ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — It’s not the big, splashy invitation-only NFL combine in Indy. There are no live broadcasts, no metrics-obsessed fans following every 40-yard dash time and vertical jump on TV and Twitter. None of the front office bigwigs are here.
Yet, for many NFL hopefuls, their ticket to the pros starts at a regional combine like the one held at the Denver Broncos’ new field house Saturday.
Poked, prodded, tested and timed were 135 draft-eligible college players who forked over $150 entrance fees for the chance to show off their stuff to NFL talent evaluators in hopes of earning an invitation to somebody’s training camp.
Or even get drafted like Georgia State tackle John Ulrick (Colts) and Tennessee State center Demetrius Rhaney (Rams) were last year.
Last season there were 20 graduates of this program — including Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein — on NFL rosters, 18 of whom played in their team’s opener. An additional 28 participants were on clubs’ practice squads and seven were on teams’ reserve lists.
Overall, 120 players have appeared on NFL rosters after starting their journeys at a regional or super regional combine.
“Indy has the top 325,” said NFL consultant and former Broncos GM John Beake, who’s overseeing the five regional combines. “And these young players, a lot of them come from small schools who didn’t get invited or don’t have pro timing days. So, this gives them an opportunity to be seen. And it gives them a bona fide, valid NFL experience with top staff.”
Those who shine at the regional combines in Miami, Houston, Denver, Baltimore and Chicago are invited to the super regional combine March 21-22 in Phoenix in advance of the annual league meeting. There, all 32 teams will have scouts and player personnel on hand to evaluate them.
Everything they do is filmed at the regional combines so that NFL teams can see for themselves those who didn’t get invited to Indianapolis. The players and their agents can also access the website.
Among those who stood out Saturday was Eastern Michigan cornerback Willie Creear, who posted an astonishing 47-inch vertical leap, six inches higher than he normally jumps and two inches higher than anybody had ever jumped at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.
“That was the highest I ever got,” said Creear, who stands a shade under 5-foot-10. “I knew it was higher than usual, but I didn’t think it was that high to be honest.”
Heading into this year’s NFL combine, the highest a plyer had ever jumped in the vertical leap was 45 inches by Ohio State cornerback Donald Washington in 2009.
“Hopefully, it’ll give me a chance to go to the super regional and showcase my ability again after my pro day,” Creear said. “So, I think that can open up a lot of doors, get a couple of eyes, a couple of looks from a couple teams.”
That’s what inside linebacker Jared Koster is hoping for.
“I definitely see it as my shot. I may not be blessed with the opportunity to go to Indianapolis and be on TV, but I’m going to take what I get this year and make the best of it,” said Koster, who transferred from UCLA to tiny New Mexico Highlands because he was buried on the depth chart behind Bruins star Eric Kendricks, who won the Dick Butkis award last year.
The regional combines also give the NFL a chance to experiment with new technology like the electronic interval testing in the 40-yard dash where a series of four green lights shut off as the player passes by. The players weren’t told their times immediately; they’ll find those out on Monday.
Another standout Saturday was Chris Dunkley, who began his college career as a wide receiver at Florida and finished it as a cornerback out of South Florida. He’s had the NFL shield tattooed on his left biceps since his senior year in high school.
“Obviously, I’m enjoying the snow and all that. But this is a business trip for me,” Dunkley said. “I’m trying to make it.”
This was the first time the Broncos were host to a regional combine, but it certainly won’t be the last. Their $35 million-plus field house that spans 125,000 square feet is one of the best indoor facilities in the league.
“Aw man, it’s beautiful,” Dunkley said. “I wouldn’t have no problem coming to work anyway every day, but just the way it is set up I probably would have a blowup mattress, I wouldn’t leave.”
By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer
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