In its one concession to the live fan experience, the combine displays the bench press test in front of an audience in the Indianapolis convention center. Die-hard NFL fans and high school football teams from the region are ushered into a convention center ballroom, where they are first primed with exhibits showing off the Vince Lombardi Trophy, given annually to the Super Bowl winner, and the gaudy, diamond-encrusted rings the winning teams award themselves.

A bench press with 225 lbs is set up on a small stage surrounded by bleachers. The players enter in small groups according to their position, and one by one attempt as many repetitions as possible. A weight coach stands over them, yelling encouragement and exhorting the crowd to cheer. “Lock out, lock out!” he shouts as their arms wobble, and an overhead camera shows every grimace on a big screen. Fans applaud each effort, if only because they hope they’re in the presence of potential future NFL greatness.

For massive offensive linemen, the bench test is a critical measure of strength, but for cornerbacks like Brown, expectations are low. He finishes with 13 reps, below average for his position but not dramatically so. Over the next two days of the combine, he does better in tests of jumping ability, finishing with a 39.5-inch vertical leap and a 10-and-a-half foot broad jump, both good for the 87th percentile, according to

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For better or worse, though, Brown’s 40 time hangs over him. Despite the disappointment, he soldiers on through the rest of the days drills, and to the untrained eye, looks as skilled and determined as the other defensive backs.

Afterward, he said this was by design. He knew the team scouts were watching his every move—and at a position where even the best cornerbacks can give up big plays, resilience is a critical attribute.

“The main thing [is], I didn’t want to show a bad attitude just because I didn’t run as well as I wanted to run,” he said.  “I tried to put the past behind me, and do what I could do the rest of the day to try to impress the scouts.”

After the combine, Brown returned to South Dakota, where he continued training for the school’s on-campus “pro day,” an opportunity for scouts to interview, time, and measure players not invited to the combine, or, as in the case of Brown, to get a second look. In between workouts, he took an online class in human resources—a prerequisite for his hospitality management degree—and read motivational books like Relentless by Tim Grover, the trainer for Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, and an autobiography of radio host Charlamagne Tha God.

SDSU’s pro day on March 29 was attended by about 25 pro scouts, and Brown improved his 40-yard time to 4.44. With just a few weeks until the draft, he hoped it was enough to convince teams he was ready for the NFL.

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Like many American businesses, professional football depends on a steady flow of talent from universities to sustain its workforce. But unlike other highly sought-after employers like Apple or Goldman Sachs, the NFL maintains a virtual monopoly on its industry’s employment opportunities. Marginal players may wind up toiling in Canada or the Arena Football League, but they’re all trying to get to the NFL. And while Google may look forward to decades of productivity from its hires, the NFL churns through its workers at an alarming rate. The average career length is just 2.7 years, cut short by injuries and fear of brain damage, according to a 2016 analysis. Replenishing the talent is an NFL imperative.

Teams go to these lengths because the stakes are high—pro football is a zero-sum competition, where every team’s victory is another team’s defeat—and the executives of losing teams are regularly cashiered. It is an industry where every manager, every season, is highly incentivized to pick the right mix of talent for their organization.

The draft began in 1936, 16 years after the NFL’s founding. Its purpose then, as now, was to distribute talent evenly throughout the league, so the richest clubs wouldn’t be able to scoop up the best players. In its early years, the draft was a low-key event, and many players were unaware they were drafted, or much cared. The first pick of the inaugural draft, Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago, opted not to play pro football at all, and instead became a foam rubber salesman.

As with most things in the NFL, the draft is now a gargantuan television extravaganza. Spread over three days, it’s held in stadiums and or closed-off downtowns, as this year’s was in Nashville, Tennessee, with tens of thousands of fans cheering (or booing) their teams’ selections.  The basic premise is unchanged since the 1930s: Teams take turns selecting players, who can only sign with that franchise, at a wage scale prescribed by the NFL’s union contract.

The first round of the draft takes place on a Thursday night. The most likely picks have been invited to the host city, and they appear on stage after their name is called. The second and third rounds take place the next night, and the remaining four rounds take place in a relatively brisk few hours on Saturday.

Downtown Nashville is blocked off for the NFL draft
Downtown Nashville was blocked off for the NFL draft in April.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Brown watched the draft’s final rounds at a small party at the home of his girlfriend in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with college teammates as well as friends and family who traveled from Phoenix and Omaha, Nebraska, for the occasion. He still hoped to go in the fourth round, but as the draft unspooled, his name wasn’t called, and Brown began to grow anxious as other cornerbacks he had competed against at the combine were selected. The fourth round slipped into the fifth, and the sixth.

