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Minneapolis-based Institute for Athletes keeps working on its brand for NFL

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER
  • Star Tribune
  • January 18, 2013 - 11:15 PM

Blake Baratz carries a genuine excitement for the nine players he recently signed to his Minneapolis-based agency, the Institute for Athletes (IFA). As Baratz rattles through the roll call, he is hopeful for each player's prospects in April's NFL draft.

There's Ohio State's Reid Fragel, a converted tight end who is now a promising offensive tackle possessing a combination of size, agility and potential to possibly emerge as a top-75 pick.

There's freakishly athletic defensive end William Gholston of Michigan State and Michigan's Craig Roh, a dependable four-year starter for the Wolverines who could be used as a defensive end or an outside linebacker in the pros.

Joining that trio as Baratz's newest clients: Ohio State defensive end Nate Williams; Michigan linebacker Kenny Demens and cornerback J.T. Floyd; Iowa receiver Keenan Davis; Arizona State linebacker Brandon Magee; and Alabama State cornerback Kejuan Riley.

Their skill sets and personalities are diverse. But the unifying characteristics of the group excite Baratz the most.

"All of these guys are detailed, incredibly hard working and responsible individuals," he said. "And that on its own gives you a greater shot in the NFL. Because, in the end, these are the guys who are going to know the playbook. They're going to have a high motor. They're going to show up on time. They're going to be well-liked in the facility by people throughout the organization."

That's the brand IFA hopes to continue establishing.

No, Baratz isn't naïve enough to proclaim that elite talent isn't a prerequisite for making it in the NFL. But he's also aware that it's far from the only springboard to success in a league where perseverance and opportunity often mean just as much.

So in assembling its clientele, IFA resists the temptation to blindly cast its line into the waters of college football with exaggerated hopes of reeling in the largest and most talented group possible.

Instead, Baratz aims to unite with prospects, most often through referrals, who fit the IFA philosophy. With each of the nine players landed this year, Baratz knew almost instantly they'd be the right fit.

Williams, for example, embodied a drive and a mental toughness that will serve him well on his climb toward the NFL. And Riley, who had 21 interceptions at the Football Championship Subdivision level, was receptive to Baratz's push to improve his diet, strength and overall technique before the draft. Both players will participate in Saturday's East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Baratz refuses to promise any of his players on where they will be drafted or how their careers will unfold. That's a mystery over which he has little control. But Baratz also reminds prospects that what round they are drafted in ultimately means little in their chances of success.

"Certainly we can't afford to sign a bunch of guys who will be undrafted free agents every year," Baratz said, "because we've got to make a living too. But I've noticed that the guys we're signing, they're going to have their opportunity. And that's all you can really ask for in the NFL. And whether they get their opportunity as a fourth-round pick or a second-round pick or a seventh-round pick or an undrafted free agent, they're still getting an opportunity. And that's when those core values come into play."

In the end, Baratz said, he understands many of his players may never generate Mel Kiper Jr. buzz. Then again, Baratz prefers overseeing success stories of guys like tight end Jake Ballard (undrafted in 2010), Eagles safety Kurt Coleman (seventh round in 2010) and Giants safety Stevie Brown (seventh in 2010), all of who fought to land starting roles.

"I like taking the underdogs, the guys who have to fight for everything they've got," Baratz said.

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