By: Tim Van Blarcom, Feature Writer
Follow Tim on Twitter: @Tim_VB
The NFL regional combines are still a new development in the NFL draft process but there are already success stories starting in the NFL. The first regional combines began in 2011 as a resource for NFL teams to expand their radar and test even more draft eligible prospects than those top 350 that get invited to Indianapolis.
These prospects come from FBS schools, were career back-ups in college, or were passed over in recent drafts and train for the privilege of performing in front of a few NFL scouts and having their numbers sent around the NFL. If recent trends continue, however, these prospects soon be performing for even larger crowds as the NFL front offices begin to take more and more notice of the regional combines.
In 2011, the debut of the NFL regional combines, there were 11 regional combines and over 2000 prospects participated. Twenty-one of those participants were invited to training camp by an NFL team. Linebacker Bryan Braman was one of the first regional combine participants to have success and make an NFL roster with the Houston Texans. Braman is primarily a special teams contributor but has 36 career tackles, a fumble recovery, and 2 blocked kicks on his resume. Braman was recently acquired by the Eagles this offseason.
In 2012, the NFL hosted 8 regional combines and a super regional combine for those prospects that impressed in their initial regional combine workout. Sixty-nine regional combine participants were signed to NFL rosters during training camp, more than three times the number in 2011. Of the NFL’s 32 teams, 26 invited regional combine participants to camp for a closer look at their abilities.
Additionally, four regional combine participants were drafted by NFL teams in the 2012 draft. Kicker Greg Zuerlein, defensive back Isiah Frey, defensive tackle Christo Bilukidi, and defensive back Jonte Green were all drafted in the 6th round. Greg Zuerlein has had great success with the St. Louis Rams. He made 26-28 field goals last year, was perfect on extra points, and has a career long 60-yard field goal.
By kickoff weekend in 2012, 14 regional combine participants were on an NFL active roster. Safety Will Hill was signed by the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent who made their roster during training camp. Hill has played in 24 games over the last two years. Last year, he saw significant playing time and recorded 77 combined tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions, and a defensive touchdown.
In 2013, the NFL hosted 9 region combines and a super regional combine in Dallas. By kick-off weekend, twenty-nine 2013 regional combine participants were on active NFL rosters. Four 2013 regional combine participants were drafted in 2013. Linebacker Rufus Johnson was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the 6th round while quarterback B.J. Daniels, defensive back Kemal Ishmael, and runningback Michael Cox were all drafted in the 7th round.
2013 regional combine participant and undrafted free agent linebacker Joplo Bartu made the Atlanta Falcons roster out of training camp. In 2013, Bartu played in all 16 games and recorded 85 combined tackles and 3.5 sacks. Bartu was considered a bright spot for the struggling Falcons last year and should be in line as a starter in 2014.
Cornerback Melvin White also went undrafted after participanting in the regional combines in 2013. White made the Carolina Panthers roster and recorded 47 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 2 interceptions, and a defensive touchdown in 15 games. White started 11 games at cornerback after Coach Rivera shuffled his secondary around mid-season. White was a solid contributor for the Panthers in 2013 and holds the advantage in keeping his starting spot for 2014.
Linebacker Josh McNary was signed by the Indianapolis Colts after participating in the 2013 regional combines and recorded 11 tackles in the post-season against the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots. McNary contributes on special teams and in a back-up role for the club.
It should be no surprise that the 2014 regional combines saw an increased number of NFL scouts. Identifying late-round and undrafted gems can be a huge boon for NFL teams trying to complete their roster. If the trends continue, 2014 could see even more regional combine participants competing and making NFL rosters.
At this point, the NFL regional combines have proven their worth to both the NFL by giving the teams another outlet for identifying talent, and the players by giving more prospects a shot at the NFL. Will Hill, Greg Zuerlein, Joplo Bartu, Melvin White, and others are living proof that regional combines can produce starting talent in the NFL and teams have begun to take notice.