“At times, I felt like ‘Dang, all these people are here for me, and waiting for me to a get a call and waiting for a party,’” he said.  “It was a long, brutal day.”

Finally, hours after the draft began Saturday, his phone rang, and Daronte Jones, the secondary coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, called to tell him they planned on selecting him.

“There was a no better feeling—getting a call from a coach, then seeing your name going across the bottom of the television,” Brown said.

Still, Brown was bewildered that he fell so far. “There was 29 corners picked ahead of me,” he said. “I was supposed to be the 15th-ranked corner. Every team passed on me for seven rounds. I was super shocked that things didn’t go as planned.”

Of all the various draft scenarios Brown and Bernstein had considered, the team that took him seemed a remote possibility. Brown said he interviewed with almost every team prior to the draft. The Bengals were one of the few he didn’t talk to.

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Duke Tobin, head of player personnel for the Bengals, said the team had its eye on Brown since the summer before his senior year, when the team’s scout responsible for the upper US midwest first took note of Brown and watched video of his plays. That fall, the scout visited SDSU and watch practice and games, talking to coaches about his potential.

Bengals scouts also do preliminary background checks on players, reading articles and trying to get a fix on his personality. Coaches want players who are positive additions to a locker room, and not all players will fit into every team.

“You can find out a lot about a guy before you even meet him,” Tobin says. “There’s guys that are high profile guys in their community and a lot has been written about them. Articles, interviews —you can research so much before you even get in the room with a guy.”

Since few players are perfect, every team has to decide how much less than perfect they are willing to accept in any player. In some players those imperfections are physical, such as an injury history or slow 40 time. In other players, those imperfections might be a criminal record, or a reputation as an unpleasant teammate.

For established programs with winning traditions, teams can take more chances, and might be more willing to draft or sign a player with a checkered past with some confidence they will be positively influences by their teammates. The New England Patriots can—and do—take on players other teams have discarded because of their culture of success.

“You have to choose what you’re willing to accept,” Tobin said. “Talent drives a lot of it. There are guys who mature and grow after college. These are young men, and you don’t throw them away (after mistakes).” 

During Brown’s senior season, the Bengals’ area scout wrote up a full report and entered him into the team’s database of thousand of players. He was scouted again at the Senior Bowl, and the Bengals took note of how he performed against more established players.

“Competition is the biggest hurdle for a small college player,” Tobin said. “I go back to Jordan going to the Senior Bowl. It’s great for a smaller college player to get invited. A lot of players don’t get invited.”  

The combine reinforced the team’s perception of Brown as a solid, productive player, Tobin said, and his 40 time wasn’t a black mark. The Bengals also liked his record of accomplishment in college, and his role as team captain.

“You want leaders, people who are smart,” Tobin said. “Everyone wants the guy who is the captain, everyone wants the guys who elevate the people around them.”

Duke Tobin
Duke Tobin
Image: AP Photo/Michael Conroy

About a month before the draft, the Bengals’ scouts and player personnel met to finalize their grades on all the players they considered draftable, about 500 in all. By now, five or six of the scouts had evaluated Brown, either in person or on tape. The team included him in its rankings of all the cornerbacks they would consider drafting.

While Brown was disappointed he fell to the seventh round, he was the only defensive back drafted by the Bengals in 2019. And, as Tobin noted, it’s still remarkable to be drafted at all. “We had draftable grade on Jordan and we had far more draftable graded players than we had draftable spots,” Tobin said. “Where he was supposed to go, I don’t know, but we were thrilled to get him where he was.”

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Late August in Cincinnati does not feel like football season. On a sultry summer evening evening in the Ohio Valley, a torpor hung over a nearly empty Paul Brown Stadium as the Bengals hosted the Indianapolis Colts in a meaningless exhibition game. Before kickoff, the Ben-Gals cheerleading squad performed, and finished to no applause.

It was the fourth, and final, preseason game before the start of the regular season; the primary motivation for both teams was to prevent injuries at all costs. Most starters were benched, and even the most critical backups would not see action. Instead, the game would be contested by players on the fringes of the roster, looking for one last chance to impress coaches and make the team.

