Who was the best non-combine player ever?
The NFL annually invites the 330-plus top prospects to Indianapolis for its scouting combine.
But “top prospects” does not always translate into “best players.” The scouting system is not perfect, and every year players fall through the cracks. They are not invited to the scouting combine in the winter but still turn up on NFL rosters that fall.
Players like Southern Cal linebacker Malcolm Smith, who went undrafted in 2011 and signed as a free agent with the Seattle Seahawks. Smith, an undersized (6-0, 230 pounds) linebacker, was chosen the MVP of the 2014 Super Bowl after returning a Peyton Manning interception for a touchdown and recovering a Demaryius Thomas fumble in a 43-8 Seattle romp.
The combine also skipped over guard T.J. Lang in 2009. He became a fourth-round draft pick of Green Bay and has been a part of Aaron Rodgers’ blocking front for the last six seasons. Running back Latavius Murray also didn’t attend his combine in 2013 but became a sixth-round draft pick of the Raiders and went to the Pro Bowl in 2015 as one of only seven 1,000-yard rushers in the NFL.
So who was the best player ever to overcome a combine snub? That’s the subject of our weekly Talk of Fame Network poll. Here’s a hint – it isn't any of the three players mentioned above. Here are your eight candidates:
Julian Edelman, WR. Edelman was an option quarterback at Kent State who was as dangerous with his legs as with his arm. But at 5-9, he didn’t fit the NFL prototype at quarterback, so he was not invited to the combine. The Patriots drafted him in the seventh round, converted him to wide receiver and he has evolved into Tom Brady’s favorite target. He caught a career-best 105 passes in 2013 and posted a career-best 1,106 yards in 2016. His hands have helped the Patriots win two Super Bowls.
Antonio Gates, TE. Gates was an All-Mid-American Conference basketball selection at Kent State, helping the Golden Flashes win their first-ever conference championship in 2001. Then he helped Kent State reach the NCAA’s Elite Eight in his senior season in 2002. But at 6-4, 255 pounds, he was too small to play a power position in the NBA. So he took up football for the first time since high school. The Chargers signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2003, and he has since caught 897 passes for 11,192 yards and 111 touchdowns and gone to eight Pro Bowls.
Chris Harris, CB. Harris played for a terrible Kansas team that won only 18 games in his four seasons, so he got lost in the shuffle of bad players. Not only did Harris not get snubbed by the combine in 2011; he also went undrafted. Harris signed with the Denver Broncos as a free agent and became a starter in his second season and a Pro Bowler in his third. He has 14 career interceptions, including three for touchdowns, and has gone to three Pro Bowls. He was a key contributor in the NFL’s top-ranked pass defense in 2015 that helped the Broncos win a Super Bowl.
James Harrison, OLB. Clearly the NFL needs to do a better job of scouting Kent State. Not only did the league miss on Gates, the 32 teams all missed on Harrison in 2002. He led the MAC in sacks with 15 in his senior season, but that effort failed to garner him either a combine invite or a draft pick. So Harrison signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a free agent. He has since gone to five Pro Bowls and helped Pittsburgh win two Super Bowls. He returned an interception a Super Bowl-record 100 yards for a touchdown to help the Steelers beat the Cardinals, 27-23, in 2009. He also was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2008.
Robert Mathis, DE. An undersized player from a small school (Alabama A&M), the Indianapolis Colts were intrigued with the speed of Mathis so they used a fifth-round draft pick on him in 2003. He was a pass rusher who lacked the prototypical NFL size at 6-0, 226 pounds. The Colts were right in their assessment of Mathis. He went on to play 14 seasons and collected 123 career sacks. He led the NFL with 19 1/2 sacks in 2013 on his way to AFC Defensive Player of the Year honors. He went to six Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl with the Colts.
John Randle, DT. Like Mathis, Randle was undersized but also undrafted. At 6-1, 248 pounds, Randle was way too light to play on the interior of the defensive line. But play there he did, collecting 137 1/2 sacks in his own 14-year career. Randle led the NFL with 15 1/2 sacks in 1997 and was selected to the NFL's all-decade team for the 1990s. He went to seven Pro Bowls and has been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Osi Umenyiora, DE. Umenyiora also had a 15-sack college season in 2003 at Troy, but it wasn’t enough to garner him a combine invitation. But unlike Harrison, someone was paying attention – the New York Giants, who made him the 56th overall selection in the 2003 draft. He became a starter in his third season and finished among the league leaders with his 14 ½ sacks. He’d hit double figures in sacks twice more in his 11-year career, going to two Pro Bowls and helping the Giants win two Super Bowls.
Wes Welker, WR. This one may be the most puzzling. Welker finished as Texas Tech’s all-time leading receiver with 259 catches for 3,019 yards and 21 touchdowns. He also returned eight career punts for touchdowns, an NCAA record, and won the Mosi Tatupu Award as a senior as the top special-teams player in the nation. But there was no combine invite and no draft selection. So he signed with the San Diego Chargers, but was cut that fall and claimed by the Dolphins. After starting only three games for Miami in two seasons, he was traded to the Patriots, and, over the next six seasons, he would lead the NFL in receiving three times and go to five Pro Bowls. He retired after the 2015 season with 903 career catches for 9,924 yards and 50 touchdowns.