When Corey Lemonier's junior season at Auburn ended last December, his gut told him it was time. Lemonier felt confident his length and strength, his high energy and versatility provided a chance to pounce on his NFL dreams right away.
Yet even with that decision made, the promising defensive end/outside linebacker knew he would need a bridge from his New Year's Eve declaration to turn pro to the weekend of April 25-27 when he will learn his NFL destination through the draft.
So through the urging of his agent, Eric Metz, Lemonier headed west.
If his NFL dreams were to be maximized, he would aim to strive for a higher draft position.
To strive for a higher draft status, he'd need to excel at February's NFL combine and Auburn's pro day two weeks later.
To make a splash at the combine and pro day? Well, that's why Lemonier wound up in Phoenix at Athletes' Performance Institute spending more than a month at the 30,000-square-foot training facility working about six hours a day, six days per week with strength trainers and speed experts, nutritionists and physical therapists.
"At this stage, you're looking for that edge — every edge you can find," Lemonier said. "For me coming out as a junior, I think getting into a program like this was especially key. Because I don't have that extra year of film. So it was important I prove my full athleticism."
Whether it's players seeking that extra edge or simply making sure they don't fall behind in the ultracompetitive frenzy to land in one of 254 draft slots, combine and pre-draft training has experienced a significant spike in popularity and sophistication over the past decade.
Across the board, prospects and their agents understand that to eschew the highly developed pre-draft preparation that's now available would be creating an unnecessary handicap. So the door has opened for high-tech, high-intensity athletic body shops to thrive nationwide.
Athletes' Performance, founded in 1999, is widely considered one of the industry leaders and has expanded with sites now in California, Florida and Texas.
Combine preparation programs are similarly popular at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., Performance Gaines in Los Angeles and Performance Enhancement Professionals in North Scottsdale, Ariz.
There's also the Nike-sponsored Michael Johnson Performance center in Texas, overseen by the four-time Olympic gold medalist sprinter.
Speed matters. Power matters. That's the sell.
Sure, NFL scouts, coaches and general managers issue frequent reminders that, despite all the hype and pageantry that accompanies the combine, the speed and athleticism testing there is only a small fraction of the evaluation process.
Still, the players' push to excel on that stage has become bigger than ever.
"Are these tests — the 40-yard dash and the vertical leap and the 5-10-5 [shuttle run] — the be-all, end-all for guys? No," said Nick Winkelman, the director of performance systems at API. "But obviously the combine has lasted and grown because teams feel very strongly that there is some utility to it.
"At that level, it's not enough just to be a good football player. They also want to see, 'Is this a good football player who's also a great athlete?' It's our responsibility to help our guys be at their best in answering that question."
API boasts an impressive combine training alumni list that includes Vikings players Adrian Peterson, Christian Ponder, Matt Kalil, Chris Cook, Josh Robinson and Jarius Wright.
Agents view the highly sophisticated and often expensive training as an investment, footing the bill for their players with the hope that a move up the draft board will provide a promising return.
Take Robinson, for example. Fast since birth, he used his API training in part to harness his speed, later posting the fastest 40 time at the 2012 combine, a 4.33-second burst that certainly influenced the Vikings' decision to draft him early in the third round.
Ideally, agents hope the facilities their players wind up at will offer one-stop shopping, meaning prospects can get daily recovery aid, nutritional education and flexibility training in the same venue at which they're doing all their strength, speed and skills work.
At API, according to Winkelman, the cover charge just to get in the door ranges from $9,000 to $12,000. But after packages are customized to include personalized meal plans and massage schedules and other add-ons, the final cost often rings up as more than twice that.
Minneapolis-based agent Blake Baratz from the Institute for Athletes has sent all nine of his draft prospects this year to Ian Danney's Performance Enhancement Professionals facility. Baratz says his agency spends somewhere in the ballpark of $20,000 to $30,000 on each prospect during the pre-draft process.
But he also wants players to understand from the outset that, while the pre-draft hype so often centers on 40 times and vertical leaps and endless mock draft speculation, their primary focus should never be on emerging as a combine victor. Nor should they ever get too consumed with where they may be picked.
Baratz gets frustrated every year when he's peppered by texts from players with the same line of questioning.
What are you hearing? What do you know about where I might get drafted?
