By: Barry Barnes, Founder
Without the effective platform of the NFL Regional Combine, there is a strong chance that 89 athletes would not have donned an NFL jersey this season, or ever.
Forty-two defensive players, including five punters, were primed for a stellar season. But, due to injuries and game day unavailability, only 17 of those 42 pioneers were active for the majority of the season.
While representatives of the offensive side of the the RC stage were the most conspicuous, the defensive talents did not go quietly into the night.
With the different defensive line changes, the Dallas Cowboys shuffled players around this season. Defensive end Benson Mayowa still managed to be productive with his allotted time. The pioneer from the 2013 Seattle-held RC trials started two contests and posted 21 tackles, including a sack that came against the Seahawks in Week 16.
With 11:59 remaining in the first half on third-and-1 from the Seahawks’ 38-yard line, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson received the ball from shotgun formation.
Mayowa speed rushed past left tackle Duane Brown, and before Wilson could fully step up into the pocket, Mayowa extended his arms and wrapped himself around the elusive signal caller. Mayowa finally brought Wilson down after looping around for a seven-yard loss.
Defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris came on strong late in the season for the Chicago Bears. He demonstrated his raw talent with his pass coverage skills and pass rushing ability. He also returned a kick off attempt for seven yards.
Robertson-Harris racked up 13 tackles, including two sacks. His first career NFL sack came against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 14 and closed the season out with another one in Week 17 against the Minnesota Vikings.
The linebacking core from the RC platform probably had its best overall performance ever.
Cleveland Browns rookie linebacker B.J. Bello played sparingly with the defensive unit, but still racked up six tackles.
“Being a Cleveland Brown means everything to me,” Bello relates. “Being able to be on a NFL roster and play with the best players in the world every day and weekend is a dream come true. It’s a blessing being a Cleveland Brown and playing for a coaching staff that trusts and believes in me to be on the field.”
Los Angeles Rams linebacker Carlos Thompson spent most of the 2017 campaign on the practice squad. In Week 13, the 6-5, 250-pound linebacker, who journeyed through the NFL Pro Player Combine, got his first taste of NFL action and registered a tackle.
Thompson finished the season with five tackles, and had he been slightly faster, it is possible that he could have been a hero for the Rams in their Wildcard playoff matchup against the Atlanta Falcons when he nearly blocked a punt late in the third quarter.
New York Jets linebacker Julian Stanford is pretty much of a hybrid with good speed and athleticism. This year, he finished with 19 tackles. His best game of the season was in Week 13 against the Kansas City Chiefs. In this first and only start of the year, he recorded four tackles.
Kamu Grugier-Hill is a member of the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, and his season was adventurous as he delivered on all counts. As a rookie, he didn’t play much with the defensive unit last season. However, the standout from the 2016 RC trials in Minnesota played across the board on special teams and in certain defensive packages.
In Week 7, Grugier-Hill forced a fumble against the Washington Redskins when he blew up wide receiver Jamison Crowder, although the Skins still recovered. He blocked a punt against the Jets in Week 15.
Still, Grugier-Hill’s biggest moment came against the Cowboys in Week 11 when he filled in as an emergency kickoff specialist. He kicked several times in the second half of that contest, including a touchback. Grugier-Hill is a multi-talented player for the Eagles.
“I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it. I just wanted to make solid contact,” said Grugier-Hill. “I shanked one in a practice on the sidelines, but after that, I felt OK. I just wanted to kick it down the field and keep it inbounds and let our guys go down and make the tackle.”
“That’s kind of how it played out. It was pretty fun, actually. Maybe if it happens again they will let me kick a field goal or a point after,” he continued.
Grugier-Hill finished the season with 22 tackles.
While Grugier-Hill was all over the field for the Eagles, rookie Nigel Harris was all over the League. Harris had a solid camp with the Los Angeles Chargers, made the 53-man roster and earned his first NFL start in Week 3. After things were moving along and earning 11 tackles in five games, Harris was released and the New York Giants came calling.
