By: Barry Barnes, Founder
The NFL Regional Combine was established to unveil talented players to league scouts who may have overlooked special individuals. After 16 weeks, athletes from the platform continue to make history, while one returns to the Pro Bowl.
Move over Shane Lechler (Houston Texans), St. Louis Rams punter Johnny Hekker is the new dominant punt specialist in the league.
“Some of the stuff he’s done is extraordinary,” said Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, according to ESPN. “So, he’s got a lot of recognition around the league, a lot of respect. We’ve known that and certainly he’s worthy of (the Pro Bowl).”
For 15 seasons, Lechler has been a regular attendee for the Pro Bowl spanning seven years, and was a six-time All-Pro. Currently, the 39-years old punter continues to be an elite punter, playing second fiddle, however, to one specialist – Hekker.
Hekker entered the NFL with the Rams as an undrafted rookie free agent from Oregon State in 2012, after turning heads at the New York/New Jersey-held RC workouts. The once high school quarterback, Hekker was selected to his first Pro-Bowl in 2013 and was a second-team All-Pro last season. Hekker is the top punter in the NFL in net yards (3,953), nailing punts inside the 20 on 40 out 91 attempts.
“Last year off was, was, maybe motivation, just recognizing I’ve got to do a little bit more and step my game up,” said Hekker. “And make sure that I leave no doubt. That’s what I tried to do this year…Every rep is the most important rep of my career when I’m out there.
“I put focus into preparation throughout the week and visualize a lot and I think that goes a long way into being able to replicate results 85-plus times during a season.”
In Week 16, Hekker showed his appreciation for accomplishment by forcing quarterback Russell Wilson and his Seattle Seahawks to operate the length of the field for majority of the contest with two punts landing inside the 20 twice off six attempts.
“I can punt the ball as far as I want because I really trust the other 10 guys that I play with to go cover the guy,” Hekker said. “We’ve had plenty of punt return attempts and our guys are just doing a great job of either drawing penalties and negating the return from the get go or tackling the guy right upon the catch. Coach (John) Fassel has had our guys dialed in and everyone has bought into our philosophy as a special teams unit to be bad asses out there and fly around and have a lot of energy and be contagious.”
Hekker probably took being a bad ass too far when he surprisingly nailed Seahawks defensive Cliff Avril, committing a personal foul in the second quarter with 13:41 remaining. For the rest of the matchup, Hekker wisely ducked the Seahawks’ defenders out.
In a quick week of preparation, Houston Texans quarterback B.J. Daniels was able to make history for the NFL Regional Combine platform. Daniels became the first quarterback from the discovery sessions of the RC to take a snap as a signal caller during the regular season.
In the first quarter with 7:58 left, Daniels completed a seven yard pass to rookie wide receiver Jaelen Strong. For the outing, the South Florida standout finished with seven yards passing and six yards off six carries.
Teammate Jonathan Grimes picked up 25 yards off six carries, pushing the Texans towards a division title
-Oakland Raiders defensive end Benson Mayowa earned his first NFL start when his club faced the San Diego Chargers Thursday. He registered one tackle in the win.
-Rookie cornerback Quinton Dunbar helped the Washington Redskins to clinch the NFC East after punishing the Philadelphia Eagles. He capped the clincher with two tackles.
-The defensive player of the Week from the RC was linebacker Brandon Copeland of the Detroit Lions. The Lions blitzed the San Francisco 49ers and Copeland was in attack mode with his four tackles.
-Denver Broncos kicker Brandon McManus is quietly, but quickly becoming a clutch specialist. McManus nailed another game-winning field goal in overtime against the Cincinnati Bengals Monday night to lock up a playoff berth, and for redemption.
With :04 seconds remaining in regulation, McManus lined up for a game-winning 45-yard field goal attempt. Prior to the contest, the 2013 RC participant was 19 for 19 in field goals 40 yards or more. That streak was broken after he shanked the kick wide left.
On the Broncos’ first drive in overtime, the offense gave the standout product from Temple another shot to potentially put the game away with a 37-yard try with 10:10 left. McManus wasted no time as he nailed the ball through the uprights.
One week remains for the 2015 NFL campaign. Who from the NFL Regional Combine will enter the race for more playing time and opportunities in 2016?
We shall see.
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