With COVID-19 cases spiking across the county, NFL Players Association chief doctor Thom Mayer informed players Saturday they should stop practicing with each other so that everyone is as healthy as possible come the start of training camp.
There has been no official on-field work in the NFL since the last play of the Super Bowl, and now with the recommendation to cease training with fellow players in private workouts, NFL players are left with very few options to stay in football shape leading up to the (potential) start of camp in late July.
But three NFL pass-catchers have a leg — or arm — up on the competition, thanks to their own robotic quarterback.
Patriots receiver Mohamed Sanu, 49ers tight end George Kittle and Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson each have The Seeker at their homes. Created by Monarc Sport, The Seeker is a 21st century JUGS machine that improves upon the accuracy of its predecessor while cutting out the middleman in workouts.
"Yeah, it came at the perfect time honestly. Right on time," Sanu told CBSSports.com in a phone interview this week, just more than a month after getting his customized Seeker. "I'm taking full advantage of it."
The Seeker is an enhancement of the JUGS machines that dot football practice fields across the country at all levels. Where the classic JUGS machine needs a human to both calibrate where the ball is going and load up one ball at a time, The Seeker uses GPS technology to locate its target and deliver up to six balls in about 10 seconds. The user can also tell the machine where on his body he wants the ball, from his left hip up and over his head to his right hip.
It can revolutionize practice for solo players as well as at organized practice. Along with the three NFL players with more to come, The Seeker is in five college programs today, saving QBs arms and kickers legs across the country.
The idea started in Iowa more than five years ago. Igor Karlicic got word about this project when he was in Chicago. He got Bhargav Maganti, a fellow Northwestern graduate, on board. Soon enough, the two co-founders had quit their stable jobs and moved into a townhouse in Iowa City.
"We'd be spending the entire day working on our prototype," says Maganti, who credits Iowa's assistant director of football operations Ben Hansen for his assistance and guidance. "In the evenings [the Iowa football program] was super gracious and let us use their indoor practice facilities and we'd go inside there and test. That's where we really found out that we made the right decision and this is something that can really impact the game."
Maganti jokes the first Seeker was a Frankenstein's Monster, wires everywhere with motors hanging off. But it worked, and a few years later, the two men moved the company to Dallas to maximize production and establish Monarc in a football hotbed.
Sanu has flashed his on social media in the last few weeks. His Seeker is customized in Rutgers red, and he says he uses it at least five times a week while catching passes coming out around 45 MPH.
"It was just one of those things I stumbled upon on Instagram or Twitter," says Sanu, who came across the product more than a year ago. "I reached out to them asking about it and they were telling me all the ins and outs. I told my manager and he dove a little deeper and got some information on it and we went from there."
The current Seeker is in its ninth iteration. Karlicic and Maganti have been throttling the machine down from its 100 MPH peak speed to around 70 MPH for kick simulation, and a ball can travel up to 75 yards in the air. For receiving passes, the machine hovers in the low 60s, which is about the highest velocity recorded at the combine for quarterbacks.
The early versions cost $38,000, but with increased technology and functionality, The Seeker will now run you $50,000. And the co-founders say they expect that price to increase as they refine the technology.
Monarc got in early with Iowa and SMU, and since then, Oklahoma, Virginia and LSU have all purchased their own Seekers.
"At LSU, for their special teams, they saw a 450% increase in the number of reps that they were able to receive in a three-minute period," Karlicic says. "You go from eight to 12 reps to 52 in the same period. That's a quantum leap in the amount of reps you can get."
The Seeker has two basic functions: manual and robotic. A person can control a joystick that aims The Seeker at a player, or the player can wear a GPS monitor known as "the Pulse" that tracks his coordinates 30-to-40 times per second. Stationary gauntlet is the best-used function of The Seeker, but people like Sanu have gotten creative. He put The Seeker in his front yard, turned it on punt mode and received the ball over his house and in his backyard.
Players can get creative, of course. Defensive backs can practice high-pointing the ball. Receivers and defensive backs can aim the robot to the ground to catch passes while lying flat on their backs. Holders can simulate snaps. The Seeker can even do end-over-end kicks and left- and right-footed punts.
Some clients even have access to the routes mode that's still in beta. If you want a 10-yard curl with the ball being thrown as you get out of your break and on your right hip, The Seeker can do that.
"With the Pulse, which allows you to gauge where the person is along with remote control functionality, we're creating something that's going to allow people to create and upload their own drills," Karlicic says. "The thing that we geek out over most is that interaction. We view The Seeker as a platform and not a device."
Karlicic and Maganti had planned to go on a road trip this spring to various college campuses. The idea was to bring the demo Seeker on the road, let players try it out and sort of become natural spokespeople for the product. COVID-19 derailed those plans, of course, and the Monarc team spent about 6 weeks of quarantine refining and rebuilding The Seeker's software.
Now they're pushing the product on social media. Karlicic and Maganti promise more players will be getting their customized Seeker soon, like Pittsburgh tight end Eric Ebron. And while they're hoping to catch people's eye, they aren't looking to eliminate anyone's job.
"It's a huge piece that you can augment to your training," Karlicic says. "We're not looking to replace anyone. That's something we want to make very clear. We hear, 'Oh you want robotic quarterbacks.' That's completely not the case. This is about getting the extra reps for the people who need it the most."