"I keep telling these guys: Continue to work your butt off, control what you can control and then don't worry," Baratz said. "You may go in the fourth round, you may go in the sixth, you may go undrafted. But truthfully, that has little to no bearing on whether you make a roster in September."
Don't believe the hype
That can seem like a hollow message in a culture where the spotlight on combine results and draft status can often seem as bright and intense as the one that surrounds the Super Bowl.
"Of course that warps players' priorities," Baratz said.
It's a sentiment echoed by LeCharles Bentley, who spent six seasons playing center for the Saints and Browns and has now moved part of his O-line Academy operation to Arizona to be affiliated with PEP's pre-draft training programs.
Bentley can't roll his eyes hard enough at the confusion created by the NFL's marketing machine, which he will concede has been "absolutely brilliant from a business standpoint."
Bentley recognizes that the interest generated in the combine and draft is marvelous but believes it has skewed players' focus.
"Think about McDonald's and the McRib," Bentley said. "Honestly? That sandwich is … gross. But because it's always so widely talked about and marketed, there's a cult following now with a lot of people who love the McRib and aren't even sure why. That's what the NFL has done with the combine and the draft."
Around once a year — for a limited time only.
"And what happens?" Bentley said. "Everybody runs out the door and spends a bunch of money on nothing. But for me, shame on the agents and players who buy into it too deeply and lose sight of what their longer-term focus should be."
This year for pre-draft training, Bentley has joined forces in Arizona with 10 offensive linemen, a group that includes Ohio State's Reid Fragel (a Baratz client), Kentucky's Larry Warford and Virginia Tech's Vinston Painter and Nick Becton.
Bentley's approach centers around football with a long-term view that sees beyond February and April. Which is why he'd rather spend time talking about Fragel's rapidly improving pass protection footwork and sharp understanding of offensive concepts than worrying about his combine results.
"I'd prefer spending time getting guys ready for the game, ready for training camp, ready to make a roster," Bentley said. "Along the way, they just so happen to excel at all those [testing] skills."
(Fragel, for what it's worth, finished in the top 10 among offensive linemen in Indianapolis in the bench press, vertical jump and broad jump.)
Making it last
Upon arrival at API, Lemonier knew the facility mostly through reputation. In 2012, for example, API's star-studded pre-draft class comprised 75 players, including Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Kalil, Trent Richardson and Mark Barron.
To be clear, all those players were established first-round locks long before their API training intensified. But from the top 20 picks all the way through later-round bubble guys, API vows to push each of its clients toward maximizing his potential, finding proven methods to improve athletic measurables.
Those are, after all, still variables in the equation.
Said Notre Dame center Mike Golic Jr., an API student this winter: "Yeah, it's a small step. But to me, I guess, it stands as another chance to get in front of these teams and show them that I've been willing to put the work into being the best I can be at whatever I'm asked to do."
For Lemonier, this winter's training paid immediate dividends. Under the guidance of Winkelman and others on the API staff, he learned to channel his athleticism and power. His natural speed was obvious, but he needed more knee drive, a more controlled arm swing.
"I was running too much like a mad man," he said. "I had to take my energy and harness it."
Lemonier put on 8 pounds, overhauled his diet and picked up burst. And when he arrived at the combine, his increased energy and confidence showed.
At Auburn, he maxed out at 16 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. In Indianapolis, he delivered 27 reps.
His 40 time of 4.60 seconds was almost a full two-tenths of a second better than he had been running in January and ranked third among defensive linemen at the combine.
Realistically, Lemonier should hear his name called on Day 2 of next week's draft. And it will be celebrated at API as another success story.
Said Winkelman: "Corey was a guy I watched get every ounce out of his body."
Bentley has no problem acknowledging such triumphs.
Just so long as combine exploits are viewed with proper perspective. Meaning the euphoria of draft weekend should never trigger the instinct to exhale.
"It's shown to kids as the dream — that once you get up there and hold up your jersey for the cameras with the GM and the owner and the coach that you can say, 'Wow. I made it,' " Bentley said. "But that is just the very beginning of the journey. It's not the destination. And that's what so many players and agents neglect to see."
That's why Bentley plans to continue working with all 10 of his prospects this year after the draft, heightening their focus on having a brilliant August. Facilities such as API also hope their relationships with players continue in the offseasons after they have already established themselves in the league.
From a practical standpoint, it makes sense.
Good for business? That, too.