Notes and thoughts from the NFL's inaugural veteran combine, held Sunday at the Arizona Cardinals team complex. 

By Don Banks
March 22, 2015

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Dispatches from the NFL’s inaugural (and perhaps only) veteran combine, held Sunday at the Arizona Cardinals team complex:

He didn’t run fast. He didn’t look particularly smooth in his drill work. But Michael Sam is not ready to give up on his NFL dreams, so he was here on a sun-kissed Sunday morning trying again to draw the attention of a team to his pass rushing skill set, rather than just build upon the celebrity and history he experienced last year in becoming the league’s first openly gay player. 

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"I did the best I can. I did just as good if not better than the other guys here, so I’m confident about that," said Sam, after an hour-long workout for NFL scouts, personnel men, coaches and executives who have gathered in the Phoenix area for this week’s NFL annual meeting at the nearby Biltmore Hotel. "As long as I stay healthy and still train, I think my chances of being on a team are quite high in my own view."

The problem is that teams apparently don't share that view. Cut by the Rams and Cowboys last season, Sam has been out of the league since October. He took a break from his Dancing With The Stars gig to attend the veteran combine, but the reviews of his showing were not promising. Sunday did little if anything to change Sam’s status in the eyes of the NFL talent evaluators I spoke with.

"He looked average at best," said one team personnel executive. "No quick twitch. Not real flexible. He’s still not athletic enough to play outside linebacker. He’s just a guy, and looked real average. I’d be surprised if anybody signed him."

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Sam ran a pair of 40-yard dashes Sunday, turning in times of 5.10 and 5.07 seconds, which weren’t even as fast as the 4.91 he clocked at last year’s NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. But speed wasn’t his calling card during his collegiate career at Missouri as much as his ability to rush the quarterback, and Sam still has plenty of ground to make up to convince the league that he’s capable of that.

There are signs that reality may be starting to set in for Sam. When asked if he’d be willing to consider playing this season in the CFL, in order to log some game tape that might entice the NFL to give him another chance, he sounded ready to head north.

"I am very confident that I will be playing football this year somewhere," Sam said. "I’ll leave it at that. If that’s the opportunity (the CFL), I will take it. But as long as I still have that will, as long as I’m still healthy and can play this game, you will see me continue on trying to get in this league."

Sam said he has improved his "fundamentals" since leaving the Rams and Cowboys, citing his "hand placement" and "footwork." But league scouts seemed unimpressed with his game, after watching Sam and 18 other defensive line hopefuls go through their paces.

Among that group with Sam were former first-round picks Jamaal Anderson (Atlanta, No. 8 overall in 2007) and Adam Carriker (St. Louis, 13th in 2007). Carriker was the oldest "prospect" here at age 30, and Anderson, it bears remembering, is trying to resurrect an injury-plagued career that saw him drafted one spot ahead of Darrelle Revis, who went ninth to the Jets that year.

"The only guy who looked like he might get into a training camp is Jamaal Anderson," the team personnel executive said. "He looked like the best guy to me. [Carriker] looked horrible. He looked stiff."

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Though he was clearly the star of this particular show, Sam on Sunday made only brief comments to a sizable media contingent, refusing to even entertain a question about whether his DWTS commitment might complicate his quest to return to the NFL (barking "Next question," Drew Rosenhaus-style). Sam left the premises hastily, perhaps returning to the show in time for Monday night’s airing, but the NFL Network Sunday night was planning its own hour-long show in order to highlight the best of the veteran combine. It made for a challenging concept, to say the least.

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Asked if he was starting to think about life after football, Sam said: "Absolutely not. I’m young and clearly I didn’t play last year, but I’m still good. I don’t have any injuries. I’m good to play."

If somebody wants him, that is. Stay tuned on that front.

There were 105 players attending this event, with the league saying they were culled from between 1,800 and 2,000 applicants. The players paid their own way, and the registration fee was reportedly $400 per person. NFL director of football development Matt Birk said he didn’t know how many players it would take to sign to a team roster to constitute success for this first-ever veteran combine, but that "if there’s only a guy or two out of 105, then they’ll probably pull the plug on it. But if that’s the case, then shame on us, because we probably chose the wrong 105 guys."