In the two games as a Giant, Harris, who attended the Houston-held RC session, recorded a tackle. When he sustained a rib injury, the Giants waived him. Shortly afterwards, Harris was ready to roll again and the Bucs signed him to the practice squad. In a blink of an eye, he was promoted to the active roster and saw action in the team’s season finale against the New Orleans Saints.
Harris played collegiate ball at South Florida and he is excited to be back in familiar surroundings.
“It was quite an experience,” offered Harris. “Just felt great being back in Raymond James Stadium, the stadium I played in for the last four years at USF. It felt good giving the hometown something to look at, giving encouragement and trying to give the younger crowd something positive.”
“I’m blessed for every opportunity that’s been given to me. I’m really, really blessed for this opportunity, so I’m going to try to hang on as long as I can,” he added.
Jatavis Brown, Harris’ old teammate with the Chargers, has currently set the standard of excellence for the RC on the defensive side of the ball.
Brown led the Chargers in tackles last season as a rookie with 76. Despite having a reduced role and sustaining a high ankle sprain early in the season, Brown maintained his consistency as he racked up 79 tackles and tied for second on the team.
Fresh off his first Super Bowl appearance with the Falcons, C. J. Goodwin was productive when called upon. Goodwin played for the Falcons for a majority of the season until he was claimed off waivers by the Cardinals. He finished the season with nine tackles.
Goodwin’s former teammate safety Kemal Ishmael was fully healthy this season, but his role diminished due to some of the highly drafted talents. Still, Ishmael registered 29 tackles, including a sack, which came against the Seahawks when Russell Wilson tried to scramble out of the pocket near the goal line late in the first half. Wilson just can’t get away from those RC defensive guys.
Ishmael amassed seven tackles during the Falcons’ playoff run.
Cornerback Jordan Dangerfield was inactive for the Steelers this season. However, veteran safety Robert Golden continues to be a major asset for their special teams.
In Week Seven against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers needed a breather with 6:43 remaining in regulation. On a fake punt, Golden connected with wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey for a 44-yard pass.
In the Divisional Round of the playoffs, Golden helped to turn the tide in the Steelers nearly comeback win against the Jacksonville Jaguars when he blocked a punt early in the fourth quarter.
The veteran finished with 19 tackles and an interception for the year.
Cornerback Chris Milton had a decent rookie season last year with the Colts, and he picked up where he left off to finish with nine tackles this season.
Rookie Kenny Moore II displayed great promise for Indy. Starting for five games, the RC pioneer from Valdosta State amassed 38 tackles, five pass defensed and an interception.
According to Pro Football Focus, Moore capped the 2017 season as the third most playmaking rookie cornerback at 19.4 percent.
Safety Currie Justin was a late add for the Browns and he was having a strong preseason before he injured his ankle. Justin was waived, signed, cut and then signed again by the Browns. In Week 12, the hardworking defensive back from the 2015 RC trials (Chicago) racked up seven tackles, including a sack to close out his roller coaster of a campaign.
Quinton Dunbar is quietly emerging to be a problem for pass catchers in the NFL. The Washington Redskins recognize Dunbar’s abilities and comfortably traded promising cornerback Kendall Fuller, along with a draft pick, to the Kansas City Chiefs for quarterback Alex Smith.
The 6-2, 197-pound cornerback is getting comfortable in his new role as a cornerback after he converted from a wide receiver. This season was Dunbar’s best as he finished with 35 tackles, eight pass defensed and an interception.
Dunbar signed a multi-year deal with the Redskins and the converted cornerback welcomes his opportunity.
“I credit this organization and the guys in this locker room,” Dunbar commented. “I try to seize every moment, because from where I’m from, many of us don’t get this opportunity. Just believe in yourself, be laser focused and believe in the process because anything is possible.”
Dunbar’s words can be echoed by all the athletes who ventured through the NFL Regional Combine.
Hopefully, there will be ongoing opportunities for other promising players to experience the opportunities these RC pioneers have enjoyed.