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NFL combine snubs show scouting remains inexact science

Tyree Jackson, that freight train of a quarterback from the University at Buffalo, the one listed at 6-foot-7-inch, 249 pounds? The prospect whose name was trending on social media after he ran a 4.59-second 40-yard dash on Saturday at the NFL combine in Indianapolis? The one who recorded a 34.5-inch vertical jump? Who leapt 10 feet in the broad? Who rifled passes so hard former All-Pro wide receiver Steve Smith had to tell him to dial it back a bit?

The pro scouts are going to come to Buffalo to take a closer look at him.

And what about wide receiver Anthony Johnson? The 6-foot-2-inch, 211 target with a tantalizing catch radius and physicality, the one who broke three tackles on a game-winning touchdown against Temple, opted against working out at the combine because he was nursing a sprained ankle.

The scouts will have an eye on him, too, when he participates in drills during UB’s “pro day” on March 13 at the Buffalo Bills’ practice facility in Orchard Park.

That’s when and where they’ll notice Khalil Hodge.

He’ll make sure of it.

That’s why the UB star linebacker is working out at EXOS, an elite training center in San Diego: To prove he’s capable of playing in the NFL. That he’s worthy of being drafted. That the selection committee was silly to not invite him to the combine, where NFL talent evaluators annually gather to interview and catalog the physical traits, abilities and medical information of more than 300 of the country’s top draft-eligible prospects.

“At first I was kind of surprised,” Hodge said last week about his exclusion, “but at the end of the day, it’s all in God’s plan and God’s timing, and I’ve kind of been letting that just keep pushing me.

“I’m not really too worried about it. I’ve been in situations like this before.”

As have countless others.

Despite so many precise measurements and the proliferation of advanced metrics, scouting remains an inexact science.

Each year, about 15 percent of the players drafted were not invited to the combine.

And not being drafted doesn’t preclude a player from making it to the NFL.

Or the Super Bowl.

Or even the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski was not invited to the NFL combine, but was a fourth-round pick coming out of Memphis in 2006. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Superstars snubbed

The combine is just one part of the evaluation process, and the list of active star players who weren’t invited, for whatever reasons, reads like a Pro Bowl roster.

There’s Antonio Gates, the veteran Los Angeles Chargers tight end who’s a shoo-in for Canton, who played college basketball at Kent State before signing as an undrafted free agent in 2003.

Julian Edelman, the New England Patriots wide receiver, a three-time Super Bowl champion and MVP of Super Bowl LIII, a seventh-round pick in 2009.

Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, drafted out of Memphis in the fourth round in 2006.

Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard, a third-round pick out of Middle Tennessee State in 2016, named first-team All-Pro after his second season in the league.

There’s Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill, another first-team All-Pro, dismissed from Oklahoma State and barred from attending the combine after pleading guilty to domestic violence charges, a fifth-round pick out of Division II West Alabama in 2016.

Tennessee Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler, center, went from a prospect coming out of a Division II college to making one of the more famous plays in Super Bowl history while playing for the New England Patriots. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who after serving in the military, attended a regional combine in 2010.

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen. Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris. Seattle Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin. Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler.

All combine snubs. All undrafted.

As was Broncos running back Phillip Lindsey, who despite starring at Colorado, last season became the first undrafted offensive rookie named to the Pro Bowl.

“I'm one that would love for even more players to be here,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane said last week in Indianapolis, “because there are guys every year that aren’t invited to the combine. I know the young man from Denver last year, the running back, had a really good year and he was not invited here. So, believe me, it's probably at its max from the number of people. But from my seat, I'd love to get my hands on as many people as you can, just to get to know them and get around them and give them that opportunity to show what they can do.”

Jason Croom said he never really concerned himself about not being invited to the NFL combine. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

‘They’ll hear about you later’

Jason Croom is the Bills' only tight end under contract for next season, with the team releasing veteran Charles Clay in February. Logan Thomas is a restricted free agent.

