By: Barry Barnes, Founder
For generations, athletes who were overlooked and wanted to play professional football longed for opportunities to display their skill set in front of the decision makers in the NFL. Moreover, NFL scouts and general managers, who truly love their craft to find great talent, questioned themselves over the decades about if they actually seen all the highly skilled.
Through the NFL Regional Combine and the first annual NFL Pro Player Combine, the evaluation process is finally firm and in order.
The NFL Regional Combine was instituted in 2012 as a means for players from small collegiate programs, and other unforgotten talents, to highlight their skills in front of an audience consist of a few NFL scouts and video cameras, so all 32 teams can witness their performance on film.
Since then, at least 241 players were able to experience life as NFL players. If it was not for the RC platform, those 241 NFL hopefuls most likely would have done what the athletes from the Baby Boomer and Generation X did – hoped and wished.
Comparably to the NFL Veteran Combine, NFL Football Operations assembled the Pro Player Combine to revisit with former NFL players to see if a return was imminent.
The difference, the NFL Veteran Combine had players who were removed from the game for several years, while the Pro Player had players distanced from the game for only a year. The Vet had players who were out of shape and not capable, while the Pro had players who could return to the pros.
“When you are trying to fill out a roster, you give a guy an opportunity who was here (Pro Player Combine) because you know what kind of conditioning they are in,” said Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie. “You see their work; get to talk to them, knowing them better almost. So, that’s the positive thing about this.
“It gives you the opportunity to put your eyes on a lot of players who came into the league who were raw, didn’t get a lot of opportunities and bounced around.
“Now, in an atmosphere like this and for some reason, they show a little something and they get back in the league.”
McKenzie is one of the premium general managers in the NFL. When McKenzie proudly took command of the Raiders in 2012, the organization that gave him his first shot in the NFL, he knew the best way to rebuild the Silver and Black was through good old fashion scouting and evaluation.
Unlike the several general managers who attended, both the Vet and Pro Player Combine, McKenzie put his phone and other distractions aside, and replaced his GM hat with the cap of a scout to vest his energy solely on evaluating.
McKenzie is actively engaged with the thorough process.
“Number one, you want to be thorough. This helps us to cross all our ‘Ts’ and dot our ‘Is’ and to come to these types of camps helps to insure that,” McKenzie said. “We get a lot of information from players and agents, but we don’t know. So, when you get to see an abundant of players who are here, it helps that process.”
McKenzie was a late-round pick himself in the 1985 NFL Draft as the Raiders called his name in the 10th-round (275-overall). If the former linebacker from Tennessee was entering the NFL Draft today, he probably would have gone undrafted.
The father of four in McKenzie played in the NFL for eight seasons as he capped his playing career in 1992 with the San Francisco 49ers. Two years later, McKenzie joined the Green Bay Packers front office and earned two Super Bowl rings (1996 and 2010) while homing his craft as a well-respected NFL executive.
If anyone can speak on opportunities and the importance of evaluating, McKenzie stands among the best in his class.
“Now, you know a certain player, in player ‘X,’ we can say, ‘okay, we saw that guy at the Pro Player. He’s a guy we can bring into camp,’ McKenzie said. Sometimes, even at the NFL Regional Combine, there’s a player that you sign after the draft. After you saw them, you know that it’s something about him that you like.
“It’s about opportunity and timing so we don’t want to miss out.”
100 former NFL players presented their case in front of 30 NFL clubs, and five general managers – including Washington Redskins president Bruce Allen.
A little more than half of those players ventured through the NFL Regional Combine like wide receiver/return specialist Damarr Aultman (Miami Dolphins), defensive end Jake Ceresna (New York Jets), cornerbacks Brandon Person (Arizona Cardinals) and Mariel Cooper (Washington Redskins) to name a few.
This event of the Pro Player was especially important for an extremely talented player like defensive back Jamal Marshall from North Texas. He spend time with the Seattle Seahawks last summer and excelled, but due to an off the field issue, the 6-3, 208-pound was released to get the matter revolved.
Marshall stated that chapter of his life was ended in November, so do not be surprised if he reunites with Seahawks or any club to help them be more dangerous.
“It makes me feels good knowing that they (the Seahawks) understood my situation,” Marshall said. “I finished up with all my issues, everything is done with now. So, knowing they (teams) gave me another shot, I came out and executed like I was supposed to.
“I feel like I’m back where I was, back at the top,” he continued humbly. “I’m ready for another shot, get into camp and make another team.”
Despite letting two passes get away, Marshall had a solid performance. Following his short stint with the Seahawks, Marshall quickly recognized what is important to stay in this league.
“Dropping balls is like dropping money,” said Marshall. “I have strong hands, but I came up short on a couple. Making turnover is the name of the game. I just need to be productive. I quickly understood the playbook in Seattle, but being productive is what counts.”
Defensive end Rakim Cox knows all about being productive. Cox has taken advantage of all what NFL Football Operations had to offer. He tackled the RC, NFL Super Regional Combine, the Vet and, now, the Pro. Cox went from battled through injuries to combating against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
Cox has been through peaks and villages, and thanks to NFL platforms such the Pro, an athlete like the 6-4, 260-pound defensive end can continue to earn the opportunities before him.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride,” said Cox. “I’ve been to the bottom to the highest of highs in nearly winning a Super Bowl and nearly back down…For me it’s all about consistency, sticking with it. Many people told me to do this and do that, but no. I train weekly and I’m still inspired and dedicated to it (football). This is my passion and my drive.
When asked about the importance of the discovery stages of the RC and Pro, Cox said, “It’s a blessing.”
“To me, it’s a blessing for them (NFL handlers) to have me over and over again,” explained Cox. “I think they see something in me and believe I can do something. But it’s on me to get in there and make it stick. I appreciate all the staff from the NFL Regional Combine and the scouts for being me back here. They see something in me, so it’s my job to take care of the rest.”
Clearly, when a player is on the street and distanced from NFL clubs, scouts and general managers misses opportunities as well with talents. This is why the Pro is essential for the Shield, as the process of evaluating have come to a full circle via the Combine Series.
“You can feel a guy’s commitment and work ethic,” said McKenzie. “When you talk to them, you can feel their sincerity about this (football), what they want to get out of this and know how they are gone about it…so, you get to know about the person.
“Now, you can size them, their height and weight. Everything physically post-college and how they changed.”
A few dreamers may fall through the cracks; however, compared to the countless Baby Boomers and Generation X athletes over the past years, a greater margin of Millennials will have closure after exploring several avenues for a professional playing career.
Comparably to life, football is a process of struggle and want. All parties, from the players to general managers, are vested in the process and the brilliance of the Pro Player mirrors the progression.
Now, hopefully, the Pro can help stabilize some pros as McKenzie will be scoping them out.
“It’s about opportunity and timing so we don’t want to miss out,” echoed McKenzie.