Brian Hendricks and developmental players

Wyoming senior linebacker Brian Hendricks understands the odds. He knows that he’s at best likely to be a late pick or an undrafted free agent, but he also knows that NFL teams place additional value on athletes who have the basic skillset that can be developed into a particular position or function in football. He’s always been athletic, and he’s channeled that athleticism into football for the last four years. It’s where he wants to have a career. But like a lot of young players, he doesn’t have top and elite skills - yet. But Hendricks believes that with time, constant effort and training, he can contribute to a team. The question is going to be whether one of the 32 NFL teams believes that enough to take him on and give him a shot. If one does, it will be because that organization believes that he can be developed enough to be a regular contributor to the team.

Teams are looking for a lot of different things from the players that they take, but there are certain things that the teams tend to have in common. Every team wants a player who has a history of making key plays at important times. Hendricks, for example, made a touchdown-saving stop at the two-yard line (one of his nine tackles that day) against Colorado State in Fort Collins for the final regular season game of his college career. The tackle led to a chance for the Cowboys to make an interception in the endzone two plays later, saving a touchdown and helping the Cowboys to a 22-19 victory. The performance earned Brian his second Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week award. Those kinds of plays never hurt. Players who come up big with something on the line are essential to the team that wants to win the close ones - as Denver often did during the middle of 2011.

Teams are looking for effort, for overall athleticism, and they want to know what kind of athlete the player has been in the past. As for Hendricks, he was a state champion wrestler before college, and that will count in his favor. The teams want players for whom football is their primary interest - the study of it near to an obsession. The tales of borderline players who worked harder than anyone else in the locker room and achieved Hall of Fame status aren’t unusual - finding players with that kind of intensity is. 

The ‘Albert Haynesworth problem’ ranges from players taking plays off here and there to those players who, regardless of natural skill, start taking games and even seasons off. No team can afford to have players that they can’t count on, every play. Even on the broadcast film, lack of effort tends to stand out clearly. It’s the kiss of death for players who don’t have elite skillsets that might balance the equation in some degree. Increasingly, teams aren’t interested in taking the chance. The competition is too intense and the stakes far too high.

Every player has to be able to achieve a basic level of skills, skills that they demonstrate in bowl games, Combine and/or Pro Day performances. The fewer chances the player has, the more weight each opportunity to show those skills will carry with scouts. It still only takes one team to believe in a prospect. The basic drills that are there in Combine and for Pro Days are the equivalent of a basic skills exam that many companies use to screen potential workers. If the player has the resources, they tend to flow to the predraft programs that are now open everywhere in the country. Denver’s strength and conditioning coach Luke Richesson was a trainer at one of the first and best known, Athlete’s Performance, commonly known as API since the name was once Athlete’s Performance Institute. Richesson pointed out,

Maximum absolute strength gains are not the goal. There’s a time and a place for that, but someone that early in the game, they’re not prepared mentally or physically for that.

Not every player has to be able to run a 4.5-second 40-yard dash or bench 225 lb 30 times, but every one of them needs to prove that they have the essential skills to be developed further over their career. That’s Richesson’s task - showing each player how to develop their skillset without increasing chances of injury.

In the maturity, work ethic and controlled aggression of Spencer Larsen, a player who may not get a lot of press but who’s been a key aspect of the Broncos’ offense, you can see a player who might have struggled in a 4-3 or even 3-4 ILB role (and when I use such numbers, it’s merely identifying primary defensive formations for a team - in the modern NFL, nearly all teams run some degree of hybrid on those archetypes) now starts at fullback. Many teams are looking for the next Antonio Gates, the next power forward who can become an All-Pro tight end. Sometimes you find key pieces in unlikely places.

When looking at a player, a basic NFL skillset and proof of what they can do well is only part of the evaluation - the rest will depend on how the player interviews, handles himself, and whether he shows signs of skills that can be developed - ‘upside’, as it’s commonly called. Evaluations will potentially include questions from position coaches, general managers, team presidents and vice presidents, scouts, personnel directors, and trainers. Teams have become expert at using their allotted 15-minute interviews to pull out the basics of how to spot players for their own system.

Every player who makes it to Combine can also expect a slew of medical examinations for the smallest problems. Drug testing is part of the expectation, and each year it’s astounding to me how many college graduates can’t count to 30 and know how many it takes for certain drugs to clear their systems. They also average about two MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) studies on old injuries per player - what was once reserved for serious concerns for top candidates has become a far more thorough process. Even so, many players will slip through the cracks, either in terms of their potential medical issues or in terms of other aspects of their play.

