Rick Gosselin's all-time non-combine team
The NFL projects the top 330-plus college prospects each winter and brings them to Indianapolis for its annual scouting combine. It’s not an infallible process.
In April, the NFL corrects all the mistakes.
Cole Holcomb was one of the mistakes.
The NFL invited 338 players to the 2019 combine, including 42 linebackers, but Holcomb wasn’t among them. The snub came despite Holcomb starting at linebacker for three seasons at North Carolina and leading the Tar Heels in tackles all three years.
Holcomb had the bulk to play inside at 235 pounds but was a tad short for the NFL tastes at 6-1. But he opened some eyes at his campus workout with a 4.51 40-yard dash, and the Washington Redskins drafted him in the fifth round with the 173rd overall pick. Holcomb became an opening-day starter and picked up right where he left off at North Carolina, leading the Redskins in tackles with 105.
Holcomb is not the rule but he certainly is not the exception. There are combine whiffs in every draft.
In the salary-cap era (since 1993), there have been an average of 329 players invited annually to the combine. An average of 214 of them get drafted. So more than 100 players invited to each combine fail to get drafted. Also, an average of 39 players who do not get invited to the combine do get drafted annually.
Among the players who were not invited to the combine but went on to have stellar NFL careers are a Hall of Famer, an NFL scoring champion, an NFL receiving champion, an NFL sack champion, an NFL Defensive Player of the Year, a Super Bowl MVP and an eight-time Pro Bowl tight end.
So here’s Rick Gosselin’s all-time non-combine team, proving that the road to the NFL does not always begin in Indianapolis.
QB—Matt Moore. Despite starting two seasons at Oregon State, Moore was not one of the 21 quarterbacks invited to the 2007 combine. He remained one of only two quarterbacks still active from that draft in 2019. (Second-rounder Drew Stanton was the other.) Moore went undrafted but signed as a free agent with the Dallas Cowboys. He never played for the Cowboys but has spent the last 12 seasons playing for Carolina, Miami and Kansas City. Moore has started 32 career games and passed for 7,597 yards with 49 touchdowns. When Patrick Mahomes missed two starts last season with a knee injury, Moore stepped in and delivered the Super Bowl-bound Chiefs a victory over the Vikings.
HB—Latavius Murray. Despite rushing for 1,100 yards and scoring 19 touchdowns in his senior season at Central Florida, Murray was not one of the 38 running backs invited to the 2013 combine**.** But after running a 4.38 40-yard dash at his campus workout, the Oakland Raiders drafted him in the sixth round. He rushed for1,066 yards in his second season on the way to the Pro Bowl and has since started for the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints. Still active, Murray has 4,335 yards and 39 rushing touchdowns in his six NFL seasons.
FB—Kyle Juszczyk. The NFL has no fondness for fullbacks and even less fondness for the Ivy League. Like Murray, Juszczyk was eligible for the 2013 NFL draft. But with only three Harvard players drafted since 1990, the NFL wasn’t going to waste a combine invitation on another player from the Crimson. And why should they? Juszczyk was an All-Ivy League tight end too small to play the position in the NFL at 6-1, 240. But the Baltimore Ravens envisioned him as a fullback candidate and used the 130th overall pick in the fourth round on him. Juszczyk has rushed the ball only 95 times in his seven-year career but has caught 180 passes and has been voted to the last four Pro Bowls – the first with the Ravens and the last three with the 49ers.
WR-Wes Welker. Despite becoming Texas Tech’s all-time leading receiver (259 receptions), setting an NCAA record with eight career kick returns for touchdowns and winning the Mosi Tatupu Award as the best special-teams player in college football, Welker was not one of the 50 wide receivers invited to the 2004 combine. He lacked size (5-8, 180 pounds) and speed (4.65). San Diego signed him as an undrafted college free agent based on his kick return skills but cut him after one game. The Miami Dolphins signed him the same week and he returned a punt for a touchdown that season. He worked himself into the offensive lineup as a slot receiver in 2005 and caught 96 passes over the next two seasons. The Patriots then traded for Welker and he quickly became a favorite target of Tom Brady. He turned in five 100-catch seasons with the Patriots, led the NFL in receiving three times and became a five-time Pro Bowler.
