HOUSTON -- The NFL scouting community travels far and wide to find players with NFL futures. If a scout is made aware of a 6-foot-3, 215-pound safety who runs a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash and has ball skills somewhere on Mars, NFL scouts would become the next Martians. Unfortunately, due to the vast college football landscape, NFL scouts can't unearth every single player that has next level potential. That's why the NFL's Regional Combines are so helpful for scouts; the players come to them.
A number of participants at the Houston Regional Combine came from a far distance to show off for the handful of scouts on hand. Although this region is wrought with football players, the day's three standouts came from the Florida Muck, Canada and a Division II program in Michigan, respectively.
Last year while writing a 2015 college football preview, one of my Twitter followers mentioned to me that I should take a look at a linebacker at Akron named Jatavis Brown. I hadn't studied the Zips much, nor had I heard of Brown, so I went in search of some game tape. Once I found some tape, Brown instantly popped off the screen and I was blown away by his speed, explosiveness and playmaking. But, I was unsure where he'd play at the next level.
"Honestly, I'd like to see a team create a position for me. Not quite a linebacker, not quite a safety but use me and be creative," Brown emphatically stated after his workout.
The 5-foot-11, 222-pound linebacker was the 2015 MAC Defensive Player of the Year and a three-time first team All-MAC selection, but his size, or lack thereof, scares teams. But, he ran a 4.47 in the 40-yard dash and that got the attention of everyone in the Methodist Training Center.
Heading into Saturday, Brown, who grew up in a Florida football factory, an area affectionately known as the Muck, was a bit of a known commodity, unlike when he was coming out of high school. He played at Belle Glades Central HS, one of two well-known schools in the area, but because he was less than 200 pounds, he wasn't highly recruited.
"No one wanted me, except for Akron," said Brown following his workout. Florida's loss was Akron's gain.
Another known commodity in Houston was Virginia defensive end Trent Corney. When UVA was playing an early Saturday game, the TV crew showed a YouTube video of Corney jumping out of a pool, then another one of him doing it backwards.
"That's not all. I dunked a basketball standing on one foot. I also jumped into the back of a jeep, into a sitting position, just before the jeep took off," Corney responded when asked what other amazing athletic feats the Canadian had also completed.
Athletically gifted beyond nearly all of the Combine participants, Corney went through the Combine's measurement and skill stations with little problem and ran a 4.6 40-yard dash, which was top among the defensive linemen and all the linebackers but one -- Brown. There's little question that his athleticism is off the charts and he sees himself as a hybrid 4-3 DE/3-4 OLB. Consequently, one key aspect of being a 3-4 OLB will need some work.
"I think I've dropped to cover less than five times ... in my whole career," Corney admitted when asked what he needed to work on heading to the next level.
Then again, the guy jumped out of a pool, dunked a basketball off one leg and jumped into the back of a moving jeep. He'll be able to learn how to play in coverage at some point.
Saturday's surprise, though, was the state of Michigan's hidden secret. Ferris State defensive tackle/defensive end Justin Zimmer walked in and put on a show. At nearly 6-foot-3 and 303 pounds, Zimmer ran a 4.89 in the 40-yard dash, had a 33-inch vertical and excelled at each of the position movement drills during the day. It was clear that he was a notch or three above all other defensive lineman candidates.
Later in the day, I heard some buzz that Zimmer wanted to break the Combine bench press record. He didn't get an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine, but had that happened, he would've had a chance. When I put "Justin Zimmer bench press" into my search engine, a YouTube video popped up of Zimmer completing 46 reps of 225 a couple of years ago (the record is 51). Not invited to the Combine and with no potential Pro Day on the horizon, Zimmer made a key decision in his draft preparation.
But, can he play? I raced back to my office at lunch to find some tape on Zimmer and within just three plays, it was evident that he was capable of being the rare Regional Combine participant that gets drafted. In 2015, Texas Southern University cornerback Tray Walker was drafted in the fourth round, due in large part to his Regional Combine performance in Miami.
The next step is just getting Zimmer a Pro Day to showcase his skills even further.
"I don't know if I'll have one. Ferris State doesn't have an indoor facility," Zimmer said.
Luckily, the Houston Regional Combine allowed for his introduction to the NFL world at large.