In an era of fake references and "extreme" job seekers who make displays of their ambitions, finding people who will be as engaged as they pledge to be during the hiring process can be a bit of a guessing game. How can you assess who truly burns for the job, and who's just faking it?

As it happens, the upcoming NFL draft (April 30-May 2), the annual event at which pro football teams evaluate and select young talent from the college ranks, provides a few answers.

Because of its exceptionally violent nature, football has always been a profession in which a player's enduring passion is essential. "If you're playing just for money, there's probably not enough of it to put your body through that torture," explains Je'Rod Cherry, an ESPN Cleveland radio host who played nine seasons, to's Tom Reed

Plus, the stakes for NFL teams have never been higher: More and more players are abruptly retiring in their 20s to save their minds and bodies. That is, of course, understandable and even commendable. But it further complicates each team's quest to gauge which players are just cashing the check and which ones really burn to compete and win.

So, how do NFL teams determine which players are genuinely passionate, and which ones are faking it to get the gig? Here are three tricks of the NFL talent-evaluation trade. 

1. Look for talent with a chip on its shoulder. 

The textbook example is Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He will be in the NFL Hall of Fame one day. But when he graduated high school, he did not receive a single scholarship offer to play in college, despite his howitzer arm and 3.9 GPA. The reason? He stood 5-foot-2 entering high school and didn't reach 6 feet until his senior year.

He played his first year of college football at Butte College in Oroville, California. It was there that University of California coach Jeff Tedford noticed him and offered him a scholarship. "To say that Rodgers emerged from the recruiting process with a chip on his shoulder would be an understatement," writes Bruce Feldman in The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks. 

In fact, Rodgers's infamous chip has become a template for those in the business of breeding quarterbacks. Trent Dilfer, the lead instructor at the quarterback competition known as Elite 11 academy, encourages pupils to find the mental space where they can access their chips as motivation, Feldman reports.  

For example, prior to his acceptance at Elite 11, David Blough (currently a freshman at Purdue University) had not received a single scholarship offer. Consequently, he came to the 2013 competition--which takes place at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon--with his chip fully in place. 

Blough excelled in early drills but slacked off toward the end, claiming he was unaccustomed to front-running. Dilfer advised Blough to tune out the successful realities--and to re-enter the world where he was a snubbed, hungry recruit. He told Blough: "Don't you ever buy into the fact that you should live in reality. You keep living in this pretend world, because that's where you thrive."

Traditional entrepreneurs are also keen on finding employees with chips on their shoulders. Bert Jacobs, co-founder of the Life Is Good Company, believes those are the employees who'll stay engaged in the long term, because they have "something to prove." 

2. Speak to their former managers--the ones you won't find on any reference list. 

Urban Meyer, head coach of the Ohio State football team, explained to how the smartest NFL talent evaluators compile player information from college coaches.

One way is by asking about a player's habits when he's away from team activities. "What did he do on Friday and Saturday nights when he had spare time? How do you draft a guy or recruit a guy if you don't know that?" Meyer asks. 

Two lessons here cross over to business recruiting. The first pertains to checking references. Remember, the references anyone provides--be it a job candidate, an investor, or a partner--are just one piece of the puzzle. There's nothing stopping you from researching and contacting their unlisted former colleagues to get a different perspective. NFL teams do this as a matter of course.

The smartest entrepreneurs do it when vetting venture capital firms. When Dave Elkington, founder of, was ready to raise money, he made a point of speaking not only to company founders who had great relationships with VCs, but also to founders whose exits never materialized. He wanted to know how those oh-so-friendly VCs behaved when they were disappointed. 

The second recruiting lesson is to ask about a job candidate's spare time. Anyone can speak passionately during an interview, but do they behave passionately, in pursuit of their profession or something else, when no one is watching? Former managers and co-workers can shed light on these questions. 

3. Scan for "graduate-level" details in their responses. 

It's no secret: If you're passionate about anything, you can go on and on for days talking about it. Especially talking about what it means to you. 

Meyer points out that the smartest NFL teams have learned to look for players who have a "graduate-level" recall of football-related topics. It could be their favorite players as a kid, the first game they watched, their biggest on-field rival, or something they learned in game preparation through film study. 

By all counts, one of the most passionate players in this year's draft is University of Florida edge rusher Dante Fowler (pictured above). Teams believe in his passion because he consistently provides detail-dripping replies like this, which he shared with Sports Illustrated's Jenny Vrentas. Speaking about his on-field rivalry with LSU offensive tackle La'el Collins, he said:  

That's a bloodbath right there, me and La'el.... My sophomore year, we went to Baton Rouge and played against LSU, and I'm not going to lie, I got my butt whooped.... So I spent the whole last summer getting ready for La'el, I ain't going to lie to you.... I had it marked on my calendar the day after my sophomore game. That whole week leading up to the game, it felt like it was a year. Saturday finally came, and I was a captain, and he was a captain, too. It felt like we were about to do a boxing match. The whole coin toss, when the referees were talking, I was staring him down and he was staring me down. 

You can see that his reply contains precisely what NFL talent evaluators seek in a passionate player: a chip on the shoulder and graduate-level details. 

However, the skeptic in you would be right to wonder about why--twice--Fowler declares that he wouldn't lie about something like this. Then again, it could be nothing but a verbal habit, the way some people repeat "you know" or "like." 

And therein lies the rub faced by anyone screening an employee for passion. "They're going to tell you what you want to hear," sums up Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie in a recent Wall Street Journal story. The most any team can do, he adds, is to "make sure you're thorough."

Published on: Apr 29, 2015