Who became the best non-combine player in the NFL?


James Harrison photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Steelers

The NFL conducts its annual scouting combine in Indianapolis this weekend, inviting the top 333 draft prospects to showcase their measurables before general managers, personnel directors, head coaches, assistants and scouts of all 32 teams.

But the selection process is not infallible. Not all the best players get invited to the combine. For instance, it’s hard to believe former NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison wasn’t invited to his combine. And it’s hard to believe three-time NFL receiving champion Wes Welker didn’t get invited to his combine.

That’s the subject of this week’s Talk of Fame Network poll – who became the best NFL player not invited to a combine? There are plenty of attractive choices:

Julian Edelman. Combine: 2009. There wasn’t much of an NFL market for an undersized (5-10, 190 pound) option quarterback from a non-Power 5 school (Kent State). But after running in the low 4.5s at his campus workout, the Patriots spent a seventh-round draft pick on Edelman as a wide-receiver projection. When Wes Welker left in free agency in 2013, Edelman stepped in and caught 105 passes for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns. He’s become a Tom Brady go-to guy ever since, catching 90-plus passes twice more and posting another 1,000-yard season in 2016. He’s helped the Patriots win two Super Bowls, but missed the 2017 season with a knee injury.

Antonio Gates. Combine: 2003. The NFL passed on a combine invitation to Gates for an obvious reason. He was a basketball player and a very good one. He led Kent State to back-to-back Mid-American Conference championship in his final two seasons and was an honorable mention All-America power forward, averaging 20.6 points and 7.7 rebounds. But at 6-4, he was considered a tweener by the NBA so he pursued an NFL career. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Chargers and has gone on to play 15 seasons. He is an eight-time Pro Bowler and holds the NFL record for career touchdowns by a tight end with 114.

Stephen Gostkowski. Combine: 2006. When Adam Vinatieri left in free agency for the Colts in 2006, the Patriots used a fourth-round draft pick on Gostkowski – and he’s been the New England kicker ever since. Gostkowski has won five NFL scoring championships and gone to four Pro Bowls. He has converted 87.6 percent of his 388 career field goals and now ranks 18th on the all-time scoring list with 1,613 points in his 12 seasons.

James Harrison. Combine: 2002. Another player who didn’t fit the size prototype from a non-Power 5 school (Kent State). Harrison was considered too short at (6-0) either to be a linebacker or an edge pass-rusher on Sundays. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Steelers and spent two seasons on the club’s practice squad. He then spent a season playing with the Rhein Fire in NFL Europe and was cut for the third time by an NFL team, this time the Baltimore Ravens. Harrison returned to Pittsburgh in 2005 and became a full-time starter in 2007. He collected 16 sacks and forced seven fumbles to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2008. Harrison has now gone to five Pro Bowls, won two Super Bowls and collected 84 ½ career sacks.

Chris Harris. Combine: 2011. There were 54 defensive backs invited to the 2011 combine and Harris was not one of them. The Denver Broncos signed him as an undrafted college free agent after running a 4.48 at his campus workout at Kansas. Harris became a starting cornerback midway through his rookie season and a Pro Bowler by his fourth year. He now has gone to three Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl with the Broncos. The cornerback play of Chris Harris Aqib Talib helped the Broncos finish first in the NFL in both pass defense and defense in 2015 as Denver won its third Lombardi Trophy.

Adam Thielen. Combine: 2013. After a career that placed him second on the Minnesota State all-time list in both career receptions (186) and yards (2,802), Thielen couldn’t get a sniff from the NFL. The Vikings signed him after a rookie tryout of local players and he spent a season on the practice squad and two more tackling kick returners on special teams. But Theilen became a starting wideout in 2016, catching 69 passes for 967 yards and five touchdowns. He became a Pro Bowl receiver in 2017 when he caught 91 passes for 1,276 yards and four more scores as the Vikings won 13 games and captured the NFC North.

Osi Umenyiora. Combine: 2003. The lack of a combine presence didn’t prevent the New York Giants from selecting Umemyiora in the second round with the 46th overall pick of the 2003 draft. He served as a pass-rush specialist in his first two NFL seasons before moving into the starting lineup in 2005. He collected 14 ½ sacks that year – the first of his three double-digit sack seasons that would help send him to two Pro Bowls. He and Hall of Famer Michael Strahan formed a dynamic edge-rushing combo that helped the Giants win two Super Bowls. He retired after 11 seasons with 85 career sacks and has been enshrined in the New York Giants’ Ring of Honor.

Wes Welker. Combine: 2004. Even though he caught 259 career passes at Texas Tech and returned eight punts for touchdowns, the NFL did not invite Welker to the combine and his lack of size (5-9, 185) prevented him from getting drafted. He signed as a college free agent with the San Diego Chargers but was released after playing only one game. He then signed with the Miami Dolphins, with whom he evolved into a productive slot receiver by his third season with 67 receptions in 2006. The Patriots traded for Welker in 2007 and his career took off catching passes from Tom Brady. He posted five 100-catch seasons in his six with the Patriots and led the NFL in receiving three times. He also was selected for five Pro Bowls.

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