For Hendricks, he understands that while he may not be the best player on the field, the hours of sweat, effort, and one-on-one competition that wrestling developed in him also brought skills that NFL scouts value. He wrestled in prep school in the 210 lb division and made a name for himself with back-to-back state championships his junior and senior years - it shows how highly he competes, tells you that he’s not afraid of working hard in less than pleasant conditions, and how athletic he is as a baseline. He thinks about that old training at times as he prepares for his Pro Day, his one chance to show off to the NFL scouts his skillset and his abilities. He led his team in tackles last season with 105, including a sack and 3.5 TFL. Now he has to take what he’s developed and put it on display.

Teams will probably see Hendricks, and many players like him, as possible special teams specialists, perhaps as a late-round pick or UDFA. When you’re filling out the late picks in the draft with names that many fans have never heard, you want to find someone who can quickly contribute to the team - the classic ‘value pick’. Denver TE Virgil Green is a good example - he dropped from being a projected third-rounder all the way to being taken in the seventh round (204th overall) on injury concerns. He isn’t going to be a Rob Gronkowski anytime soon, but at 6’5 and 252 lb his blocking as a rookie became one key to Denver’s league-leading running attack. It’s all about finding a role for players while they develop: Green showed signs of improvement, and the coaches noticed the effort he put in - it will help his chances next training camp as well.

We as fans often see players when they arrive as rookies as if they are frozen in amber, bringing but a single skillset to the table and who are unlikely to change or improve on it much. It’s a myopic viewpoint that NFL scouts and players have repeatedly tried to overcome in various ways, from venturing into small schools to looking at players like Hendricks: a player who wants to just make a team and give it all he has. To then develop his skillset for higher roles has a lot of value, but only if he has the basic abilities required to earn that training.

Wrestling and other martial arts can be effective adjuncts sport for football players because of the qualities that they nurture within the athlete - balance, moving from the core or center and properly controlled aggression being among the several key attributes. Wrestling has multiple similarities to football - starting with the constantly changing angles of the hand-to-hand combat of the line play that will be expected from new guard C.J. Davis, for instance. Then there's the technique and vehemence that are required to tackle well, as Hendricks hopes to polish, and the balance that can make the difference between going out of bounds or dancing down the sideline on the way to the end zone, as Denver hopes to see from new receiver Jason Hill. All of these are part and parcel of the skills of wrestling. Hendricks knows wrestling - he was 102-1 in prep school with those two state championships to his name. As Hendricks told Jeff Legwold,

I think it has helped me as a (football) player, especially when it comes to linebacker. You need to have that attack mentality. On tackling, for sure. In wrestling you're always working on double leg (takedowns), and that looks a lot like a tackle when you get right down to it.

I think it has helped me play with balance, understand leverage, that kind of thing.

That kind of thing, indeed. Runners who power through arm tackles may have several attributes that help - power, pad level, and lower body strength are all essentials - but many of the true greats like Walter Payton and Barry Sanders, not to mention Terrell Davis, had nearly preternatural balance as they ran. Balance and leverage are essential to tackling and defense as much as they are to offense. One of the beauties that I find to the wars in the trenches is watching to see the techniques that 300+ lb behemoths use to either evade or stop each other. The smallest things - the angle of the feet, the exact bend in the knees, the power of the initial punch, the drive with the hips - all of these come from balance and core musculature and are strengthened by and strengthen in return, the players’ ability in leverage, which is part of every position.

What brings balance and develops leverage? How does a player improve his? Constant training, of course, but how? If Denver - or any other team - takes on Hendricks, how will they approach maximizing his skillset?

When I was in clinic, it didn’t take long to develop substantial humility in terms of recognizing what I did and did not know. My first clinics were multi-modality setups, with practitioners of various approaches working together. Our overall system of healthcare right now depends on primary care providers who often function as ‘gatekeepers’. From that point on, you’re usually dealing with specialists, which can be very helpful - no one, ever, has known everything, and specialists study a particular system or area of the body in intricate detail. Having a lot of options already at hand, I quickly learned that if you don’t know something, listen to someone who does.

In this case, that someone is going to be Luke Richesson, the Broncos' new strength and conditioning coach. Next time we’re going to get into his approach, including linking to video of him training NFL players specifically to improve their balance and leverage. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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