NFL teams can invite 90 players to training camp—drafted and undrafted rookies, free agents, and returning veterans—but need to trim that roster to 53 prior to the season. While injuries would takes their toll, the math was unavoidable: A great many healthy players would not make the squad.

Brown was drafted into a Bengals organization in flux. After a 6-10 season in 2018, head coach Marvin Lewis, 61, was fired after 16 seasons as head coach, one of the longest tenures in the league. The Bengals had a long, established tradition of mediocrity, and Lewis’s replacement, the boyish Zac Taylor, a 36-year-old first-time head coach, was charged with injecting new life into the team.

Logic holds that the poorer a team’s performance the previous year,  the more opportunity there is for new players. It’s a lot harder to crack the roster of a team with a winning formula than one searching for answers. And a new coach might not be wedded to players held over from the previous regime.

Yet the one position where the Bengals seemed most secure after 2018 was in its defensive backfield, where Brown played. The unit was viewed as stable and dependable. While there were some injuries, none of the reporters and blogs that track the team suggested that bulking up the secondary was a pressing need for the team prior to the draft.

Jordan Brown
Brown as a Bengal
Image: AP Photo/Gary Landers

As a result, Brown had trouble finding playing time in the first three pre-season games. The team had 11 cornerbacks on its pre-season roster, but would likely only carry five or six in the regular season. Heading into the final pre-season game, against the Colts, Brown was listed as the fifth option at right cornerback.

The most optimistic outcome for Brown was making the roster as a backup who could contribute on special teams, covering punts and kickoffs. A less attractive option would be winding up on the practice team, sometimes called the taxi squad, a group of 10 players that can add depth in practice, but aren’t eligible to play. Even being cut outright wouldn’t necessarily end Brown’s NFL dreams, since another team could sign him to their roster or practice team.

Brown knew his odds weren’t good, but embraced the opportunity and looked for chances to shine. “Every day is a like a job interview for a rookie,” he said. “It’s definitely nerve-wracking.”

Prior to the Colts game, reporters who covered the team thought Brown should see a lot of action. Failing that, it would be a good sign if he didn’t play at all, which meant the team wanted to hide him from other teams’ scouts. The worst case scenario was if he only played in the fourth quarter, in mop up-duty.

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Brown didn’t start the game, and didn’t appear at all in the first half. It wasn’t until, with 5:38 remaining in the third quarter, he was put in to play, after teammate DaVontae Harris left with an injury. Brown then played intermittently for the rest of the game, appearing on the kickoff team and covering the Colts’ wide receivers. He made a few tackles and avoided making any significant mistakes, but he also didn’t get a chance to make the sort of eye-grabbing play—swatting down a sure touchdown pass, snaring an interception—that could elevate him above his competition. The game, mostly languid, was briefly interesting at the end but finished with a 13-6 Colts win.

In the Bengals’ vast locker room after the game, Taylor, the head coach, was almost apologetic when asked about Brown, acknowledging his days in Cincinnati might be numbered, without saying as much. “He’s a smart kid, and does it the way you want it done,” Taylor said. “You can see the traits that got him here.”

Brown’s locker was sequestered with the other rookies. While reporters from local television stations clustered around the nearby stall of first-year quarterback Jake Dolegala, Brown dressed in relative anonymity. He answered questions patiently and showed little irritation over his circumstances. Regardless of what happens with Cincinnati, he said he wasn’t ready to give up on football. “I’m going to keep going until they stop calling,” he said.

Brown was philosophical about his journey to the Bengals.

“I feel like these last couple months, there’s been a lot of adversity, honestly, and nothing really went as planned,” he said. “But I’ve definitely come a long way, and I’m in a NFL locker room right now.”

Brown headed out of the locker room and into the Cincinnati warm night. Outside, fans were still trickling out of the stadium, wearing the orange and black of the Bengals. Many were young, athletic men like Brown who once entertained their own dreams of playing in the NFL. For at least one more night, Brown was on the other side of that line, still a player in a league obsessed with talent, in a city crazy for football.

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The following day, Brown was among 21 players waived by the Bengals. He wasn’t signed to the practice squad, and after his release split his time between Phoenix and South Dakota. After working out for seven other NFL teams, he was signed to the Jacksonville Jaguars’ practice squad Oct. 30.

Correction: An earlier version of this article included the wrong college for Eagles center Jason Kelce. He went to Cincinnati, not Villanova.

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