By: Barry Barnes, Founder
They said, they couldn’t do it. ‘They,’ the naysayers, ‘they’, the players who ventured through the NFL Regional Combine. ‘Couldn’t do it’, get to the NFL, and succeed. The 2014 NFL season was a testament to the vehicle of the NFL Regional Combine as it filtered out solid athletes who can compete on the highest, competitive level of football. And the 63 players from the workouts proved to be valuable assets to their squads.
For the 2014 season, 30 players were on active rosters, 27 were on practice squads, while six spent the campaign on injured reserve.
The 2014 NFL Regional Combine class featured 27 for the season, up from 20 for the 2013 campaign. In 2012, 16 pioneers graced NFL fields with their presence.
Among the 63 members of the NFL Regional Combine players, 52 were draft-eligible, and 11 were free agents – meaning, they were not draft eligible, but those athletes seized their opportunity at the workouts.
For decades, countless talented athletes sacrifice portions of their youth as they envisioned themselves being drafted into the NFL. Unfortunately, the NFL doesn’t have countless job opportunities. Nevertheless, essential players are either overlooked or discounted for reasons known or unknown, falling off an NFL scouts’ radar.
“Greatness isn’t given, it’s earned,” says Troy Vincent, executive vice president of NFL Football Operations, whose department oversees the regional combines. “These young men have learned that talent is separated by hard work and heart. They have pursued their dream with all three.”
The NFL Regional Combine was establish for this reason to present a platform for the diamonds in the rough to get scouted – and tested. For the 2014 NFL Season, 63 diamonds shined and they are no longer rough – just sparkling gems.
Let’s view their highlights in historical fashion:
The Atlanta Falcons came up a game short in reaching the tournament in Week 17 after their loss to the Carolina Panthers. Despite falling short, linebacker Joplo Bartu and safety Kemal Ishmael stood tall.
Bartu finished with 83 tackles and a sack. His highlighted output came in Week 7 against the Baltimore Ravens when he led the team with 15 tackles.
Ishmael has been solid all season as he started 10 games. He finished second in tackles with 98 and forced a fumble. In addition, Ishmael led the Falcons in interceptions with four, and returned one for a 23-yard touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 3, highlighting his biggest play of the year.
The Buffalo Bills demonstrated in their 2014 campaign, a tough defensive front and will look to be a force in the NFL. A part of the unit is defensive tackle Stefan Charles, who plugged up holes and showed his ability of getting to the quarterback with three sacks. The 6-3, 323-pound defensive lineman compiled 23 tackles to finish the season.
In accordance to the team’s defensive success was kicker Jordan Gay. He planted opponents deep in their territory 59 percent of the time as he landed 49 touchbacks out of 83 kickoffs attempts. In upset wins over the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, he went 9 for 11 in touchbacks forcing these offensive squads to work with long fields.
To top his season, the rookie kicker from Centre registered two tackles. He’s a stud.
The Panthers started the season off rough, but still managed to win the NFC South divisional crown for the second year in a row. And three NFL Regional Combine players had their hands in the mix in offensive tackle David Foucault, cornerback Melvin White and tight end Brandon Williams.
Foucault played in five games for the Panthers, and on a national stage, the Canadian got his first NFL start in Week 9 against the New Orleans Saints.
White racked up 36 tackles, finishing sixth on the team. The second-year corner from Louisiana-Lafayette had six passes defensed and got a huge interception in Week 2 against the Lions midway through the fourth quarter.
In his seven starts, White encountered several of the league’s best receivers in Mike Evans of the Bucs, Calvin Johnson and Brandon Tate of the Lions, Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steeters, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey of the Chicago Bears and Julio Jones of the Falcons, to name a few. For the most part, he held his own.
Speaking of holding his own, Williams made his stand in the receiving and return game – and in his fisticuffs against the Saints in Week 14. The 6-4, 250-pound tight end from Oregon, 2013 NFL Regional Combine attendee, caught four passes for 44 yards, returned three kickoffs for 36 yards and tallied two tackles.
In just six games this season, Saints rookie safety Pierre Warren made an instant impact for New Orleans. In Week 12, he was promoted to the active roster and was instituted into the starting lineup against the Ravens. During the contest midway through the first half, the Jacksonville State product forced a fumble near the goal line, preventing a potential Ravens’ touchdown.
Warren continued to make his statement through the Saints stretch towards the postseason. In Week 15 against the Bears, the 6-2, 200-pound defensive back got two interceptions.
After being released by the Bears, defensive back Isaiah Frey quickly signed with the Buccaneers by Week 7. The aggressive defensive back from Nevada recorded 27 tackles and forced two fumbles.
When Frey was released by the Bears, defensive back Al Louis-Jean took the field in Week 6 and finished with nine tackles and a pass defensed for the season.
Lions linebacker Julian Stanford played with the special teams for most of the season and finished with two tackles, while Packers defensive back Chris Banjo was promoted to the active roster in Week 15 and made his first and only tackle of the campaign against the Bucs in Week 16.
Let’s shift from the NFC North to the AFC North where defensive backs continued to dominate.
Ravens safety Will Hill returned a physicality style of play to the secondary, a custom Baltimore is familiar with. Hill was activated to the Ravens roster in Week 7 and he made an instant impact as he looked to deliver hard hits on each play.
The Florida product and 2012 NFL Regional Combine participant made his present known when he was responsible for covering Saints Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham in Week 12. Hill finished with four tackles that Monday night, but his 44-yard interception, which he returned for a touchdown, help the Ravens to seal the victory.
Hill capped his 2014 regular season with 41 tackles and four pass defensed.
