Commentary

Top secret: Inside the Jets' war room

Opinions fly in locked-down bunker as fate of franchise is determined on draft day

Updated: April 21, 2012, 3:36 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Starting next Thursday night, 13 people -- and only 13 -- will sit around a long rectangular table inside the New York Jets' sprawling facility and make decisions over a three-day period that will affect the franchise for years to come.

The draft room is the most sacred place in the building. Only a select few are granted access, and the security is so tight that not even Rex Ryan can enter by himself. His assistant coaches, including coordinators, aren't allowed.

Only three people have keys: vice president of college scouting Joey Clinkscales, college scouting coordinator Dan Zbojovsky and security director Steve Yarnell.

It's a windowless room on the second floor, fairly nondescript. You could walk by it a dozen times and not realize what happens inside because there is no sign on the door, nothing that calls attention to it. It could pass for a broom closet.

There's no chance of a maintenance worker or a secretary strolling into the room and taking an innocent peek at the draft board on the wall. When unoccupied, the room is always locked. In fact, the board itself is covered and locked at the end of the day.

If Mark Sanchez had been protected this well, the Jets' 2011 season might have turned out differently.

"We don't want anybody wandering in," said Terry Bradway, the senior personnel executive -- and one of the chosen 13. "It's too risky."

Teams will do just about anything to protect their secrets, because the draft is serious business. The amount of information compiled over nearly 12 months is staggering, and it's all done with the hope of finding five or six good football players -- if you're lucky.

For the upcoming draft, the Jets scouted 1,450 players, visited 265 schools, conducted more than 300 interviews and wrote 6,000 reports. They have 10 draft picks, an unusually high number for them.

General manager Mike Tannenbaum and his lieutenants have spent the last three weeks in 12-hour draft meetings, sorting through a year's worth of intel, debating and ranking more than 200 players on their draft board.

They've invested an incalculable number of man-hours, hoping they get it right. When the door closes behind them Thursday night, they'll be on the clock.

• • •

Tannenbaum runs the show -- he has the final say -- but the Jets' draft is a collaborative effort. It's the ultimate democracy, as he solicits input from everyone, from the scouts to the scouting director to the guy who drives the prospects to and from the airport on pre-draft visits. For real.

"People work harder and more thoroughly when they feel like they have a legitimate voice," Tannenbaum said. "Everyone has had a chance to sit at the table and say, 'Here's what I think.'"

Dobbs Everyone has had a chance to sit at the table and say, 'Here's what I think.'

-- Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum

During the draft, Tannenbaum, Ryan and owner Woody Johnson -- the Big Three -- sit at the head of the big table. Ryan isn't shy about expressing his opinion -- what a shock -- but he respects the process, according to those in the room.

To their left is Clinkscales, who essentially coordinates the entire draft. He's a former NFL wide receiver who spends more than 250 days a year on the road, scouting players. He runs the all-day meetings that lead into the draft, the intensive process of evaluating players and assigning grades.

To the right is Bradway, Tannenbaum's predecessor and the most experienced talent evaluator in the room. It was Bradway who attended Darrelle Revis' pro day in 2007 and immediately called Tannenbaum to tell him "We've got no shot at this guy [with the 25th pick]. He had an unbelievable workout."

That quickie scouting report was the impetus for the Jets to trade up, which turned out to be a brilliant move.

Three years ago, Bradway and Clinkscales double-teamed Tannenbaum, imploring him to trade up in the third round for running back Shonn Greene -- a move that paid off in a big way in 2009.

Also in the room are assistant director of player personnel director JoJo Wooden, assistant general manager Scott Cohen, assistant director of college scouting Michael Davis, director of football administration Ari Nissim and two college scouts, who stand in the front of the room and move the player cards from the main draft board to individual team boards after each selection.

Dobbs Nobody in here is thin-skinned. Some things are said, but nobody takes it personally because we've all done this before and we get along.

-- Joey Clinkscales, VP of college scouting

Trainer John Mellody, with medical information on every prospect, also is present. Off in the corner, seated at a small circular table, is Zbojovsky. He wears a wireless headset, staying in constant communication with the team's reps at Radio City Music Hall.

Yarnell, in charge of background checks, isn't in the room, but he's often summoned if a player with off-the-field issues is under consideration. The assistant coaches hang out in their first-floor offices, ready to supply last-minute opinions on a player if the draft room happens to call.

The Jets have rare continuity in the draft room. Tannenbaum, Clinkscales, Bradway and Wooden have been with the Jets for 15, 17, 11 and 15 years, respectively. Their comfort level is apparent. On Thursday afternoon, they sat in Tannenbaum's office, telling old draft stories and poking fun at each other like a group of old fraternity brothers.

"Under pressure situations, we know how each other will respond -- and that makes it easier," Clinkscales said. "Nobody in here is thin-skinned. Some things are said, but nobody takes it personally because we've all done this before and we get along."

For the most part, it works. The Jets have a solid drafting record, having picked the likes of Revis, D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold and David Harris. But the last two drafts haven't been stellar and, of course, there was the biggest blunder of them all, in 2008:

Vernon Gholston.

