SBJ/May 6-12, 2013/Labor and Agents

Calm in the storm

In NYC, agent Dogra stays connected to solve NFL draft puzzle

It’s the day before the most unpredictable NFL draft in recent history and the agent who has represented the most first-round draft picks over the past dozen years is working the phones while trying to eat lunch in a midtown Manhattan hotel.

The sound on Ben Dogra’s iPhone 5 is fully maxed, and he can’t take two bites of his pasta in the restaurant at the Marriott Marquis because his phone keeps going off in a bold, brassy ring tone. “Bah, bah, dah, dah, dum,” blares the phone — it’s the opening riff from the George Thorogood and the Destroyers’ classic “Bad to the Bone.”

The constant activity from Ben Dogra's phone was in stark contrast to his calm demeanor in the days leading up to the NFL draft.
Photo by: LIZ MULLEN / STAFF
But its pulsating tone plays in stark contrast to Dogra’s personality, which is calm and all business.

Dogra is co-head of CAA Sports’ powerful football representation practice, which represents more than 100 NFL players, including many of the biggest stars in the league. Over his 18 years in the business, Dogra has built his client list, in large part, from the ground up by signing the top players in college football and representing them through the draft.

From 2001 through 2012, Dogra represented 49 first-round draft picks, more than any other agent. (Tom Condon, his partner at CAA Sports’ football division, was second with 38.)

Dogra is looking to add to that number, and on the Wednesday before the 2013 draft, he uses the lobby restaurant as his temporary office because there is business to be done.

During a two-plus-hour lunch, Dogra talks a bit, eats less and looks constantly at his ringing phone. The sound for texts is “Bad to the Bone,” too, just not quite as loud. Dogra doesn’t have sound on for emails because he figures if it’s important enough, people will call or text.

Jimmy Sexton, Dogra’s former competitor and current partner at CAA, joins him at the table and orders a Reuben. The two talk briefly before Dogra is interrupted.

“I have to take this,” he says and steps away from the table. “I always take calls. Always.”

Clubs around the league have already set their draft boards, but they are finalizing their plans. During lunch, he takes calls or texts from nine NFL general managers, as well as other top-level executives.

'He understands what they are saying'

Ben Dogra has long had the reputation of being among the top recruiters of the best college football players in the nation. It is something his rivals have both marveled and wondered about.

“Oh, I know how he is, I’ve recruited against him,” said his partner for the last year, Jimmy Sexton.

Asked what makes Dogra different, Sexton pauses and says it is all about his ability to read situations and relate to people, especially football players.

“I think the key is he understands what they are saying,” he said of Dogra and football people. “There are a lot of great lawyers, CPAs, whatever you want to call them — who are out there that, from an analytical standpoint, can look at the factors in contracts and do great in this business. But there are not a lot of them out there that can relate to the players.

That is the key to this business. You have to be able to relate, and I think Ben does that as well as anybody.”

Dogra began his career working for veteran NFL player agent Jim Steiner, who later sold his firm to the former SFX Sports. David Falk, who was Dogra’s boss at SFX for a few years, says, “My feeling is many players don’t know what criteria to use to hire an agent. What you want to do is hire the person owners feel most comfortable dealing with, and Ben has had an outstanding track record with draft picks and at the table.”

— Liz Mullen
The 49ers want to restructure linebacker Patrick Willis’ contract to move some money from his base salary into a signing bonus, which allows the club salary cap relief. San Francisco needs that flexibility, Dogra explains, to sign draft picks and make any possible trades. Dogra immediately calls Willis, who was the 11th overall pick of the 2007 NFL draft, and $1.7 million is moved from his base salary to a signing bonus that doesn’t count against the cap.

Then there is a call from Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn and Dogra steps away to sit at another table 20 feet away in the mostly empty restaurant. He talks privately while writing on a yellow legal pad. Dogra and Blackburn have been negotiating a deal for months for the team’s unrestricted free agent tackle Andre Smith. “They wanted to know if they could get it done, because it would impact their decision whether to draft another offensive tackle in the NFL draft,” Dogra says.

