March Is Here!
An NFL Draft Podcast
Every year a handful of prospects soar up NFL teams’ draft boards thanks to monster workout performances at the NFL Scouting Combine, a place to show off one’s raw athleticism. However, each year there are plenty of deserving upperclassmen players who don’t have the opportunity to highlight their talents in front of the NFL’s front offices in Indianapolis.
“You only have so many spots, you can’t bring in 500 guys,” CBS Sports’ Rick Spielman, the Minnesota Vikings general manager for 16 seasons from 2006-2021, said on the “With the First Pick Podcast.” “It’s always around that 330 mark (319 in 2023).”
“You have to save spots for the juniors coming out,” Spielman said. “Whether it’s 50 or 60, whatever amount of juniors come out every year, you have to save an amount of spots for them as well because a lot of times there’s no work been done on them. There’s been tape done on them, but those are the guys that you want to get in front of at the combine. As a general manager, we always made the point that the Senior Bowl, the East-West Bowl, and all these all-star games where the seniors are going to show up, let’s get as much work as we can get done there with the interview process and the test so that when we get to the combine, we can focus on the juniors we haven’t gotten in front of at all.”
That being said here are some of Spielman’s and CBS Sports senior draft analyst Ryan Wilson’s top combine snubs for 2023, analysis on their games, and a list of some of the best NFL players in recent memory who went on to have stellar careers despite the snub.
Jackson State linebacker Aubrey Miller; Bowling Green defensive lineman Karl Brooks; Sacramento State safety/linebacker Marte Mapu; Kentucky cornerback Keidron Smith; Wake Forest defensive lineman Kobie Turner; Arizona State running back Xazavian Valladay.
On Valladay: “Yeah, I threw on tape of him before getting on this podcast because we’re going to have to talk about him,” Spielman said. “He had a very big game against UCLA [92 yards and two rushing touchdowns in 2022] and when I watched him he looks like he’s going to be one of the bigger backs at 6 feet, and I believe he’s going to be over 200 pounds. He’s a little bit of an upright runner, but he has very good in-line vision. He’s not [Chiefs running Isiah] Pacheco, but he’s Pacheco-like as far as one cut and get up the field. What I would like to see a little better from him is lower his pads on contact although he appears to go forward once the initial hit is made on him. He has very good hands out of the backfield. He definitely needs a lot of work in pass protection.”
“I think this is going to be a very deep running back class,” Spielman continued. “Everyone knows [Alabama’s Jahmy] Gibbs, everyone knows [Texas’ Bijan] Robinson, and some of the runners that were down at the Senior Bowl, but when you get into Saturday [Round 4-7] guys like these [Valladay] especially if they have a very good pro day, someone is going to like them well enough that some of these guys are going to get drafted at some point on Saturday. I think this is a very deep running back class where you’re going to get value not only on Thursday night [Round 1] if you do to take one on Thursday night, but for sure Friday and Saturday there’s value all over the place on runners.”
On Mapu and Brooks: “Maybe the thing with Mapu is you don’t where you play him, he’s undersized for linebacker, not fast enough for safety,” Wilson said. “He didn’t look slow on tape when he played primarily at safety, and they had him lined up in the slot at times at Sacramento State.
“Karl Brooks was an absolute game-wrecker wherever they lined him up. I’m confused why they did not make the cut because this an on-going process, and I wouldn’t be surprised if these guys went late Round 4 or higher.”
“I think both of these guys, especially Brooks from Bowling Green, and the reason I say that is because he really had a very good Senior Bowl week in my opinion,” Spielman said. “They played him standing up, he’s almost 300 pounds, from a two-point [stance] on the edge. Everybody knows that’s not he’s going to be in the NFL, so they reduced him down inside to a three-technique or a defensive tackle. He had no concerns making that transition in the Senior Bowl week, and you saw him improve every day.”
“You saw him making plays in the run game, but he also has the quick first-step twitch that everyone is looking for as a pass rusher. He had a natural feel working through edges of blockers, especially over the guards. He may sneak in on Friday [Rounds 2-3]. The biggest thing that teams will complain about is he’s not invited to the Combine. He had a good season, put a cherry on top of his season by performing as well as he did at the Senior Bowl. If you’re going to want to work him out, everyone is going to have to head out to Bowling Green, Ohio, which is not an easy place to get to. You fly into Toledo or Detroit and then have to drive down. … I’ll be interested to see if his pro day is close to Ohio State’s Pro Day. A lot of kids at the smaller schools [in that area] will do theirs the day before or day after since there will always be a ton of people at Ohio State’s.”
