DALLAS — Bradley Chubb is wondering what’s inside the oversized plastic Hobby Lobby bag his agent is toting down the hallway of The Adolphus Hotel.
“We’re 23 and a half hours away,” replies the agent, Erik Burkhardt, as Chubb opens the door to his suite.
It’s 7:30 p.m. central time on the eve of the NFL draft, and uncertainty abounds. This is true of the draft every year, but especially this year, when the identity of the No. 1 pick was shrouded in secrecy from even Browns senior staffers until hours before they were on the clock. Chubb, who won the Nagurski Trophy for the nation’s top defender during his senior season at North Carolina State, was regarded by many teams as the best defensive player, in a draft flush with quarterbacks. A year earlier a player at his position, defensive end Myles Garrett, went first overall. But this year, one day before the draft, the potential permutations are dizzying.
Chubb did his best to stay out of the fray over the three months leading up to the draft. He’d often change the channel from sports shows to something neutral; he replied in interviews that yes, he did believe he was the best player in the draft, but if a team didn’t think he was a good fit for them, that’s fine. He showed up to each team visit in a suit, whether the team was picking No. 2 (Giants) or No. 8 (Bears).
But now that the final countdown is here, it’s time for what’s inside that Hobby Lobby bag. Burkhardt pulls out a large pad of paper, a wooden easel and a black marker. Chubb’s parents, Stacey and Aaron, knock on the hotel room door a few minutes later and take a seat on the couch. This is akin to a final team meeting before the Super Bowl—everything has been done that could bedone, but you want to make sure everyone is on the same page before the big event.
Burkhardt laying out the scenarios for Bradley and his family.
Derrick Spencer & Select Sports Group
“This is our final ‘what I’m hearing’ before tomorrow, so we know as much as we possibly can going in,” Burkhardt says. “We’re going to go through scenarios.”
He starts writing each pick, in order, on the pad of paper. Chubb knows the draft order by heart, too, murmuring each team before Burkhardt writes it down. Browns … Giants … Jets … Browns … Broncos … Colts … Bucs … Bears … Burkhardt stops writing after pick No. 8.
“Niners,” Chubb continues, saying the name of the next team on the board, picking ninth.
“We’re going to stop there,” Burkhardt says. In other words, You’re not going to be waiting that long.
There’s no other feeling in sports akin to the buildup to when an NFL hopeful’s phone rings on draft night. “Its own unique experience,” Chubb says. That was amplified this year, with more intrigue surrounding a first round than NFL teams, agents or media members could recall in quite some time. What, exactly, is draft eve like for a top-five prospect, his agent and his family and friends? The MMQB spent time with “Team Chubb”—as the group text message Burkhardt started months ago is named—to find out.
For starters, it’s much different from what Chubb’s father or his older brother, Brandon, experienced. Aaron Chubb was working at RPS, a part-time job at the shipping company as he finished up his degree at the University of Georgia, the day he was drafted by the Patriots in the 12th round in April 1989. He called Stacey, then his girlfriend, who was unaware a draft was even going on. “Drafted into what?” they joke now.
Aaron, Stacey and Bradley at N.C. State’s Senior Day in November.
Icon Sportswire via AP Images
Brandon Chubb, a linebacker who played at Wake Forest, went undrafted in 2016. The Chubb family watched the entire draft that year without hearing his name called. He signed a few days later as a free agent with the Rams and was released during roster cuts; he later landed in Detroit, where he’s now competing for a roster spot under new coach Matt Patricia. Burkhardt represents Brandon as well, and as Bradley’s college career began to take off, Bradley took note of how hard Burkhardt worked to find opportunities for his big brother. “I knew I wanted that guy in my corner, too,” he says.
Burkhardt spent much of Wednesday on the phone with executives from NFL teams, doing his best to read the tea leaves for Chubb and his other clients. Burkhardt’s agency, Select Sports Group, represented 16 players entering this year’s draft among its six agents. All day Burkhardt was carrying around a spiral-bound, pigskin-textured notebook with a handwritten chart inside listing draft grades he’d been given for his clients by 20 to 25 NFL teams. In past drafts Burkhardt has represented a No. 12 pick (D.J. Hayden), a No. 20 pick (Kendall Wright) and No. 22 (Johnny Manziel), but the conversations about Chubb have been different. Two teams with picks in the top 10 told Burkhardt they had Chubb rated one spot higher than where they were selecting, i.e., top six for a team picking seventh. It was their playful way of saying, He’s not getting down to us.
While Burkhardt was culling information, Chubb was handling some off-the-field business. In the morning he led middle-school kids from the Dallas area in football drills at an NFL-sponsored clinic; in the afternoon, he had promotional appearances with companies including Old Spice. About two hours before the easel session in Chubb’s hotel room, Burkhardt drives up to the hotel to pick up Chubb and his agency’s marketing director, Jacquelyn Davis, for a speed dating event with NFL sponsors such as Pizza Hut and Snickers. In the pocket of Chubb’s light brown suit is a handful of mini Snickers, part of a plan he and Davis hatched to make an impression on the reps from one of Chubb’s favorite brands. “Hungry?” he’ll ask, while offering the candy. He’s charming enough to pull it off.