He obviously assures the team, because two days later Cincinnati announced it had re-signed Smith to a three-year deal.

All of this comes amid Dogra’s focus on the main business at hand: trying to know the unknowable, which is what is going to happen at the draft, which will begin the following night just a few blocks away at Radio City Music Hall.

Dogra’s goal is to get a full sense of the draft board, to anticipate where his clients — and competitors’ clients — will end up being taken during the three days. He wants to be able to arm CAA Football’s 10 prospects, and their families, with as much information as possible, giving them some sense of certainty in what is one of the most uncertain nights of their athletic life.

“He has the ability to get great information,” Sexton says of Dogra.

Dogra (right) at a Knicks game with (from left) Luke Joeckel, Bjöern Werner and Sheldon Richardson
As is tradition, Dogra gets to New York two days before the draft. “I want to be on the ground in case there is any problem,” he says. In addition to Dogra, Sexton and Condon, CAA Football has five other employees in New York to help clients.

At lunch, Dogra and Sexton immediately focus on making sure that four of their most highly rated players — Luke Joeckel, Sheldon Richardson, Bjöern Werner and Eric Reid — are not left in the “green room” at the end of Thursday night, undrafted and left to answer questions. Those four have been in New York City since Tuesday (three of them took in the Knicks game with Dogra the night before) and have brought along family and friends for one of their most celebrated nights. With the first round in prime time on Thursday night, and the second and third rounds on Friday evening, there is more pressure on players — and their agents — in the green room. If they are not taken in the first round, they have to wait an excruciating 18 hours for the second round to start and deal with the PR fallout.

So, Dogra is working the phones to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“I don’t expect them to tell me what they are going to do,” he says of NFL clubs. “It is a real-life game of poker, so you try to get as much information from as many different sources as you can. And then you try to piece a puzzle together.”

Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff says he does not, and he doesn’t believe other general managers, tell agents what they plan to do on draft day, but Dogra has a way of figuring things out.

“Most of us are particular about how much information we do give out, but Ben has a knack of being able to take the select information he does receive and put the puzzle together.” Dimitroff said. “Through his approach, his connections, his relationships — Ben is so intensely and intuitively connected in this league — he is able to glean information that very few are.”

On ESPN that Wednesday, the network’s draftniks were projecting that Joeckel, the Texas A&M offensive tackle, was the most likely No. 1 pick, which was held by the Kansas City Chiefs. During lunch, images of Joeckel flash on the televisions over the bar of the restaurant.

Dogra let Luke Joeckel (right) and his father know the night before the draft that the Texas A&M tackle could likely be the second overall pick.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Asked if he thinks Joeckel could go first, Dogra, while looking at another text on his phone, says, slowly, “One. Or two.”

There was a reason for his uncertainty. Over the years in which he represented the top pick, he had either negotiated — or was actively negotiating — a deal with the club that held the No. 1 position the day before the draft.

As of midday Wednesday, the Chiefs have not called, but Dogra appears unconcerned, hearing of the possibility of multiple trades in the first round through a combination of calls and texts.

(Dogra told SportsBusiness Journal after the draft that later that Wednesday night, “I obtained information from a very credible source that Eric Fisher could be the first pick in the draft and I informed Luke and his father.”)

At the restaurant that day Dogra said he saw Miami, Dallas, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Atlanta as among likely trading partners.

“I look for No. 12 [Miami] to make a move, a move up,” he says. “Twenty-two [St. Louis] is definitely going to trade that pick, you watch.”

Dogra described Bjöern Werner as "very mature" and "extremely optimistic."
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Lunch begins to wrap up, but not before their CAA Sports partner Condon, who had arrived Wednesday for the draft, stops by. So does new University of Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops, a client of Sexton’s, who is at the draft for the first time to lend support to Werner, a player he coached when he was defensive coordinator at Florida State last fall. Dogra pointed out during lunch that Werner could go late in the first round — but stressed that Werner, a client he shares with Sexton, is different than most NFL draft prospects — as he was born in Germany and is married. Dogra described him as a “very mature” and “extremely optimistic” person.

