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.
Although, forty-seven offensive players, including three kicking specialists, were primed for a stellar season, due to injuries and game day unavailability, 27 of those 47 pioneers were active for the majority of the season.
In recent years, while the defensive side of the ball proved the importance of the RC platform, the offensive standouts validated the importance of the RC throughout the 2017 NFL campaign.
Among the ball carriers, Arizona Cardinals’ Elijhaa Penny was one back who represented the NFL Regional Combine.
After spending his rookie season on the Cardinals’ practice squad in 2016, Penny earned a spot on the active roster. His success was not immediate because he was fourth on the depth chart. When Pro Bowl running back David Johnson and backup T. J. Logan were lost for the season due to injuries, including Adrian Peterson who was acquired via trade midway through the season, Penny got his chance.
In Week 13 Penny earned his first NFL career touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams off a one-yard carry. The physical back from Idaho crossed the goal line again in the Cardinals’ finale against the Seattle Seahawks.
Fullback Tommy Bohanon was out of football for nearly two seasons, but after a solid workout at the Pro Player Combine last year, the Jaguars signed him. He had a borderline Pro Bowl-type season as he helped lead the League’s best rushing attack.
Bohanon started ten games for the Jags. Despite not carrying the ball much (five times), he hauled in six passes for 43 yards and found himself in the endzone twice.
Against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Divisional Round, Bohanon helped secure the team’s victory as the underdog with a 14-yard touchdown catch midway through the fourth quarter. Bohanon definitely found a home in the NFL.
In addition, future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson was signed to the club mid-way through the season before he sustained a season-ending injury after Week 13. And, the Cardinals signed running back Bronson Hill after Week 12.
Tackles Greg Van Roten (Carolina Panthers), Austin Reiter (Cleveland Browns), rookie Elijah Wilkinson (Denver Broncos), Ulrick John (Green Bay Packers), Denzelle Good (Indianapolis Colts) and Demetrius Rhaney (Washington Redskins) stood up to the challenge when called upon.
Good had five starts out of six games.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers guard Leonard Wester was a little more involved with the offense than blocking and providing protection. In Week 14 against the Detroit Lions, Wester caught his first NFL career touchdown to help seal the victory.
Not bad for a player who never caught a pass.
“Last time I caught a pass? I’ve never actually caught a pass,” said Wester, who attended the New-Orleans-held RC trials in 2016. “The last time I touched the ball was eighth grade, when I played quarterback. It means a lot more in a win, but I’m thankful for the opportunity.”
Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva is the toast of the RC’s offensive linemen. After signing a huge contract in the offseason, Villanueva demonstrated his worth by becoming a Pro Bowl player.
The Steelers had one of the most explosive offenses in the league this season and Villanueva was in the trenches to provide that support.
Cardinals tight end Ifeanyi Momah earned two starts this season after battling injuries the last couple of seasons. Before missing the last seven games due to a broken leg, the 6-7, 255-pound tight end caught a 46-yard pass in Week 2 against the Colts.
Alan Cross was a solid tight end at Memphis as he set the school record for touchdowns scored from that position. The Buccaneers signed him last season as a fullback since he would be undersized for the tight end position in the League.
However, Cross’ skill set and hands could not be denied, and the Bucs switched him to his natural position at tight end. He finished with four starts and caught five passes for 58 yards.
Los Angeles Chargers tight end Sean McGrath is paying his dues behind future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates and Sean Culkin. McGrath is a solid blocker and registered six starts. He also added four receptions for 46 yards.
Colts tight end Brandon Williams had his best season as a pro. He started 10 out of the 14 games he played and finished with 13 catches for 121 yards.
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Marvin Hill caught a 40-yard pass in Week 6 against the Miami Dolphins, and he took it to the house for his first NFL career touchdown. Hill caught another pass in Week 13 against the Minnesota Vikings for 20-yards.
After serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance enhancing substances, Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Mike Thomas closed out his season respectably among the talented core of pass catchers on the roster. With one start, the second receiver who attended the New Orleans-held RC trials in 2016 had his best season with five catches for 93 yards.
Oakland Raiders wide receiver Seth Roberts did not have a break out campaign. Nevertheless, he stayed consistent. With seven starts, Roberts had the most receptions for his career in a season with 43 and compiled 455 yards and a touchdown.
Cole was targeted early and often (83) as quarterback Blake Bortles tried to connect on the deep ball with the speedster from Kentucky Wesleyan. As the season progressed, Cole hauled in the passes, including seven over 40-plus yards. And, he finished fourth among rookie receivers in the air, earning the staff’s trust to ultimately lead the Jags in receiving yards with 748.
Cole is the first player from Kentucky Wesleyan to get to the NFL and his NFL potential has been proven.
“To be honest, I was kind of dismissive of that when he said it,” said Kentucky Wesleyan’s athletic director Rob Mallory when he was told about Cole’s talent. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘You know, he’s probably really good for this level.’ But then the first time I saw him play, the first time I saw him on the practice field, I was like, ‘Oh wow, OK. He wasn’t lying. This kid is different.’”
But the king of the hill for 2017 is Thielen. Thielen exploded, not just in Minnesota, but on the League’s stage. He established himself early as the Vikings’ go-to-guy. While leading by example and not words, Thielen led the Vikings in average receiving yards (14.1), receptions (91) and receiving yards (1,276).
Thielen was the first of the Vikings since 2009 to eclipse the century mark in receiving yards, and clearly, was the first pioneer to do so for NFL Regional Combine.
Brandon McManus (Denver Broncos) and Giorgio Tavecchio (Raiders) did what they could to put points on the board for their clubs. While McManus continues to be one of the League’s best, Tavecchio wanted to be at least a NFL kicker.
After the past several years, Tavecchio worked to prove to the Raiders that he belongs in the League and after Week One, the Black and Silver embraced him.
Tavecchio nailed five out of five field goals in the Raiders’ opener against the Tennessee Titans. He is on the right track to fill the large shoes of veteran Sebastian Janikowski.
“You spend so much time waiting, hoping, imagining it, dreaming it, and then when it happens, it’s not necessarily anticlimactic, but you can’t be too caught up in the moment for what it means to you,” stated Tavecchio.
Greg Zuerlein missed only two field goals this season, and out of seven attempts beyond 50 yards, the Pro Bowler missed only once.
2017 was a great outing for the RC platform’s best. Next season will be different, with better performances across the board.