"Look, we all make mistakes," said Tannenbaum, taking responsibility. "We're going to learn from ours."

• • •

Tannenbaum got up from his chair, walked over to his desk and retrieved a glass coffee mug. The team's mission statement is inscribed on the mug, and he read a line from the fifth paragraph: "The problems we don't solve today will find us later as larger ones."

The Jets try to avoid problem players by performing exhaustive due diligence on every prospect. A final report on a player will include the names of his brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles and a picture of his house. This isn't just football scouting; there's an element of detective work, too.

"We do everything humanly possible," Clinkscales said.

Get this: Every member of the Jets' support staff that has contact with a prospect is required to write a report. If a staffer is dispatched to Newark Airport to pick up a player for a visit to the facility, he chronicles his observations.

Was the player rude? Did he play the radio too loudly? Did he yap incorrigibly on his cellphone?

In '07, the Jets received a glowing report on Revis, who was respectful and courteous to his driver. A well-mannered player isn't necessarily destined for greatness, but it's a small part of the overall puzzle.

Obviously, the Jets have a track record for taking chances on problem players, such as Santonio Holmes, so their words might sound hollow. But they believe they make informed decisions, placing an emphasis on character.

When a highly regarded prospect fell asleep on the couch outside Tannenbaum's office a few years ago, it was a major turnoff. Imagine dozing at a job interview; it's hardly the best way to impress a potential employer.

"If a guy's a [jerk] when he has no money and you give him $5 million, he's going to be a bigger [jerk]," Tannenbaum said.

So the Jets take a painstaking approach to digging up as much as they can on a player. Just the other day, they invited a staff intern into the draft room to share insight on prospects from his school.

Three years ago, they took an 11th-hour trip to Florida to meet with wide receiver Percy Harvin, who had some off-the-field issues. The Jets' concern was satisfied and they tried (and failed) to trade up for him, offering a future first-round pick.

Despite their best efforts, the Jets have missed on some background checks. In 2008, they used a fifth-round pick on quarterback Erik Ainge, who admitted last year in an interview with ESPNNewYork.com that he was addicted to painkillers throughout his years at Tennessee. In 2010, he checked into rehab and never returned to the NFL.

• • •

The most draft-room tension occurred in 2009, when the Jets traded up for Mark Sanchez. It was so nerve-racking that Tannenbaum tried to create good karma in the room by making an unusual request: He asked everybody to think of their most recent act of kindness.

He typically asks players to do the same thing during pre-draft interviews, an outside-the-box question to get inside a player's head. This time, it was a nondenominational form of prayer as they waited to learn whether their plan to acquire Sanchez was a go or a bust.

The Seattle Seahawks, picking fourth, were on the clock. The Cleveland Browns were next. The night before, the Jets had worked out the parameters of a trade with the Browns, a move that would enable them to jump from 17th to fifth.

But they needed Sanchez to be available.

Dobbs We don't want everybody in there to have the same opinion.

-- Terry Bradway, senior personnel executive

Tick … tick … tick …

The Seahawks passed on Sanchez and took linebacker Aaron Curry, causing relief in the Jets' draft room. But the drama wasn't over because they still had to finalize the trade. It was time to play high-stakes poker; Tannenbaum wanted the Browns to make the first move.

So they waited, staring at the phone, hoping.

After 70 seconds, the phone rang, with a 440 area code flashing on the screen -- Cleveland. The room exploded, and the Jets had their quarterback.

The draft room always isn't as emotionally charged as that. Most times, it's … uh, boring.

Like draftniks across the country, they're watching on TV, flipping between ESPN and the NFL Network. The excitement usually doesn't pick up until it gets to within five or six picks from their selection.

"The first round is a made-for-TV event," Tannenbaum said. "You make one decision in six hours."

When their pick gets close, they will identify five or six names on their draft board and, perhaps, explore potential trades. That's when the debate begins, right?

Not exactly.

The board is finalized a few days before the draft, with a specific pecking order. All disputes occur in the pre-draft meetings, not when they're on the clock.

"We don't want everybody in there to have the same opinion," Bradway said. "By draft day, everything is settled."

There's more room for debate in the later rounds, when the focus shifts from "best available" to "need." A year ago, Davis made an impassioned plea for nose tackle Kenrick Ellis, whom the Jets chose in the third round despite a pending felony charge.

Several years ago, before he was the GM, Tannenbaum got so flustered with a pick that he threw his notebook across the draft room. His colleagues still tease him about that moment.

Next weekend, the Jets will have down time at the start of Day 3 because they have no fourth-round pick. It will be similar to three years ago, when they had no selections in the fourth and fifth rounds. Tannenbaum & Co. passed the time by watching tape of potential sixth-round choices.

It wasn't a pleasant exercise. One prospect was worse than the next, according to Bradway. They ran out of time and never got a chance to watch Matt Slauson's tape. Otherwise, who knows how it would've turned out? They wound up picking Slauson, who developed into the starting left guard.

Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you make your own luck.

And sometimes, when it's out of your control, you think good thoughts. The draft room always has room for that.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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