Gates’ 116-career receiving touchdowns, the most ever by a tight end in NFL history and the seventh-most all time, aren’t too shabby for the former Kent State basketball player. Despite going undrafted, he ended up as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-Decade Team for the 2000s as he and Philip Rivers shredded opposing defenses over the middle for over a decade. His 955 receptions and 11,841 receiving yards both rank as the third-most in each category behind only Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten.
Another Kent State prospect who slid to the final round of the 2009 NFL Draft because Edelman was making the switch from college quarterback to professional wide receiver. Fortunately, he fell to Tom Brady’s New England Patriots and the rest is history. His 36 career regular-season touchdowns are the third-most of any Brady pass-catcher behind only future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski’s 90 and Hall of Famer Randy Moss’ 39. However, the postseason is where Edelman made his mark as his 118 catches and 1,442 receiving yards are both the third-most in NFL playoff history behind only the receiving GOAT Jerry Rice and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.
The three-time Super Bowl champion earned MVP honors in his final championship run with 10 catches and 141 receiving yards in the Patriots’ 13-3 win against the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII.
Welker, Edelman’s predecessor in New England, also didn’t receive an invitation leading to him going undrafted out of Texas Tech in 2004. His career took off, stop if this sounds familiar, when he signed with the Patriots in the 2007 offseason after bouncing around with the Chargers and Dolphins. Welker exploded during his first year with Tom Brady in 2007, New England’s 18-1 AFC championship season, as he led the NFL with 112 catches. That season and his subsequent performances in 2009 (led the NFL with 123 catches) and 2011 (led the NFL with 122 catches) revolutionized the slot wide receiver position. While he never won the Big Game, Welker retired with five Pro Bowl nods and two First-Team All-Pro selections.
Cruz went undrafted in 2010 out of UMass in 2010 partly due to not receiving an opportunity to shine at the combine. However, he quickly became Eli Manning’s go-to guy in 2011 and 2012 with at least 80 catches, 1,000 yards and nine receiving touchdowns in his second and third seasons. Cruz earned Second-Team All-Pro honors in 2011, the Giants’ last Super Bowl season, and Pro Bowl honors in 2012 before injuries took a toll on his career.
Despite not being invited, Spielman signed Thielen out of Minnesota State as undrafted free agent in 2013. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound pass-catcher broke out in the 2017 and 2018 seasons, going over 1,000 yards and earning Pro Bowl selections in both years. His 534 career receptions and 55 career receiving touchdowns both rank as the third-most in Vikings history behind a couple Hall of Famers: Cris Carter and Randy Moss. Not too bad for an undrafted product from down the road.
Harrison went undrafted as an undersized outside linebacker from Kent State in 2002 after not receiving an invite, which was the Pittsburgh Steelers’ gain and the rest of the NFL’s loss. Harrison went on to rack up five Pro Bowl selections, two First-Team All-Pro nods, 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors, and a couple Super Bowl rings for his trouble. His 100-yard interception of Hall of Famer Kurt Warner to end the first half of an eventual Super Bowl XLIII victory for the Steelers still ranks as one of the best touchdowns in Super Bowl history.
Harris went from a looked over prospect out of Kansas to the NFL’s premier slot cornerback for about a decade, earning a spot on the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-Decade Team for the 2010s after four Pro Bowls, a 2016 First-Team All-Pro spot, and a Super Bowl 50 championship with the Denver Broncos. He signed as an undrafted free agent in 2011, but his ability to play bigger than his size made him one of the NFL’s shutdown corners for a long time.
The hero of the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl XLIX championship win over the Seattle Seahawks as a rookie out of West Alabama in the 2014 season didn’t need a combine invite to finish his rookie year as a Super Bowl legend. His goal-line interception of Russell Wilson forever stands as one of the most clutch plays in Super Bowl history. Butler earned a Pro Bowl nod the following season and another Super Bowl win a couple seasons later, helping spearhead the Patriots’ defense that buckled down in the second half as New England erased a 28-3 Super Bowl deficit against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
One of the best wide receivers in the NFL today, Hill didn’t receive an invite not because he was lacking in talent, but rather due to a legal issue involving domestic violence at Oklahoma State that forced him to leave the school and finish his collegiate career at West Alabama. Through seven NFL seasons, Hill has joined A.J. Green as the only wide receivers ever to earn a Pro Bowl selection in each year of his first seven as a pro. The four-time First-Team All-Pro and Super Bowl LIV Champion earned a spot on the 2010s All-Decade Team despite only playing four seasons in the decade. The NFL’s top deep threat has 37 touchdowns of 20 or more yards since entering the NFL in 2016. No other player has over 30 in that same span.
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