WR—Tyreek Hill. Hill had the talent to attend the combine but off-the-field issues cost him an invitation in 2016. After running a 4.29 40-yard dash at his campus workout, the Kansas City Chiefs drafted him in the fifth round. Hill returned three kicks for touchdowns in his rookie season on his way to the Pro Bowl – and has returned to the Pro Bowl each of the three seasons since then as a wide receiver. Hill has caught 32 touchdown passes in his four-year career and made the key catch in the last Super Bowl – a 44-yard bomb midway through the fourth quarter with the Chiefs trailing by 10 – to propel Kansas City to its first Super Bowl championship in 49 years.
TE—Antonio Gates. There was no reason to extend Gates a combine invitation in 2003. He was an All-MAC basketball player at Kent State who hadn’t played football since high school. That’s also the reason Gates went undrafted. But the San Diego Chargers worked him out and signed him as a free agent. The rest, as they say, is history. Like Tony Gonzalez and Jimmy Graham, Gates proved that undersized power forwards in college basketball cab become prototype tight ends in the NFL. He was a starter in his first 12 seasons and played 16 seasons in all, setting an NFL tight-end record with his 116 touchdown receptions and going to eight Pro Bowls.
OT—Sebastian Vollmer. Despite earning first-team All-Conference USA honors at Houston in his senior season, Vollmer was not one of the 27 tackles invited to the 2009 NFL combine. Maybe the snub was because of his background. Vollmer was a native of Germany who didn’t start playing football until he was 14. Nonetheless, the Patriots sent offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia for a private workout and wound up drafting Volmer in the second round with the 58th overall pick. He started eight games as a rookie and then became a fixture at right tackle over the next six seasons, starting in two Super Bowls and winning one.
OT-J’Marcus Webb. You couldn’t overlook Webb’s size at 6-7, 320. But you could overlook his school – West Texas A&M – when it came to passing out invitations to the 2010 combine. The Chicago Bears still took a shot on Webb, drafting him in the seventh round. He wound up starting 12 games at right tackle that season then moved to the left side where he started the next two years. Webb has now played nine seasons for six teams with 73 career starts.
G—T.J. Lang. Like Vollmer, Lang was a whiff from the 2009 combine. He was not one of the 19 guards invited that year probably because of his school (Eastern Michigan) and conference (MAC) despite the fact he was a three-year starter. The Green Bay Packers drafted him off his campus workout, selecting him in the fourth round. He started only three games in his first two years before becoming a fixture at guard, starting his final six seasons in Green Bay. He returned to his hometown of Detroit as a free agent in 2017 and started for the Lions for two more seasons before retiring. He went to two Pro Bowls, one with the Packers and one with the Lions, and picked up a Super Bowl ring at Green Bay in 2010.
G—Brandon Brooks. Another product of the MAC (Miami), Brooks was not one of the 14 guards invited to the 2012 combine. But that didn’t prevent the Houston Texans from drafting him in the third round with the 76th overall pick. He played special teams as a rookie but moved into the starting lineup at guard in his second year and stayed there for three seasons. He jumped to the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency in 2016 and has started the last four seasons there. He has been voted to the Pro Bowl each of the last three years and has won a Super Bowl ring with the Eagles.
C—Ted Karras. Despite his blood lines – his grandfather and father both played in the NFL and his great uncle Alex was a Hall of Fame defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions – Karras was not one of the 19 interior linemen invited to the 2016 combine. The Patriots still drafted him in the sixth round and he spent his first three seasons as a backup guard before moving into the starting lineup at center in 2019.
DE—Charles Haley. Another small-school product (James Madison), Haley bounced around at three different positions in college -- defensive end, outside linebacker and inside linebacker. The San Francisco 49ers envisioned him at one position -- elephant linebacker -- and spent a fourth-round draft pick on him in 1986. Haley went on to become one of the greatest pass rushers in NFL history, earning a bust in Canton with his five Super Bowl rings and 100 1/2 career sacks. Haley collected 16 sacks in 1990 with the 49ers on his way to NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors and then repeated the honor in 1994 with the Dallas Cowboys on the strength of his 12 1/2 sacks.
DE—Robert Mathis. Mathis was even a bigger whiff from the 2003 combine. He was a pass-rushing dynamo at Alabama A&M, setting an NCAA I-AA record with 20 sacks as a senior. But at only 6-0, 229, he was deemed too small to post those numbers in the NFL. So no combine invite. But Colts coach Tony Dungy built a defense based more on speed than size and Indy claimed Mathis in the fifth round. Over the next 14 seasons, all with the Colts, Mathis would collect 123 sacks, 19th best in NFL history. He led the NFL with 19 ½ sacks in 2013 and was voted to five Pro Bowls. He also picked up a Super Bowl ring with the Colts.
