5 min read

NFL Behind the Scenes: The Team Within the Team

By Yves Batoba

As the excitement of the new league year is upon us, with plenty of free-agent activity and the draft fast approaching, one aspect of player acquisition that most don’t think about is what happens after the NFL team, player and agent have agreed on a contract. What might relocation for the player and his family look like? What neighborhood should he live in? Does it make more sense to buy or rent? Do the kids need to enroll into a new school? The support staff within the football operations of the teams are constantly thinking about how they can best maximize the potential of their rosters; this includes their holistic well-being off the field. One of the first and most frequent touch points that a player will have with a club official is with the Director of Player Engagement.

The who?

In Article 51, Section 19 of the NFL and NFLPA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, it states every team must retain at least one (1) Director of Player Engagement, also known as the “DPE.”

So what does this person do?

In a nutshell, the DPE takes on the role because of his/her passion to ensure players’ success off the field and to help them manage life entering the NFL, during their career, and exiting the league. In practice, the job encompasses a variety of levels: team camaraderie, rookie success, veteran career development and mental health resources, to name a few. It’s not uncommon to find that the Director of Player Engagement shares a connection with nearly every player in the locker room and with key stakeholders in the community.

Once the NFL draft is over and rookies enter the team facilities, DPEs take them through a six-week “rookie experience program” aimed to familiarize each rookie with their city, team, support system and life in the NFL. This program covers a minimum of 18 different topics focused on financial literacy, social responsibility, mental health and overall expectations from the NFL and the NFLPA.

I love this department, this position, and everything that comes with it. I was extremely fortunate to have spent five years working in Player Engagement within an organization that completely bought into the mission. When the whole franchise understands the value in the department and invests in it, as we invested in the lives of those in the locker room. Some of my fondest memories include the time in 2018 when a player told me he was stressed out about going back home in the offseason because he knew his family would be relying on him financially and he was afraid they would drain his bank account! Instead of living in panic, I reached out to a personal finance expert that I know, we came up with a budget and game plan -- not just for him, but for his family -- that they could stick to in order to gain financial freedom.

A few months later, he sent me the text message pictured below with an image of the financial plan pinned on his mother’s refrigerator:

Or the time that we enrolled a 6-year NFL veteran into his university so that he could finally complete his undergraduate degree. When he was notified that he passed at the end of the semester, he was so excited that he immediately booked a flight for his family to watch him walk across the stage and receive his degree.

“I promised my mom she would see me walk across that stage,” he said.

These are the wins that have an abiding impact. As a player becomes more confident in himself as a man, the confidence shows up on the football field, in turn making him a better player. So if we are talking about financial literacy, continuing education, exposure to new industries, creating habits or even guidance for selecting the right therapist -- I would implore team executives to look at the infrastructure of their franchise.

The teams that have the right support team know how to stack the micro-wins that lead to the big wins in football and in life.

Unfortunately, there are only a handful of teams in the NFL that properly support those in Player Engagement. The experience I had is not the typical experience, as the work that the individuals in this space do isn’t often valued. “These are the people that put on programs,” I recall a coach saying once. Or, “How’s the babysitting going?”

It’s pretty rare that you see a Director of Player Engagement get a promotion within a team, despite them understanding the inner workings of the football operations better than just about anyone. There are a few examples, though. Rob Davis spent nine years as the Director of Player Engagement with the Green Bay Packers before he left to go work as a senior director for the Oshkosh Corporation. When former Packers coach Mike McCarthy was named head coach of the Dallas Cowboys last year, he hired Davis as his assistant head coach. In 2018, Mark Carrier was promoted from Director of Player Engagement of the Carolina Panthers to the Senior Advisor to the GM.

Why did Davis and Carrier get elevated to these roles? Because those in Player Engagement understand the operations, culture and the people in the building; from the locker room to the corner office. I would strongly urge GMs, head coaches and even team owners to tap into one of their most valuable assets in the building and empower their player engagement staff with more resources and a greater voice in the organization.

Yves Batoba spent five years working in the player engagement department for the Miami Dolphins. He is currently serves as the VP of Player Development at Neostar Football, a boutique athlete representation and marketing agency