Draft prospects are evaluated first by game tape. How they perform in tests of speed, quickness and strength also influences their stock. Body measurables are important. Medical exams can be critical.
And now, more than ever, mental health is a significant factor.
“The biggest thing that has been emphasized in the past year or so is the mental health issue,” one veteran head coach said. “Anxiety has impacted so many players.”
It has been standard for team evaluators to dedicate one meeting every April to medical reviews and another to security issues. This year, for the first time, one team has dedicated a meeting to the psychological makeup of players, according to one prominent front-office person.
“There’s more awareness than in the past,” Colts general manager Chris Ballard said. “Our organization has been front and center with the Kicking The Stigma campaign. We’re all more aware that people have issues and need help.”
The NFL’s emphasis on mental health is reflective of a changing world.
At least two players were overcome by stress at the combine in March and backed out of commitments, sources say. In team interviews, many prospects acknowledged taking anti-anxiety medication or antidepressants. Many more are taking stimulants for attention deficit disorder. Others say they use marijuana to address stress.
The front-office members of an NFC team met with a sports sociologist in the offseason to learn more about how young people are coping — and struggling to cope.
Running back Ricky Williams and wide receiver Brandon Marshall were pioneers in raising awareness for mental health in the NFL. Williams was open about suffering from social anxiety, and Marshall shared that he has borderline personality disorder.
A number of players currently in the league have shared their mental health struggles. Among them are AJ Brown, DJ Chark, Randy Gregory, Everson Griffen, Hayden Hurst, Lane Johnson, Darius Leonard and Solomon Thomas. On a broader scale, public revelations by gymnast Simone Biles, tennis player Naomi Osaka and swimmer Michael Phelps have empowered athletes to come forward with mental health struggles.
“It used to be taboo to talk about it,” said agent Peter Schaffer, who helped Gregory, one of his clients identify his social anxiety. “Now it’s not embarrassing to say, ‘I had it and I beat it and I want to make sure others who are going through it know they have support and a path.’”
A scouting director said he has found out about some players’ mental health issues by researching their social media feeds.
“With this generation, it’s embraced,” he said. “It’s almost a celebration, not an embarrassment as it may have been perceived in the past. And the league is trying to embrace it.”
There is no doubt young people are more open about mental health issues than previous generations were. But more of them also may be afflicted.
About 13 percent of 350 players on one team’s draft board are flagged for mental health concerns. The veteran head coach said he interviewed 60 players face-to-face, and six of them acknowledged mental health issues — a higher percentage than in past years.
Kyle Shanahan, head coach of the 49ers, points to social media as a major factor in young people’s mental health issues. (Kelley L. Cox / USA Today)
Head coach Kyle Shanahan listened to 49ers scouts reading their reports on draftable prospects. He said about one out of five had some kind of mental health concern, which is significantly more than he remembers from past years.
Shanahan also said he has seen a significant increase in prospects who have experienced psychological counseling.
“I can’t tell you how many people in the draft process that we heard battled anxiety early in his college career, then he saw a sports therapist and he has a handle on that now,” said Shanahan, who is 42 years old. “The kids are coming up now, it’s so common for them. It wasn’t that common for me when we were coming up even though we were starting to talk about it. And I know with my parents, they had none of it.”
What has changed?
Many mental health care professionals, including Tracy Vonnorsdall, a neuropsychologist and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, have drawn a link between the COVID-19 pandemic and anxiety or depression. Football players certainly aren’t immune from that.
“The isolation affected people,” Ballard said. “And getting back to what we call normal life has been difficult for some. These last two years have been hard.”
There is more. “A lot has to do with social media and the way players look at themselves,” the veteran head coach said. “The other thing is fantasy football, especially with the players who touch the ball. Then you throw in gambling. They are being judged in a different way than players ever were judged. There are outside forces that we never thought about before.”
Shanahan recalls feeling uneasy about reading a newspaper article if his father, Mike Shanahan, experienced a tough loss as an NFL head coach.