DT—Jay Ratliff. Arriving at Auburn as a tight end, Ratliff was moved to defensive end in his sophomore year before settling in at defensive tackle as a senior. So he wasn’t one of 20 defensive tackles invited to the 2005 combine. Still, the Cowboys took a flyer on Ratliff and drafted him in the seventh round. He started only one game in his first two seasons but collected five sacks, finally moving into the starting lineup in his third year. He collected a career-best 7 ½ sacks in his fourth season and was voted to the first of four consecutive Pro Bowls. The Cowboys released him after the 2012 season and he went on to play three more years with the Chicago Bears. He collected 35 sacks in his 11 seasons.
DT—Henry Melton. Arriving at Texas as a running back, Melton was moved to defensive tackle in his junior season and didn’t start until his senior year. So he wasn’t one of the 24 defensive tackles invited to the 2009 combine. But a 4.64 40-yard dash at his campus workout got the attention of the Bears, who selected him in the fourth round with the 105th overall pick. He played as a reserve as a rookie but moved into the starting lineup in 2010 and stayed there for three seasons, becoming a Pro Bowler in his third year. Melton finished a six-year NFL career in Dallas and left the game with 22 ½ career sacks.
OLB—James Harrison. Kent State has three players on this team. Harrison developed from a walk-on as a freshman to an All-MAC pass rusher as a senior with 15 sacks. But he wasn’t one of the 20 outside linebackers invited to the 2002 combine. Then Harrison went undrafted before signing as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was cut four times and even spent a season in NFL Europe before latching on the Steelers. His talent proved worth the wait. Harrison started six seasons in Pittsburgh and won NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2008 with his 16 sacks. His career lasted 15 seasons with 84 ½ sacks and five Pro Bowls. He helped the Steelers reach three Super Bowls and returned an interception a record 100 yards in one of them.
MLB—Derek Smith. Cole Holcomb had a role model at Washington. Twenty-two years earlier, Derek Smith was a combine snub. Thirty-nine linebackers were invited to the 1997 combine but Smith, despite starting two seasons at Arizona State, was not one of them. The Redskins still drafted him in the third round with the 85th overall pick. He started opening day at weakside linebacker and stayed on the field all four of his seasons with the Redskins, the final two at middle linebacker. He signed with San Francisco in free agency in 2001 and started seven more seasons in the middle of the 49ers’ defense. Smith posted six 100-tackle seasons, including five with the 49ers, and retired after the 2000 season with 1,065 career tackles.
OLB--Malcolm Smith. The NFL couldn’t envision the type of player Smith could be but Pete Carroll could. Carroll recruited Smith to Southern Cal and coached him for two years before leaving to become coach of the Seattle Seahawks. Despite the fact he was a two-year starter and team captain of the Trojans, Smith wasn’t one of the 32 linebackers invited to the 2011 combine. There was a logical explanation – there is no future in the NFL for 6-0, 225-pound linebackers, even those who run a 4.44. But Carroll remembered the player who starred for him on special teams in college and invested a late seventh-round draft pick on him. He spent four seasons with the Seahawks covering kicks and playing spot duty at linebacker. In the 2014 Super Bowl, Smith came off the bench to return an interception of Peyton Manning 69 yards for a touchdown, recover a fumble and make nine tackles on his way to Super Bowl MVP honors. He moved on to the Raiders in free agency in 2015 and spent last season with the Cowboys and Jaguars.
CB—Chris Harris. Smith wasn’t the only combine snub in 2011. Despite starting all four of his seasons at Kansas and finishing second on the school’s all-time tackle list, Harris was not one of the 35 cornerbacks invited to the combine that year. He was fast (4.48 40) but small (5-9), so he didn’t find himself as one of the 254 players drafted in 2011. He signed with the Denver Broncos as a college free agent. Harris chased kicks as a rookie but moved into the starting lineup in his second season and stayed there the rest of the decade, helping the Broncos win two AFC championships and a Super Bowl. Harris has become a four-time Pro Bowler and has returned four of his 20 career interceptions for touchdowns.