On the rooftop of the posh Joule Hotel, Chubb and Davis work the room alongside other top prospects like Sam Darnold and Josh Allen, while Burkhardt texts with a scout, a national media member and a No. 2 personnel executive. General managers tend to go dark the day before the draft, but Burkhardt has talked to high-ranking officials on nine teams since this morning: How do you think the top five plays out? Where do you think your guy goes? Some conversations last three minutes; others go on for 20. It’s a cat-and-mouse game where everyone has a vested interest and no one can be sure how honest the other side is being. Agents want their clients to go as high as possible. Teams want the players they like to still be there when they pick.
“All you can do is fight for your piece of the pie,” Burkhardt says. “All these conversations could be meaningless. But I can’t live in that world. I have to have every conversation with conviction, while also being realistic.”
After two hours, Chubb and his team hop in Burkhardt’s black Escalade, headed back to the hotel for the easel session with mom and dad. Burkhardt cops to usually being a distracted driver, but not tonight, with Chubb in the car. “Are we clear?” he asks twice before pulling out of the garage. Precious cargo.
“I’m very conservative about the floor,” Burkhardt tells the Chubb family. “It’s really about the floor.”
Part of representing a client in the draft is helping him go as high as possible; the other part is keeping expectations realistic. The wait in the green room on draft night can be excruciating enough. Burkhardt stops his list at eight, confident that no matter what pre-draft smokescreens teams are putting up, Chubb will not be waiting past that pick.
For the next half hour, Burkhardt presents different scenarios like a teacher at a chalkboard, stopping periodically to ask if there are any questions. At this point, ESPN has reported that Mayfield is likely to be the No. 1 overall pick. The Giants were roundly impressed by Chubb (and his suit) on his visit to team headquarters, and GM Dave Gettleman loves his “hog mollies,” but he drafted a running back in the first round in his previous draft at Carolina, and it’s widely suspected that he’ll go for Penn State RB Saquon Barkley. The Jets are taking a quarterback at three. Browns GM John Dorsey, picking again at four, and Broncos GM John Elway, at five, were keeping their intentions particularly close to the vest.
Tools of the agent’s trade.
Derrick Spencer & Select Sports Group
“Elway said last week this pick is for sale, unless, possibly…” Burkhardt says, pointing at No. 5. “Look, these guys have been really quiet, so I can’t get much of a read. But I know Von Miller is going up there talking about Bradley, saying he’s a mix between himself and Khalil Mack. If Von has him on the other side, Von is going to keep eating; way less double teams. He’s advocating for him, right? That’s what he’s doing.”
Both parents are nodding. The Chubbs had heard Miller’s comments. Bradley did not believe Miller had actually said that about him, until a video confirmed it. He’s been quiet through tonight’s presentation. The idea of his name being called tomorrow night in front of 20,000 fans, of finding out where his next home will be, of potentially playing next to Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller seems to just now be setting in.
“I’m taking it all in,” Chubb says. “It hasn’t really hit me yet, to be honest with you.”
“You have done everything the right way, times 10, through this whole process,” Burkhardt says. “We can only control so much, and whether it’s up here  or down here , we keep it cool, keep it smiling. Everything happens for a reason.”
Stacey stands up to take a photo of the easel, just in case she wants to reference their own personal draft board tomorrow. She turns to her son.
“Really, I have been so impressed, Bradley, with your composure,” Stacey says. “You have a good mixture of confidence but showing your humility. And that’s hard to do.”
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Three hours later, in a private room at Morton’s steakhouse in uptown Dallas, there’s a rare crack in that composure.
Burkhardt is hosting what’s akin to a wedding rehearsal dinner for Chubb’s family and friends. A special menu is at each seat, with CONGRATULATIONS, BRADLEY! printed at the top. Also as at a wedding, Burkhardt stands up and asks everyone in the room to support Chubb on the journey ahead.
“This is his squad,” he says. “There’s going to be good days, bad days, some hard times, injuries and everything else, and this is the group he’s going to lean on to get through it with him. Here’s to big No. 9 and a huge day tomorrow. His last night before he turns pro.”
Burkhardt asks everyone in the room to take a turn giving a toast: Chubb’s parents; his girlfriend, Bria; his sister-in-law, Cassidy; Burkhardt’s wife, Kari; four other Select Sports Group employees who have been preparing Chubb for the draft; and seven friends from back home in Marietta, Ga., some of whom have been playing football with Chubb since they were on the 105-pound Milford Warriors. The year Chubb tore his ACL as a junior in high school, “the team went into panic,” one of his high school friends tells the room. But Chubb stayed on the sideline, helped them get ready for games as if he was playing, and returned as a senior to lead the team to the state quarterfinals. Another of the seven buddies vows there will be seven stadium employees holding them back if Chubb goes first overall—or if he goes 31st.
