As the 2014 NFL Draft began Thursday night, Nick Winkelman sat in front of his TV anxiously waiting to hear the name of one of the players he helped train for the combine. He sends congratulatory texts when his guys get picked and receives similarly exulted reply. He keeps them. After being chosen 10th overall in 2011, quarterback Blaine Gabbert wrote, “I couldn’t have done this without you.” Winkelman was waiting patiently to find out which player would be thanking him the most profusely this year.
For Winkelman, who heads the draft development program for EXOS, the world’s largest private training corporation, the draft is the culmination of a lot of nerve-wracking work. Training with Winkelman is the first step in many players’ professional careers. By investing in them, he boosts their stock, but there is only so much he can do. “Many of these guys, they’ll be like your son for the eight weeks you have them before the combine,” Winkelman says. “I feel like dad.” When Prince Amukamara ran a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash, Winkelman sprained his finger high-fiving an agent.
The question that lingers keeps Winkleman up at night: “Did we do enough work with them?” He knows scouts and talking heads will rank his clients and he wants to see expectations exceeded. He cites Dontari Poe, the 350-pound defensive tackle out of Memphis picked in the first round by the Chiefs in 2012, as a personal success. “When I first got him, he was considered the fifth or sixth best defensive tackle in the draft,” Winkelman says. “He goes to the combine and runs a 4.92 electronic 40, jumps out of his shoes, moves incredibly well and they give him one of the top-10 performances at the combine of all time.” Poe was predicted to go in the mid 40s. He was picked eleventh overall.
Wikelman’s list of pre-NFL pupils includes RG III, J.J. Watt, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, and Demaryius Thomas. He likes to boast that he saw the potential in Randall Cobb when NFL executives did not. “Draft wise, he went where he should, but I could’ve told you from Day 1 he was a first round talent.”
The reputation of Winkelman and the EXOS program may be best reflected in their demand from agents, who reserve spots at EXOS facilities around the country as bargaining chips when recruiting players to sign with them. At $8,000 to $12,000, a player gets an all-inclusive package that includes advanced equipment, plush lodging and nutrition plans. Abbott’s EAS Sports Nutrition sponsors the plan, which is meticulously customized down to the exact breakdown of protein, carbohydrates per meal and even per drink.
The system must work. Winkelman has already texted Odell Beckham Jr. (drafted 12th by the Giants) and defensive tackle Aaron Donald (drafted 13th by the Rams). Now he’s waiting to see where Brandon Coleman, the wide receiver out of Rutgers will land. Winkelman is convinced that Coleman, who suffered through injuries in college, has a big NFL career ahead of him. After Winkelman worked with him, he ran a low 4.5 40 at the combine. Now the trainer and the player just have to wait for someone to take a chance.