As familiar as the surrounding were Saturday morning at the Ravens’ indoor practice facility, it was an entirely different scene as the NFL conducted a regional combine to make sure no viable prospects is passed over.
“It’s an insurance policy against missing any players,” said Stephen Austin, the NFL director of regional combines. “Our teams have multi-million dollar budgets, but we know there’s other players out there like Adam Vinatieri or Joe Horn or Mike Flynn. We don’t want to miss anyone. We feel these football players player their whole lives. They are the foundation of the game.
“They deserve an NFL interview. For many of them, this gives them closure with dignity and the knowledge that their careers are going to end here. At least they’ll know where they stand. We’re looking for the select few that shouldn’t fall through the cracks.”
With that thought in mind, the NFL conducted one of its 11 regional combines Saturday to determine if any of the roughly 130 hopefuls are worthy of advancing to a Super Regional combine next month at the Detroit Lions’ Ford Field in front of a larger group of personnel directors and scouts.
A wide range of players auditioned Saturday, running the 40-yard dash, doing the short shuttle, vertical leap and positional drills.
That included players with a pedigree like former New England Patriots third-round outside linebacker Shawn Crable to former practice squad players like former University of Maryland running back Keon Lattimore, the younger brother of Ravens Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis, to dreamers like a 35-year-old wide receiver unwilling to give up on playing in the NFL.
“It’s about persistence,” said Crable, a former University of Michigan all-conference selection whose six-game career with the Patriots was derailed by injuries. “Things don’t go right all the time. That’s what you battle. Everybody is equal here. If you’re in this building, you have a shot at it.”
There were local players from Morgan State, Towson, Salisbury, the University of Maryland and former University of Virginia quarterback Jameel Sewell.
Four NFL teams attended the workout, which is available for all 32 franchises to observe through video, including the Ravens, Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles and the Carolina Panthers.
“It’s a great opportunity,” said Lattimore, who has previous stints with the Dallas Cowboys, Jacksonville Jaguars and the San Francisco 49ers and has most recently been playing minor league and semipro football. “I’m prepared, I’m focused. I’ve been working with my brother. I’m ready to get it done.”
There were some impressive performers, including Crable and Hampton cornerback Romeo Pellum.
There were a few others who struggled just to make it through the drills unscathed.
A defensive player fell to the ground after running the 40-yard dash, grabbing his hamstring.
Once he got back to his feet with trainers’ assistance, he threw up.
“We get the basics: size, speed, quickness, lower body strength," Austin said. "We take their pictures, so we can see their body type and workout ethic. “We run them through position-specific drills. We want to see, ‘Does he have a backpedal?’
“This is essentially a qualifying combine for who will move onto Ford Field at the Super Regional. The scrutiny is very intense there. We’re hoping that 100 of these guys go to Ford Field and 15 or 18 sign NFL contracts and five or six guys stick with a club.”
A year ago, the NFL regional combines worked out about 2,250 players with 21 signed by NFL teams.
One of those players, Houston Texans linebacker and special-teams contributor Bryan Braman, made it to the playoffs where he competed against the Ravens in an AFC divisional round game.
The NFL has upcoming regional workouts on Feb. 18 at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ facility, Feb. 25 at the New York Jets’ complex, March 3 at the Chicago Bears’ Halas Hall, March 10 at the Atlanta Falcons and March 17 at the Cleveland Browns’ offices. The Super regional in Detroit is set for March 30.
The combines seek out players through college football teams and they also require a $190 registration fee.
“That’s a litmus test,” Austin said. “If you’re a guy on the street, you’re not going to drop $190 on a goof.”
Former Maryland cornerback Colin Nelson has a job with the Tampa Bay Storm in the Arena Football League, but still has NFL ambitions.
A former All-Centennial Conference selection at McDaniel College who transferred to Maryland and played in every game as a senior as a reserve defensive back and special-teams contributor, Nelson isn’t giving up.
“It’s rigorous, it takes a lot of discipline,” Nelson said. “A lot of my friends, we had the same aspirations, but a lot of guys fell short, had other responsibilities, priorities changed. It’s tough on your psyche. You feel like you can do it, but it’s humbling.
“The biggest thing is to stay focused. If that’s your goal, you need to persevere. The reward is given to those that endure, not the swift. It’s about what you prove on the field. I still have to show them that I’m worthy.”
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