Birk, the recently-retired Vikings and Ravens center, said the veteran combine serves a valuable purpose even if it doesn't translate into players re-joining the NFL. And he said the demand was so great for an invite, he had to turn down pleas and requests even from some former teammates. Ultimately, Birk said, he made the final yeah-or-nay call on which players were here.

"The guys here, they understand this is their last shot," Birk said. "They understand that they’ve mortgaged a little bit of their future by going all in on this and putting other things on hold. But playing in the NFL is obviously a very tight window and I think part of this is a tryout to try and get signed, and part of it too is, ‘If I’m going to give it up, if I’m going to move on with my life, I need to know I can’t do it, that all 32 teams tell me no.’ So closure is a big service we’re providing here."

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Several NFL talent evaluators I spoke with seemed less than convinced of the need for a veteran combine, believing that most teams have all of these players in their data base of potential prospects, and are only confirming opinions at an event like this. Some likened it to "a dog and pony show," designed to help the NFL create more offseason content for the NFL Network, and more media coverage overall. One longtime agent told me that he advised his clients to avoid the veteran combine, calling it "filler content for the league."

"Anytime you get 100-plus guys together for analysis, it’s not a total waste even if you don’t find anybody to sign," Birk said. "You might have 10 names here who are on your list, and after watching them here, you might say, ‘Nope, they’re not on our list any more.’

"And if you take a bigger view, and this is just my opinion, I believe that if a college player was good enough to get signed one time and get into a camp—and some of these guys, that’s all they’ve had, one camp, one contract—then everybody deserves at least two chances. Because not only do you learn stuff from that first NFL experience, it also might have been a bad fit, or you might have gotten hurt. So to be able to really say I gave it my best shot, you should get two chances. We’re the NFL and we’re at the top of the game, and we owe it to them to provide that opportunity, because these guys have already established themselves as being in the top 1 or 2 percent of all football players."

While Birk understood that most of the media turned out Sunday to chronicle another chapter in Sam’s saga, he said Sam’s quest to make the league wasn’t the only good story on display here. Consider the recent career path of former Notre Dame center Mike Golic Jr., the son of the longtime NFL defensive tackle and current ESPN analyst.

Golic spent time as an undrafted collegiate free agent with the Steelers in 2013 and the Saints in 2014, but was released by both. He had quick stints in the CFL with Montreal, in the Arena Football League with Arizona, and played guard in 2014 for the Brooklyn Bolts of the Fall Experimental Football League (FXFL).

"I think this a tremendous opportunity for guys in our position," Golic said, after the offensive linemen workout. "A guy like myself who was out of NFL football last year and was part of an expansion FXFL league this fall, I’m just doing anything I can to stay in football and try and get that next opportunity. And it’s a great opportunity just to get in front of a ton of scouts and teams out here. We’re all really excited about the chance to compete."

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The chance for these 105 prospects to compete and get another chance was cast in somewhat slight juxtaposition Sunday by the recent NFL development involving first-year 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, who chose to walk away from the league last week due to his long-term concerns regarding the risk of potential head trauma. The topic of Borland’s call, versus all these players who still burn to play the game, was an obvious one. And to anyone who says the NFL’s talent pool might some day dry up due to the game’s well-chronicled player safety issues, such a likelihood seemed incredibly remote on Sunday, where even one uninvited prospect in the parking lot tried in vain to talk his way into the proceedings.

"Like Chris said eloquently when he came out with his decision, it was a personal decision," Golic said. "It wasn’t about broad sweeping change in the NFL. Everyone has to make the best decision for themselves and their families and that’s what we’re all out here doing now. Guys paid their way out here to get here, trying to take advantage of the best opportunities they can for ourselves and for our families. We’re all trying to get to this place that we all know and believe we can get back to."

In every direction you looked here on Sunday, getting back into the game was the goal.

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