Croom, who signed with the Bills as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2017, wasn’t invited to the combine after an injury-plagued career at Tennessee.

But the 6-4, 252-pound former wide receiver had the requisite build, and he demonstrated his speed and pass-catching ability at the Volunteers’ pro day.

Croom’s 40 time and results in the vertical jump, broad jump, shuttle and three-cone drill would have placed in the top 10 among the tight ends who worked out at the combine, and his 23 reps on the bench press were one shy of the best mark.

“I never really concerned myself with that whole situation,” Croom said of not being invited to the combine, adding that he never stopped training. “Obviously, if you get there, you get a little bit more exposure, but at the end of the day, my whole mindset was just whoever gives me an opportunity. And that’s just how I approached it, because I knew: I don’t care where I go, I’m going to work hard.”

After college pro days, a prospect’s opportunities to impress could include private workouts and visits to numerous NFL cities as teams can bring in 30 players for individual meetings.

That doesn’t include unlimited visits from local prospects, meaning the Bills will have every opportunity to learn about Hodge and other players at UB.

Then there are rookie minicamp tryouts, training camp and preseason games for prospects to show they belong on a 53-man regular-season roster.

“There’s always that small amount of uncertainty,” Croom said, “but all you can do is work hard and hopefully you get the opportunity.”

Croom had done enough to warrant a spot on the Bills’ 10-man practice squad for much of his first season.

He was active for 15 games last season and started three, recording 22 catches for 259 yards and a touchdown.

This summer, he’s positioned to have a chance to compete for the starting job.

It wouldn’t have been possible had he allowed a combine snub to bring him down.

“Just use it as motivation,” Croom said. “The people that need to see you, they won’t get to see you right then and there. But they’ll hear about you later. Just kind of use it as motivation. Don’t go out there and try to gain attention by telling everybody how angry you are. Just work. And your work’s going to talk for you.”

“Regardless of where you play college ball, if you have the talent, the skill set and the size, it’s people’s jobs in the NFL to find you,” said Bills linebacker Julian Stanford, shown, left, chasing the Chicago Bears' Mitchell Trubisky at New Era Field  Nov. 4, 2018. Stanford participated in one of the NFL’s first regional combines, which are no longer held, when he was coming out of Wagner in 2012. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

‘It’s people’s jobs in the NFL to find you’

Bills linebacker Julian Stanford participated in one of the NFL’s first regional combines, which are no longer held, when he was coming out of Wagner in 2012.

Only one player from his school – Rich Kotite – had appeared in an NFL regular-season game, but Stanford was confident he’d get noticed.

“Regardless of where you play college ball, if you have the talent, the skill set and the size, it’s people’s jobs in the NFL to find you,” Stanford said. “So I would just tell myself that. I would tell my teammates that. I said, 'You know, the sky’s the limit.' There’s guys that get drafted from Division II, guys that get drafted from Division III, there’s tons of D1-AA players in the NFL, and if you have the talent, you put up the numbers, you won’t be denied. So I used to just say, 'I just wanted an opportunity to showcase what I can do, and I’ll take it from there.' ”

Stanford originally signed as an undrafted free agent with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

But sometimes a player bounces around the league before finding the right fit.

Stanford spent time with the Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets before signing a two-year, $3 million contract with the Bills last offseason.

“I knew going into this as an undrafted free agent that the cards are kind of stacked against you in a way,” Stanford said. “And every day you go out there, every time you take a snap, a rep, whatever you do, it’s going to be scrutinized, and you have to do everything you can to try to put your best foot forward and perform at your best every time you get an opportunity, because your opportunities will be limited.”

Stanford largely contributes on special teams, but has started 11 of 72 career games, including last season’s loss to the Chicago Bears, when he replaced an injured Tremaine Edmunds and led the Bills with eight tackles and a forced fumble.

Stanford said he likes to reach out to under-the-radar prospects like Hodge to offer advice and words of encouragement.

