The day of the “sleeper” is finally being put to bed.
Scant secrets remain about prospects on the league’s draft radar. Few, if any, of this year’s picks will cause a team’s front-office members to scratch their heads and ponder, “Who?” when names are announced April 25 to 27 at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
Expansive scouting services and the internet flood of draft information from league, media and independent outlets make it impossible for a well-regarded prospect at any level to remain clandestine. And thanks to the league’s Super Regional combine, the same discovery is happening with some less-ballyhooed talent that once would have flown under the draft-day radar.
Held on April 7 and 8 at Dallas Cowboys Stadium, the Super Regional showcased 215 players who didn’t receive an invitation to the main Indianapolis-based NFL Scouting Combine in February. This gathering featured the crème de la crème of the staggering 2,700-participant pool that individually paid a $275 entry fee for tryouts earlier this year at eight regional combines held nationwide. There were 700 more participants than when the regional concept debuted in 2012.
The predominant number of those attempting to live out their gridiron dreams clearly had no shot in reality. Lauren Silberman was the most blatant example of a Fantasy Football failure. A kicking performance that drew mainstream press was so horrific that some have speculated Silberman’s tryout was always a publicity stunt for someone “trying” to become the NFL’s first female player.
Among the best of the rest at the regionals, a few Vince Papale-like stories have emerged. Three players who were eligible to immediately sign with NFL teams (i.e. members of previous draft classes) inked deals with teams after the workouts were held.
Four players at the 2012 Super Regional were drafted in the sixth round. Eighty-three others attended NFL training camps after being signed as minimum-salaried free agents. Another four long-shots were signed during the regular season.
NFL vice president of football operations Ron Hill said 14 members of the overall group finished the season on a 53-man roster. Another 14 players were on practice squads. Two Super Regional alumni – St. Louis kicker Greg Zuerlein and punter Johnny Hekker – were among the league’s best specialists in 2012.
Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder is hoping the Super Regional launches the same kind of opportunity that Zuerlein and Hekker received. Carder displayed intriguing potential when throwing for 7,000-plus yards during his first three college seasons. His senior year was derailed by a broken middle finger on his throwing hand.
Like the best of the other Super Regional participants, Carder is projected as either a late-round pick or college free-agent signing.
“This gives guys like me and people with talent an opportunity to show what they can do,” Carder said Monday before leaving to New Jersey for a pre-draft visit with the New York Jets.
“Seeing the scouts here and how much interest this has drawn and getting an opportunity to come here has been awesome for me. It’s a lot of travelling but it’s all for the sport we love so it’s well worth it.”
As one of the more well-known college players at the Super Regional, Carder said he also has received “some attention” from Indianapolis and Jacksonville. A few of those participants who come from more obscure beginnings may now start receiving the same kind of notice.
That includes someone who has never taken a practice snap or knew what position he wanted to play when attending a regional combine in Atlanta.
Lawrence Okoye was the talk of the 72 scouts in attendance on Sunday after an outstanding workout that included 40-yard dash times of 4.78 and 4.88 seconds. The 6-foot-5, 304-pound Okoye is a 21-year-old Olympic discus thrower from London who holds the British record in the event. A former rugby player as well, Okoye decided to forsake another run for the gold to purse an NFL career.
With his size and speed, Okoye is projected as a defensive lineman. He could be a late-round pick by a team willing to invest in developing a raw talent whose only American football background is watching the game on television.
It’s these types of prospects that make long-time NFL executive John Beake believe the Super Regional is a worthwhile endeavor for a league that doesn’t sponsor its own developmental program after shuttering NFL Europa in 2006. The UFL’s demise last fall was the latest example of a minor-league venture that could nurture NFL talent being torpedoed by economic failings.
The Super Regional concept was purchased by the NFL in 2011 from ELITE Football Combines founder Stephen Austin, who had run preparatory camps for aspiring NFL players. The NFL has subsequently added some new twists to the standard program at the main Scouting Combine. One is having drills for prospective “Leos” – i.e. hybrid outside linebacker/defensive ends – at the Super Regional. Hill said the drills, which were conducted by pass-rushing specialist Chuck Smith, would be pitched as a potential addition to future Scouting Combines because of the growing popularity of that position.
Beake attended all eight regional workouts this spring to help league-hired scouts whittle down the Super Regional pool. Beake liked what he saw in Arlington.