The one person missing is Brandon, who is in Detroit for Lions minicamp. Missing practice time with his new head coach was a non-starter for a player fighting to make the roster, so he’s booked on a commercial flight from Detroit to DFW after practice ends Thursday and is scheduled to land at 5:45 p.m. Not willing to risk rush-hour traffic, and wanting to be sure he’ll make it on time, he’ll out $1,600 to rent a helicopter—cheaper than chartering a private flight to Dallas—to take him from DFW airport to AT&T Stadium. “I already know he loves me,” Bradley says, “but the measures he went through?”
Derrick Spencer & Select Sports Group
All day long, Chubb’s phone has been pinging, well-wishers sending him the ubiquitous “You ready?” texts and others passing along articles speculating about his future. (The Athletic’s Raiders writer reports, “A trade up? Bradley Chubb is a target if they can get to him.”) But now he puts his phone away, focusing on the people in this room. He stands up and thanks each one, coming to his parents last.
“Everything you see right now is because of y’all two,” Chubb says, suddenly unable to finish his sentence. His voice fades into sobs. He leans the weight of his 6’4”, 269-pound frame on his chair, unable to get out another word for the next 60 seconds. “Let it out, man,” a few in the audience say encouragingly. Stacey leaps up to hug him.
“Mom, you made us stay up until like 2 a.m. for school projects, but I needed that,” he continues. “You were a perfectionist, but that pushed me to be who I am right now, because I always wanted to make you proud.” His voice is breaking now. “Dad, you were always hard on us, but we needed that. They all said you raised us right. We needed that structure in our lives, and I’m so glad you all did that, because without y’all, I wouldn’t be here.” As Bradley fights back tears, Aaron rises to embrace his son, and Stacey joins them.
On every team interview, Chubb says, he was asked what motivates him. He always said his mom and dad. When he tore his ACL in high school, and thought his football career was over, Stacey encouraged him to pick something to help him get through it (he chose the Bible verse Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you…”). Aaron coached Bradley and his friends in middle school, and many of them still consider him their life coach. Together as a family, they took on the risk he made in deciding to return to North Carolina State for his senior year—a gamble that is about to pay off.
“It was probably one of the hardest things I had to do, because you never know what is going to happen,” Chubb says, voice faltering again. “I appreciate y’all being there for that, keeping my head on straight and making sure I stay humble, never let me get on my high horse. Everything I’ve been doing is because of you. I love y’all so much.”
Derrick Spencer & Select Sports Group
Both parents are standing next to him now, his dad rubbing his back, waiting until he finishes to wrap their arms around him. Vegas has 8:1 odds on Chubb being the first player to cry on draft night, but the safer bet was tonight. There’s not a dry eye in the room.
The high school buddies are in their seats in Section 203 of AT&T Stadium. Brandon’s self-described “Mission Impossible” is complete—he touched down on Jerry Jones’ landing pad nearby the stadium with less than 30 minutes to spare. Bradley is seated between mom, dad and Brandon, and across the table from Burkhardt, waiting for his phone to ring.
Twenty-five minutes before the Browns go on the clock, Burkhardt receives a text confirming what has been widely speculated: Mayfield is going No. 1 to the Browns. Eight minutes before the start of the draft he receives another text from a source, planting the seed that the Browns might take a DB at four. The source estimates it’s 50/50 between Chubb and a DB, whom he does not name. Sitting at their table inside the green room, behind the stage on the field of AT&T Stadium, Burkhardt relays both pieces of information to Chubb.
Happy green room scene.
Mayfield goes 1. The Giants pick Barkley at 2. Jets go QB, USC’s Sam Darnold, at 3. With the Browns on the clock at 4, it’s quiet in the green room for several minutes as time ticks down. Burkhardt receives two texts from officials on teams picking lower in the top 10, asking, “Are the Browns going to take him?” He doesn’t reply. Then, suddenly, the cameras rush over to a table in the corner—the pick is Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward.
“My agent told me right before I went out, don’t be surprised by anything,” Chubb says, “so I wasn’t surprised when that happened.”
Others were. The NFL Network set gasps when commissioner Roger Goodell announces Ward’s name. The two teams picking later in the top 10 text Burkhardt again, now wanting to know if the Broncos are calling. Also surprised are the Broncos, who in none of their mock scenarios had Chubb still available to them at 5. They were ready to trade down—ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Denver had a deal worked out with Buffalo, which was trying to move up for Josh Allen—but quickly scrapped those plans. “We didn’t trade,” Elway said at a press conference, “because Bradley was there.”
Chubb hadn’t taken a visit to the Broncos facility. He met with them only once, at the combine, and hadn’t had any communication since. And that’s why the 24 hours before the draft are like no other: No one knows exactly what will happen. When the call from the 303 area code comes in, Chubb is even-keeled as expected—while mom leaps up to do a little dance. The Broncos had Chubb rated as the top defensive player in the draft, and they can’t wait to pair him with Miller.
“The organization really wanted me,” Chubb says, “and I know it’s genuine.”
A Denver Bronco.
The next 12 hours would be a whirlwind: nearly two hours of media interviews, signing his first autographs as a member of the Broncos, an after-party at a lounge downtown. While in flight to Denver on the team’s private plane Friday morning, Stacey pulls up the photo she took of the easel on Wednesday night and notices something: whether by a hunch or a hope, the Broncos were the one team Burkhardt had circled.
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