“Jimmy and I discussed the possibility of Bjöern falling to the second round and made full disclosure to him,” Dogra said. “We don’t typically like to recommend that players who have the risk of sliding out of the first round go to the draft. But in this particular case, Bjöern felt it was a blessing just to get drafted and either way, he was thankful.”

Leaving the restaurant, Dogra looks ahead to a frenetic 72-hour period. He knows he will have to focus on his main responsibilities — protecting clients while telling them what is real and what’s not.

But in the last few years, Dogra has also increasingly spent time knocking down false information.

“With all the information that is flowing out there in social media, Facebook, Twitter, ESPN, Fox — it does cause confusion,” he says. “It causes excitement. It causes stress. It causes all those emotions.”

He spends the evening of the draft, as he does the day before, gathering information for players and their families. “I spend 80 or 90 percent of the time texting the NFL teams,” Dogra said. “I don’t spend a lot of time with the players because I know their phones are blowing up. I don’t reach out to them until we have some concrete information.” Although he can’t always tell clients where they may be drafted, he can give them a range, he says.

On Thursday night, Dogra arrived at the draft an hour and a half before the first pick was called, walking the seven blocks from his hotel to Radio City Music Hall. As usual, he did not sit at the tables of clients during the draft. “I stand,” he says. And he works the phones.

Sheldon Richardson told his father that he was "amazed" at Dogra's ability to predict what teams might take certain players or positions in the draft.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The night unfolds as he predicted. Fisher, as he was informed, goes first to Kansas City. Joeckel goes next, to Jacksonville. As Dogra predicted the day before at lunch, Miami, which had the No. 12 pick, moves up and takes the No. 3 pick. (Also, as he predicted, St. Louis trades its No. 22 pick with the Falcons, taking Atlanta’s No. 30 pick.)

The next client off the board is Richardson, the Missouri defensive end, as the New York Jets used their second first-round pick to select him at No. 13. Mike Richardson, Sheldon’s father, said Dogra assured them before the draft — and before they accepted the NFL’s invitation to attend — that his son would be a first-round pick. Sheldon told his dad he was “amazed” at Dogra’s ability in the green room to predict what teams might take certain players or positions at the draft.

After that selection, Joeckel and Richardson leave the green room. Dogra turns his attention to steady the nerves of another client, LSU safety Eric Reid. Before the draft, Dogra told him he had strong indications Reid would go in the first round.

Dogra talks at Eric Reid’s table in the green room as Reid takes a call from his new team.
Photo by: ERIC REID SR.
“I trusted Ben at his word, and he said he would go in the first round, but he could not tell exactly where,” said Reid’s father, Eric Reid Sr. Reid was at his son’s table with his girlfriend and daughter in the green room. His son became nervous when the New Orleans Saints picked safety Kenny Vaccaro from the University of Texas with the 15th pick.

After that selection, Dogra sensed the stress and immediately went over to Reid Jr.

“He said he had a good feeling and he should be picked mid to upper round and we should be fine, which was good to hear, because Eric
After being chosen with the 18th pick by the 49ers, Reid appears onstage with his daughter.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
was upset,” Reid Sr. said. “Ben talked with him, joked with him a little. Calmed him down.”

Relief was imminent, as the 49ers picked Reid with the 18th overall pick.

“Ben told me in the green room that it could go either way about whether Eric Jr. or Kenny would be drafted first as a safety. Ben has been very honest with me throughout this process and did not give us any false hopes,” Reid Sr. said in an email last week.

Three picks later, another CAA Sports client, Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert, who was not in New York, was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals.

Finally, the last of Dogra’s group, Werner, went at No. 24 to the Indianapolis Colts.

Mission accomplished — the green room is empty of Dogra’s clients.

