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Regional combine gives three NFL long shots their big chance

  • By Lance Zierlein Special to NFL.com
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Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press
Regional combines are open to players who are eligible for the draft but weren't invited to the combine in Indianapolis.

Finding a new talent in football can be like finding an underground band. You want others to know about them, but you also want your friends to acknowledge that you found them first.

Before Saturday's regional combine in Houston, I spent hours combing through stories and videos in an attempt to unearth a diamond in the rough.

Regional combines are full of long shots. They are open to all players who are eligible for the 2014 NFL Draft but were not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, as well as players eligible for previous drafts who have never signed an NFL contract and players who have played professionally in some capacity but have been out of action for a period of time.

Here are three players I tracked closely Saturday morning.

The dreamer: Ryan Mattison

After failing to maintain the grades needed to stay in college, Ryan Mattison (5-foot-11, 216 pounds) turned to the Army, where he took part in two deployments to Iraq. It was during his second deployment that Mattison added 35 pounds of muscle and began to think about football.

"When I played football growing up I could cover, but I was afraid of contact, but the Army changed everything for me," said Mattison, a 28-year-old safety prospect. "It made me kind of dive into everything head-first and then worry about the consequences later."

Mattison dove head-first into semipro football when he got back home. And despite his age, he still believes he has what it takes to make it in the NFL.

"There is no Plan B," he said. "I am giving up a nine-year career in the Army to chase a one-in-a-million shot. I am sacrificing job security and benefits for me, my wife and son on a long shot, but I wouldn't do it if I didn't know that I could make it. If I don't make it, I don't know how I will support them."

The verdict: Despite looking the part, Mattison ran the 40-yard dash in 4.87 seconds and was too upright and stiff in his defensive back drills. Semipro football is probably his destination.

The long shot: Craigory Shannon

Craigory Shannon is a champion -- a semipro national champion -- and he has the itch to take it to the next level.

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"I have a great work career now, but it's not what I want," said Shannon, a nose-tackle prospect. "I won't feel right on the inside until I know that I've given my all following my dream and trying to accomplish my dream."

Shannon has 14 brothers and sisters he helps to take care of and he doesn't want to let them down, but he admits that he let himself down early in his career by quitting football in high school and then again in junior college.

"I get so emotional watching football on TV that I start crying, and my wife asks me why, and I say it's just something within," he said. "I feel like I let my family down. I feel like I quit on them. I think to myself how I let my mouth and my arrogance get ahead of me. I just did what I knew best, and that was to quit."

With a thick trunk and powerful upper body, Shannon (5-foot-11, 318 pounds) has the body type that might interest an NFL team, even as a long shot. As for his work ethic, Shannon is burning the candle at both ends in an attempt to chase his passion.

"I work seven days per week, and on Saturdays I go into work at 4:30 a.m. and get off at 1 p.m.," he said. "After that I have a football game on Saturday nights, and then I practice on Sundays after work."

The verdict: Shannon is shorter than most teams would like, and his arms are very short. While he did move fairly well for his size, it was obvious that he needed to hone his technique.

The realist: Kenny Garrett

Unlike Craigory Shannon, who never actually played college football, Kenny Garrett played two years of football in junior college and then two years at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma.

After multiple injuries at the offensive tackle position, Garrett played the part of team player and moved from his defensive tackle position over to the vacant offensive tackle spot.

It was a "team" move by a team player. Garrett has two teams counting on him now. He tries to look after his mother, teenage brother and two sisters who live in a rough area. Garrett was recently married and became a father to a 6-year-old stepdaughter, but shortly after his honeymoon, tragedy struck.

"It was Labor Day, and we were having a barbeque, and my stepdaughter was playing in a puddle when a light fell and landed in the puddle, electrocuting my stepdaughter," he said.

Garrett's stepdaughter survived, but she is undergoing rehabilitation to learn to walk and talk again. Garrett's two families serve as his motivation to make his NFL dream a reality.

"My mom, my brother, my two sisters, my stepdaughter and my wife especially," he said. "I’m just trying to take care of both of these families and get us to a point where we can live in a peaceful atmosphere and out of these neighborhoods."

Garrett is a realist, however, and has contingency plans in place if his NFL aspirations bear no fruit.

"I have a Plan B and a Plan C," he said. "Plan B would be to, hopefully, find an agent who is interested in me, who can help me get into the Canadian League, and if that doesn’t work out then I have a job in Broken Arrow set up in oil. Plan C is the real world."

The verdict At 6-foot-2, 304 pounds, Garrett has the size, but he didn't have the upper-body build that teams like from defensive tackles. While Garrett moved pretty well, I didn't see enough from him to make me believe that he will get invited to the super regional combine in Detroit on April 12.

See the full schedule of 2014 NFL Regional Combines here.

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