“We had kids from all different schools,” said Beake, who is the league’s scouting director at the regional combines. “We had two kids who looked great from junior college. They would have never had that chance to show their skill and ability without this Super Regional.”
Despite endorsement from NFL headquarters, there are current and former team executives who loathe the Super Regional concept. They believe the yield isn’t worth having to invent the man-hours required to scout players who have far longer odds of success than highly regarded prospects deserving of greater attention.
With a far more modest budget, the Super Regional is held on a far smaller scale than the main NFL Scouting Combine. The league doesn’t perform detailed physical or psychological exams or extensive background checks on the participants. This then requires more leg work from clubs since such criteria is considered a must for clubs interested in drafting a particular prospect.
Even so, teams don’t have to put in nearly as many man-hours to unearth a – get ready for another draft cliché — “diamond in the rough” like in previous generations.
Harlon Hill fits that bill.
Hill, who died in March at age 80, is best known for having the Division II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy named in his honor. He also is a prime example of a sleeper who once slipped through the NFL cracks.
As long-time NFL executive Joel Bussert tells the story, Chicago Bears vice president Clark Shaughnessy received a tip while scouting the 1954 Senior Bowl. The best player in the region wasn’t at the event. Hill, an NAIA All-American, was attending classes at an upstate teacher’s college in Florence, Ala.
Hill has admitted he was stunned when the Bears made him a 15th-round draft choice. The investment immediately paid dividends when Harlon set team receiving records for running backs as a rookie. Harlon was subsequently voted to three Pro Bowls in a nine-year NFL career.
“Did (the Bears) have video or film on him? I kind of doubt it,” Bussert told FOXSports.com. “Even his (speed) times, height, weight … It was word-of-mouth scouting that probably led to that pick. Sometimes that was pretty reliable to identify sleepers during a day when a large number of players were under the radar.”
Gil Brandt helped build the Dallas Cowboys with his sleepers. Bobby Beathard did the same in Washington. Eleven of the 49 players on the 1983 Redskins were drafted in the fifth round or later.
Those eras were before video footage became readily available of every NFL aspirant. The internet didn’t exist in 1974 when John Stallworth played at Alabama A&M. The Pittsburgh Steelers caught wind of Stallworth’s talent and, according to Bussert, didn’t return the lone copy of his game film to the college in a timely fashion hoping to keep potential suitors off his tail.
The tactic was successful. The Steelers used a modest fourth-round selection on Stallworth, who became one of the NFL’s best wide receivers while playing a pivotal role in four Super Bowl-winning seasons.
Such technological advances also are the reason Joe Linta believes the sleeper will never completely slip into dreamland.
Linta is best known for negotiating Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco’s recent six-year, $121 million contract extension. But like with Flacco — a future Super Bowl MVP who was a lowly regarded NFL prospect after his junior season at Delaware — Linta excels at representing NFL-caliber talent that has eluded others’ eyes.
Linta’s personal pitch helped successfully entice then-Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli into using a 2011 seventh-round pick on Yale fullback Shane Bannon. The reason Linta made such a discovery: Bannon attended the workout of a teammate whose father had asked Linta to try and give his son a draft boost.
Linta told FOXSports.com that Southern Illinois linebacker Jayson DiManche is his latest underground prize and touts an internet highlight package as proof. Linta then explained the reason he believes scouts didn’t have DiManche on their watch list. It stemmed from the now 232-pound DiManche playing at 206 as a junior.
“A national (scouting) service like BLESTO will put grades on some kids saying they’re rejected or not even graded,” said Linta, whose agency scours the internet for potential clients through on-line workout footage.
“Jayson was a 6-0, 218-pound linebacker. He had a really good junior year but the scouts who went into the school either rejected or didn’t look at him entering the season. When my guy found this kid on the internet, I had a look and was like, ‘This kid is unbelievable!’”
There may come a day when any DiManches of the college world won’t escape the NFL’s eye. Ron Hill didn’t dismiss the possibility of future regional tryouts being held in even more cities because of interest in the event.
That would keep team scouting departments even more awake trying to identify sleepers.
“This puts players on a platform where they can be seen by all,” Beake said of the Super Regional. “It gives teams a chance where they can bring a kid in for an interview and take another look at him before the draft.
“There are steps to it all but the mystery is out of a lot of the sleeper.”
Alex Marvez and co-host Gil Brandt interviewed John Beake and Alex Carder on SiriusXM NFL Radio.