“In a way, mentor them how I was mentored,” Stanford said. “And just kind of help them from a mental standpoint, because I like to see people live out their dreams, and I know that coming from a small school or a lower division of football, you can get discouraged, and I think that oftentimes happens a lot. I think people encouraging them and building them up plays a big role in their journey for them.”

Former Buffalo Bills running back Fred Jackson was an undrafted free agent. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

‘Remain humble’

Fred Jackson, the Bills’ third all-time leading rusher, wasn’t invited to the combine and had tryouts with the Bears, Broncos and Packers after going undrafted out of Division III Coe College.

Jackson played two seasons of indoor football with the Sioux City Bandits and spent three seasons playing in the defunct NFL Europa before receiving an invitation to the Bills’ 2006 training camp by then-GM Marv Levy, a Coe College alum. He took the opportunity and ran.

Bills linebacker Deon Lacey, who played at Division II West Alabama, the same school as Butler and Hill, was named the Gulf South Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2011. He signed as an undrafted rookie free agent with the Dallas Cowboys and was distraught after being cut late in the preseason.

“After I got released from Dallas, I was on my great uncle’s couch for like three months,” Lacey said. “And he told me, ‘Get up. You need to work out, do something. It’s not over. You need to get out of this slump.’ Because I was never used to being like, not wanted as a football player. I felt like I wasn’t wanted when I got released. I felt like I wasn’t good enough.

“And my aunt, she helped me build my confidence back up and make sure I was going to church, putting my belief in the word and keeping God first, and he really shined his light on me. He did.”

Lacey signed with Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League and remained with the franchise for three seasons, winning the Grey Cup in 2015.

He signed a reserve/future contract with the Miami Dolphins in 2017, and the Bills claimed him off waivers later that year. The special teams stalwart has been active for every game since.

“When you remain humble, that keeps you grounded,” Lacey said. “Like, you don’t forget where you come from. You don’t forget how you got to where you’re at now. And one thing that I love about being a part of the Bills organization, there’s a lot of humble people around me, around the building, amongst the staff, amongst the players, even amongst the guys that do equipment management work, the trainers, stuff like that. You’ve got humble, down-to-earth guys that make you feel like you’re at home.

“Because I’m from the South, so I’m used to that down-to-earth, humble, nice, hospitality-like people, and that’s what the Buffalo Bills organization is like. It reminds me of home a little bit. That’s what I told my agent, like, I don’t want to leave. I know it’s cold, but I don’t want to leave here.”

UB linebacker Khalil Hodge is working out at EXOS, an elite training center in San Diego. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

‘Obstacles are meant to be overcome’

Hodge, the UB linebacker, stands 6-foot-1-inch, weighs 235 pounds, and ranked among the nation’s tackling leaders in each of the last two seasons.

He is quick to diagnose a play. He is well-spoken, exudes leadership qualities, humility and has a relentless motor. He helped lead the Bulls to a 10-win season and first bowl game in years. He believes he has what it takes to be a three-down linebacker in the NFL. And he knows he’s on the league’s radar, having participated in the East-West Shrine Game.

“To be honest, I probably met with all 32 teams throughout the course of the entire week,” Hodge said.

But he shouldn’t have been surprised by his omission from the combine.

Just as it won’t be a surprise if he’s drafted or signs as an undrafted free agent.

And it won’t be a surprise if he shines at training camp and makes a team’s 53-man roster.

Or finds himself cut and searching for a new path forward.

Hodge often thinks about how he was lightly recruited coming out of high school in California, how he played junior college football before getting an opportunity to play at the FBS level at Buffalo, how he’s had to prove himself every step of the way.

“I think about it a lot,” Hodge said. “It’s really molded me into the player that I am. I don’t think I’d be where I’m at without the obstacles that I’ve had to overcome, and this is just another obstacle. If I didn’t go to junior college, chances are I wouldn’t be in Buffalo, and Buffalo turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my life so far, so obstacles are meant to be overcome. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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