“But it wasn’t being flashed on your phones to you and all your friends at every single second,” he said. “These phones in everybody’s hands at all times of the day have changed everything. It’s really hard for younger people to avoid because it’s the reality of their world, and it can’t be healthy.
“I can tell when I walk in a room if my wife has been on social media. It’s like, ‘What’s going on? Why do you seem so upset?’ You have to get away from that stuff. If I sat and read those phones, it would take me a few hours to feel normal again.”
Almost every team employs a psychologist or a clinician on staff. Some have both. Some of the psychologists and clinicians are full-time. The NFL mandates that each team has a clinician in their facility for at least eight hours per week.
In-house mental health professionals help teams evaluate prospects and usually are part of the interview process. Then once the players are part of a team, the psychologists or clinicians are available for counseling. Every team has a player program representative who is also involved in making a plan for those who need help.
The draft work of team psychologists had been assigned to team internists previously. Then for a while, it was mostly outsourced.
Psychological testing also can help teams understand prospects. Since 2013, the NFL has asked players to take their Player Assessment Test at the combine. It takes about an hour to complete and measures personality traits. The PAT is not a mental health assessment, per se, but it can reveal issues by measuring stress tolerance, ability to make decisions under stress and emotional stability.
Many teams use their own psychological tests. Some contract with Human Resources Tactics, which asks players at the Senior Bowl and combine to take a 20-minute test that measures social maturity. “It can raise red flags that make you look deeper into a player,” a second general manager said.
Players and their agents realize that being too forthcoming could negatively impact their draft stock, and they subsequently can be cautious with their responses on tests and in interviews. Schaffer said from an agent’s perspective, he would not try to hide a mental health issue, but he wouldn’t promote it if it wasn’t already public.
“Most players know what to say and what not to say,” the scouting director said. “They’ve been coached up. Some are open, but a lot are not. And it’s hard for us to pry because of legal issues.”
Teams have to be careful about how they evaluate a mental health issue.
“We have had a couple players that were tagged for mental health, and then we visited with them and decided they didn’t have issues,” Ballard said. “I tell our scouts to be very careful with it. People will say a guy has depression issues, and it might just be the kid had a bad day and was tagged. You can’t be guessing with this.”
But it’s challenging unless a player has gone public with a mental health issue or volunteers the information in an interview.
“We put a lot into it and still don’t know,” the second general manager said. “There’s a gray area, and you can’t always ask direct questions.”
There is no question a player’s draft stock can be adversely affected by a mental health issue. As one team’s senior adviser said, “It’s a cold NFL.”
But maybe not quite as cold as it once was.
“It’s getting better, no doubt,” player agent and former team executive Mike McCartney said. “If a team is deciding between two players, I wouldn’t trust that a mental health issue wouldn’t be a tiebreaker. It will be a deciding factor in not taking a player for some teams.”
Team representatives understand that selecting a player with significant problems could have serious consequences.
The Falcons selected wide receiver Calvin Ridley with the 26th pick of the 2018 draft. Ridley sat out the last 12 games of the 2021 season because of his mental health. If the Falcons had been aware of Ridley’s issue, they might not have chosen him as high.
Teams well equipped to work with players who have mental health issues may be more inclined to draft them. But a team’s risk tolerance also depends on how much talent the player has, the mentality of the team decision-makers and even the player’s position. One team was upset when it discovered one of its quarterbacks had attention deficit disorder. Scouts were criticized for not uncovering the condition, and the team moved on from the player.
That team believed a quarterback with ADD could not excel. And ultimately, a team almost assuredly will not bet on a player if it is skeptical that the player can’t overcome a mental health issue.
“From my own coaching experience in the league the last 20 years, you learn regardless of how talented people are, if they’re not in a good place off the field, rarely are they going to be good on the field,” Shanahan said . “It goes hand in hand.”
(Photo: Robin Alam / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)