In the Steel City, three players from the NFL Regional Combine were major contributors to help the Steelers to win the AFC North title, first time since 2011.
Fullback Will Johnson didn’t carry the ball much, just twice. However, he paved violent countless holes for Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell. Johnson displayed great hands this season as he caught six passes for 41 yards. Most notably against the Colts in Week 8, Johnson registered a 18-yard reception.
On special teams, the product from West Virginia recorded four tackles.
Defensive back Robert Golden was a co-captain of special teams with kicker Shaun Suisham. Through his leadership, Golden managed to make 10 tackles. Golden showed his ability to throw in Week 1 on a fake punt against the Browns in the second quarter when he connected with fellow Regional Combine player Antwon Blake for a 25-yard hookup.
Speaking of Blake, who was installed into the secondary midway through the season, he has been on point. Similar to Hill, Blake has been laying receivers out – just ask Torrey Smith of the Ravens (Week 9) and Marques Colston of the Saints (Week 13).
Blake finished sixth in tackles with 42, a fumble recovery, six pass defensed and an interception.
Indianapolis Colts linebacker Josh McNary started the 2014 NFL season off strong as he started three out of the team’s first five games, due to injuries. When linebacker Jerrell Freeman returned to the starting lineup, McNary went to his backup role and answered the call each time he was dialed up.
McNary finished the season with 28 tackles.
There aren’t many offensive standouts from the NFL Regional Combine on team’s active rosters. Albeit, the few that are, were impactful.
New England Patriots wide receiver Brian Tyms was dial up from the practice squad in Week 6, and caught one pass – which went for a 43-yard touchdown. Tyms was the first offensive player from the NFL Regional Combine this season to score a touchdown. The 6-3, 204-pound Florida A&M standout receiver finished the season with five receptions for 82 yards and two starts.
Texans running back Jonathan Grimes has been a decent third string running back for Houston, especially on third downs as he picked up five first downs. Grimes finished the season with 39 catches for 153 yards and caught six passes for 86 yards. The second year back from William and Mary had his best outing of the season against the Browns in Week 11 when he had season-highs in carries (13) and yards (54).
Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen had a busy campaign becoming a standout on special teams as he registered 12 tackles. In Week 11 against the Bears, Thielen successfully helped to orchestrate a fake punt as he handed the ball off to safety Andrew Sendejo for a 48-yard gain late in the first quarter. Against the Panthers in Week 13, he blocked a punt, recovered the loose ball and returned for a 30-yard touchdown.
The Minnesota State-Mankato product and 2013 NFL Regional Combine attendee was recognized as the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for Week 13.
Despite his success as a special teamer, Thielen wanted to receive the ball. In Week 5 against the Packers, he had his best output as a receiver as he caught four passes for 57 yards, and fell short at scoring his first NFL touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Thielen caught a 13-yard pass on third-and-7 to get to the Packers’ 6 yard-line, but was mobbed by three Packers.
It wasn’t until the final regular season game against the Bears, again, when Thielen crossed the goal line as a pass catching receiver as he caught the go-ahead 44-yard touchdown pass from rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater midway through the third quarter.
Prior to fracturing his lower left leg against the Seahawks in Week 10, New York Giants running back Michael Cox was on a roll. He carried the ball four times for 33 yards and had two receptions for nine yards. Most specifically, the Massachusetts standout displayed his skills as a returner. In four games, Cox had 11 attempts for 261 yards, averaging 23.7 per return. Eight returns went for 20-plus yards and one gain was for over 40.
Let’s stick with the special teams.
Washington Redskins rookie safety Akeem Davis showed tremendous speed on the field, probably was the faster player on the special teams unit as he nearly was the first guy in a returner’ face each time. The Memphis grad is extremely humble, but very aggressive on the field as he displayed violent hits. Davis finished with 11 tackles on the season.
Broncos rookie kicker Brandon McManus showcased his leg strength all season. He nailed nine out of 13 field goals and quarterback Peyton Manning kept McManus busy for extra point attempts as he perfectly finished with 41 boots. Impressively, McManus landed 70 percent of his kickoffs as touchbacks (64 out of 91) and averaged 65.7 per kick.
The Rams have a deep defensive unit. Still, defensive back Cody Davis managed to get some burn on the defense side of the ball. As a solid special teams player, Davis recorded eight tackles.
Kicker Greg Zuerlein has been a solid mainstay for the Rams ever since he was drafted by the club in 2012, and was the first NFL Regional Combine participant to get selected (sixth-round, 171-overall). For 2014, he finished with 80 percent for field goals (24 out of 30), made 34 out of 35 extra point attempts and 52 percent of his kickoffs went for touchbacks (38 out of 73).
With all the great accomplishments from the NFL Regional Combine players, one player, thus far, eclipsed the ultimate goal for any player – signing a long-term deal.
John Hekker is the prize gem of the NFL Regional Combine as he inked a six-year, $18 million extension with $9 million guaranteed. His deal was the largest contract ever given to a punter, and it will keep the 24-years old punter in St. Louis through 2020.
Hekker was a jack of all trades for the 2014 season. Of his 80 punts, the Oregon State product landed 33 inside the 20 and five went for touchbacks, averaging 46.5 yards per boom. Yes, boom.
Not only did Hekker showed off his foot, but his arm as he completed two passes for 37 yards during fake punts.
Clearly, all 63 players from the NFL Regional Combine didn’t play on game day. What the 2014 class accomplished was far more important than wins and losses. After being doubted and overlooked, getting to the NFL, and surviving on a team’s roster for the entire season, was the ultimate victory.
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