Round 1 was over a little after 11:30 p.m., but Dogra and Sexton stayed at Radio City Music Hall until it closed, calling and texting clients with updated information about their draft status.

At about 2:30 a.m. Friday, Dogra and Sexton went to get dinner at the popular all-night Manhattan eatery, Cafeteria, on 7th Avenue.

There was a line at the door, even in the early morning hours, but when a doorman saw the NFL draft green room credential that Sexton was wearing around his neck and had forgotten to take off, he let them bypass the line and the 45-minute wait for a table. They finally were able to relax as they ate, talked and texted while looking ahead to the next few rounds.

At the end of the draft, CAA Sports had five first-round picks, two clients, including Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o, taken in the second round and three players, including USC quarterback Matt Barkley, selected in the fourth round.

On the surface, numbers-wise, it wasn’t the best draft for CAA Sports, which represented a record nine first-round selections in the 2009 NFL draft.

In the agent community, the general belief is that CAA wants to represent first-rounders, but Dogra says that belief is incorrect. One of the best clients he ever had, Dogra says, was offensive tackle Jon Runyan, a fourth-round pick in the 1996 NFL draft who ended up playing a dozen years in the NFL, made the Pro Bowl and is now a congressman in New Jersey. Dogra says that what he really wants is to represent high-character players with long NFL careers. It just so happens that first- and second-round draft picks are more likely to have successful NFL careers.

“I think there were a lot of surprises in this particular draft, but I really believe our clients are going to do well in the NFL,” Dogra said. “All that matters is where you are going to be standing three or four years from now, and I am very confident this is the best class we have had in three or four years.”

RECORD OF SUCCESS

Among active agents, Ben Dogra’s streak of 13 straight NFL drafts with a first-round pick is matched by only Lagardère Unlimited’s Joel Segal, who also has secured a first-round pick every year since 2001, and by Dogra’s fellow CAA agent Tom Condon, whose current run began in 1998.

Most first-round picks among active agents, 2001-13

RANK AGENT (CURRENT AGENCY) NO. OF FIRST-ROUND PICKS
1 Ben Dogra (CAA Sports) 54
2 Tom Condon (CAA Sports) 41
3 Joel Segal (Lagardère Unlimited) 27
4 (tie) Jimmy Sexton (CAA Sports) 17
4 (tie) David Dunn (Athletes First) 17
4 (tie) Todd France (Five Star Athlete Management) 17
7 Pat Dye Jr. (SportsTrust Advisors) 16
8 Eugene Parker (Relativity Sports) 15
9 Drew Rosenhaus (Rosenhaus Sports) 12
10 (tie) Ethan Lock (LMM Sports Management) 10
10 (tie) Marvin Demoff 10
10 (tie) Bill Johnson (SportsTrust Advisors) 10

Note: Two former agents also represented 12 first-round picks during this time period: Ken Kremer, who was with IMG and CAA during his 25 years as an agent, retired following the 2012 draft; and Gary Wichard, founder of Pro Tect Management, died a few weeks before the 2011 draft. Sources: SportsBusiness Journal analysis of NFLPA documents, SportsBusiness Daily archives

Dogra’s first-round performances

YEAR NO. OF FIRST-ROUND PICKS DOGRA’S TOP DRAFT PICK (DRAFT RANK)
2013 5 Luke Joeckel (No. 2 overall)
2012 5 Robert Griffin III (No. 2)
2011 4 A.J. Green (No. 4)
2010 7 Sam Bradford (No. 1)
2009 8 Matthew Stafford (No. 1)
2008 5 Jake Long (No. 1)
2007 5 Adrian Peterson (No. 7)
2006 4 Mario Williams (No. 1)
2005 4 Cadillac Williams (No. 5)
2004 3 Roy Williams (No. 7)
2003 1 Jeff Faine (No. 21)
2002 1 Bryant McKinnie (No. 7)
2001 2 Justin Smith (No. 4)

Sources: SportsBusiness Journal analysis of NFLPA documents, SportsBusiness Daily archives

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