CB--Malcolm Butler. Having started only two seasons at West Alabama, Butler was easy to overlook in 2014. There were 39 cornerbacks invited to the combine and Butler wasn’t one of them. Then he had to travel to the University of Alabama to even participate in a pro day, where his 4.62 speed dazzled no one. But he averaged almost 28 yards per kickoff return in college and Bill Belichick is always on the lookout for special-teams contributors. When Butler was passed over in the draft, the Patriots invited him to their minicamp on a tryout basis. New England signed Butler and he became a starter in his second season, helping the Patriots reach three Super Bowls, winning two of them. He made the interception of Russell Wilson at the goal line in the final minute that preserved the 2015 Super Bowl victory. Butler went to one Pro Bowl with the Patriots before leaving in free agency to sign with the Tennessee Titans in 2018.
S—Kevin Byard. Like Butler, caliber of competition worked against Byard when it came time to pass out combine invitations. Despite earning first-team All-Conference USA acclaim his final two seasons and setting a Middle Tennessee State record for career interceptions with 19, Byard was not one of the 22 safeties invited to Indianapolis. But running a 4.46 40 at 216 pounds at his campus pro day got the attention of the Tennessee Titans, who selected him in the third round with the 64th overall pick. He started seven games as a rookie and then led the NFL with eight interceptions in his second season. He already has 17 interceptions in his four NFL seasons and has been to a Pro Bowl.
S—Lance Schulters. Again, caliber of competition took a bite out of Schulters’ draft prospects. It isn’t often the NFL drafts players from Hofstra – only six in the previous 30 drafts -- so Schulters wasn’t one of the 23 safeties invited to the 1998 combine. But the 49ers liked his size (6-2, 202 pounds) and the playmaking skills he exhibited at Hofstra and spent a fourth-round draft pick on him. He moved into the starting lineup in his second season and intercepted six passes, earning a bid to the Pro Bowl. Schulters left the 49ers for the Titans in free agency in 2002 and wound up playing 10 seasons in the NFL, intercepting 19 passes.
K—Stephen Gostkowski. A walk-on at Memphis, Gostkowski set a school record with 369 points, 13th best in NCAA history. Yet he wasn’t one of the 13 kickers invited to the 2006 combine. But with Adam Vinatieri leaving in free agency for Indianapolis, the Patriots had a sudden and pressing need for a kicker. So New England drafted Gostkowski in the fourth round and he’s been kicking for the Patriots ever since – 14 seasons, 1,775 points, four Pro Bowl invites, three NFL scoring championships and three Super Bowl rings. He also set an NFL record by converting 479 consecutive conversion kicks.
P—Pat McAfee. Despite doubling as punter and placekicker all four of his seasons at West Virginia -- even setting the school’s all-time scoring record at one point – McAfee was snubbed by the combine. Nine kickers were invited including three punters who are still active in the NFL today: Britton Colquitt (Minnesota), Kevin Huber (Bengals) and Thomas Morstead (Saints). The Colts were among three teams who worked McAfee out on campus before signing him. He went on to punt for Indianapolis for eight seasons, earning two Pro Bowl bids. He averaged 46.4 yards per career punt and also boomed 53.1 percent of his 659 career kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks.
KR—Josh Cribbs. Despite leading Kent State in both passing and rushing all four of his seasons there, the NFL wasn’t interested in his quarterbacking skills. So he failed to receive a combine invite. Cribbs went undrafted but the Cleveland Browns didn’t envision him as a quarterback. They signed him as a college free agent as a potential kick returner and he spent the next eight seasons doing just that for the Browns – and doing it at an elite level. Cribbs led the NFL with a 30.7-yard kickoff return average in 2007. A three-time Pro Bowler, Cribbs returned eight career kickoffs for touchdowns and three more punts for scores. He retired after the 2016 season with career return averages of 26.1 on kickoffs and 10.7 on punts.
ST—Nate Ebner. Add them up – there are seven former Patriots on this team with special-teams ace Ebner the seventh. He walked on at Ohio State in his junior year and didn’t start a single game over the next two seasons, instead making a name for himself as a special-teams ace with 30 tackles. Position players who don’t start games in their college careers don’t get combine invites and Ebner was no exception in 2012. But after running a 4.47 40 at his campus workout, the Patriots drafted Ebner in the sixth round. He has teamed with Matthew Slater to give the Patriots dynamic coverage teams in the eight years since then and Ebner has three Super Bowl rings to show for his career.