none of the conversational skills to place his issues into the proper context.
"The hardest thing we do is try to figure out what's in a man's heart," Seattle Seahawks GM John Schneider told NFL Media's Albert Breer back in 2014. "In the realm of scouting, the easiest things to do are the evaluations of the guys -- how he plays, what you think his future holds, how high his ceiling is, what his basement is. You can do all the work in the world, you can do every psychological test you possibly can -- but at the end of the day, you don't truly know what's in a man's heart or how he's gonna react in a certain situation."
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Rankins is hoping that he has checked all the boxes, both with his personality and his on-field acumen. According to one Louisville source, the New York Giants called Rankins one of the best combine interviews they'd ever conducted. Rankins was polite and knew everyone's title and position. Sometimes, little things go a long way.
According to his agency, he received no private help outside of the media training provided at his pre-combine workout facility -- something that was included in the package. Rankins' demeanor and relationship with Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, a former NFL defensive coordinator and defensive line coach, led agency handlers to believe Rankins did not need any additional coaching.
Rankins' agency had previously retained ex-Chicago Bears GM Jerry Angelo as a teaching tool from time to time leading up to prior drafts. Angelo would speak to players, warn them about what types of questions they might face and coach them into being draftable. While he saw Rankins play and went on about his ability, he liked even better hearing that "boring" was a part of his pre-draft dossier.
"The boring-er, the better. I love being bored. I love boring players," Angelo said. "You know what you get with boring players? Low maintenance. That's a good thing on his résumé, and I think people will see that as a strength."
Rankins credits his mom, who taught him the kind of conversational basics that have carried him throughout the process: Be kind to everyone. Shake hands. Look people in the eye. Be humble.
"Just be respectful to everybody," Rankins said. "I mean, throughout the process, they're going to talk to everybody. Of course your coaches, but they're going to ask the equipment guys, the janitors. They're going to talk to random people on campus. The better you are within your community, the better it speaks for you down the line.
"All it takes is for somebody to have one encounter with you and it's bad and they'll have bad things to say about you. That's their impression."
Still, Rankins struggles with the concept of "putting himself on the national radar." While he's routinely been mocked in the top 15 picks of this month's draft, he is rarely discussed amid the massive and endless car wash of pre-draft programming that dominates the weeks leading up to the main event. Does a little bit of panache help? Some GMs prefer players who "command the room," and others want a sellable "face of the franchise."
"Is it being loud and rah-rah and, Hey, look at me! I'm here! ... ?" Rankins said. "I just like to let my body of work speak for itself."
He was smart enough about the pre-draft process to know that everything he does can reflect positively or negatively on the end result. But in his mind, it's not really a sacrifice.
"It's not to say [it's the only way]. Guys that go out -- [Rob Gronkowski], for example -- he parties, but on Sundays, he scores touchdowns and you still can't cover him," Rankins said. "So it's whatever works for that person -- that's what they should do. So I don't look at it as a sacrifice, that's who I am. I like to hang around my room, watch TV and kick it with guys who have the same aspirations as I do."
On his visits with the Bengals, Cowboys, Buccaneers and Bills, Rankins said he was not asked any of the questions that have come to define the pre-draft process -- inquiries into the psyche and personal lives of players in an effort to test nerves -- which he took as a sign that he did things the right way.
There might not be a sexy way to discuss an interior defensive lineman who has earned on-field comparisons to the Rams' Aaron Donald and Titans' Jurrell Casey from various draft analysts, yet Rankins lights up when describing his ability to bounce across three positions -- nose tackle, standard defensive tackle and end. As a freshman, learning the playbook was a survival mechanism and helped him break through a crowded depth chart to earn playing time. By the time he was a junior, it was a passion project that allowed Grantham to use him like a miniature J.J. Watt.
The visits were about illustrating this on a white board. Showing coaches where he would line up and how he would attack weaknesses. He offered up his best film and worst film, ready to explain why certain rush techniques were better than others.
He wanted the conversation to be about football, and it was.
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Now, here's a Johnny Manziel story.
Four years after Tim Tebow, Johnny Football walked into the scouting combine as a complete reclamation project. He had to shed the questions about his commitment to football and preference for the night life.
He worked the room. He knew everyone's name. He looked everyone in the eye.
"We've found nothing that's come across as a fatal flaw to us," Jacksonville Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell told TheMMQB.com's Peter King at the time. Caldwell ended up selecting Blake Bortles with the No. 3 pick in that draft, and if it weren't for the Cleveland Browns, Manziel might have slipped out of the first round altogether.
Still, agents and executives at the combine that year heard the stories. Getting Manziel drafted in the first round might have been one of the greatest modern achievements of the Draft Factory and its relentless focus on training and interview prep.
"You heard about people being caught up in his interview process, how he was so amazing," Marc Lillibridge, a former NFL player, scout and agent, said. "But that was the big question for him: Does he love the game? He comes from all this money -- family money -- and how was he going to handle it? And he came across as very sincere.
"I mean, heck, he did it again. He did it coming out of rehab, too."
For Herock, the interview expert, he does not see his job as an act of deception. Making someone like Manziel sound like Tebow is no different than lifting weights or studying a playbook. (For the record, Manziel was not listed among Herock's clients on his site, nor did Herock say he ever worked with Manziel.)
"We're not trying to fool anybody," Herock said. "We're trying to do the best we can do. Are you fooling a team in the 40-yard dash because you've trained in the 40? They're going in there trained. We're just going in there to make the presentation we can make."
Herock's base service includes a seminar for all of an agent's clients that lasts roughly three hours, and then individual three-hour meetings with each client. He says that prospects leave with the knowledge of "every question under the sun" that an NFL team might ask. He said he did not train players specifically on what to do if a coach asked about sexual orientation, like an Atlanta Falcons assistant did during the 2016 combine, but he did teach them how to answer any "outrage" questions that are typically asked to elicit a response under pressure.
"I sure didn't cover the question about, 'Do you prefer men?' or whatever stupid-ass question that was. But if someone asks a stupid question like that of my guy, you know what they're instructed to say? 'How does that pertain to football?' "
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How does that pertain to football?
In essence, that is the question that every person employed by a football team spends December through late April trying to answer.
PATH TO THE DRAFT
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What is a prepared answer? What is an honest answer? Who can translate into a locker room full of 52 other players, each with a radically different socioeconomic and financial background?
For Rankins, he just prefers to be himself. Through a series of pre-draft interviews, he talked at length about what makes a good prospect, but he knew that his way wasn't the only way. It's the one underlying comfort in a process that can yield 1,000 questions: At least I did it my way.
That's why he turned down the chance to be in the green room in Chicago next Thursday. There is just something about hanging out at home and ordering some chicken wings.
"I haven't had a soda in a while, so I might have one of those, too, just to relax my nerves," Rankins said when asked about his plans for draft night. "I'm a cold Coke guy. Nothing beats a cold Coca-Cola."
Follow Conor Orr on Twitter @ConorOrr.