With NFL dreams and sleepy eyes, small-school standouts, practice-squad castoffs and a pack of unknown draft hopefuls stepped onto the Ravens' indoor practice field Saturday morning. For many of them, it was the closest they will come to playing in the NFL. But it was an opportunity that didn't exist for relative no-names like themselves two years ago.
The NFL conducted one of its 11 regional combines at Ravens headquarters in Owings Mills on Saturday. More than 130 under-the-radar NFL prospects — most with ties to the region — slipped on cleats and squeezed into compression shorts, hoping to earn an invitation to the NFL Super Regional Combine on March 30-31 at Detroit's Ford Field and potentially catch the attention of professional scouts.
There were a handful of players who attended Football Bowl Subdivision schools such as Maryland, Michigan and Penn State. But the event was conducted specifically for players who are eligible for April's NFL draft and were not invited to next month's NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Towson, Morgan State and Salisbury were among the dozens of smaller schools that were represented.
"It's the NFL's insurance policy against missing anyone," said Stephen Austin, director of NFL regional combines "Like Mike Flynn. Like Adam Vinatieri. Like Wayne Chrebet. All of them were just below the radar because the multimillion-dollar NFL team budgets have to focus on the top 350 [prospects] that go to Indy because they're the ones who are going to get drafted.
"They know there are other players out there, but they have this system as a safety net."
Running with 22-year-olds through the 40-yard dash, the short shuttle and other combine drills, were older players with some professional experience who are still trying to make it in the NFL.
One was Shawn Crable, a third-round pick by New England in the 2008 NFL draft who played six games with the Patriots. Another was Keon Lattimore, the former Maryland Terrapins running back and the younger half-brother of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Lattimore has spent time with three teams and was featured on HBO's "Hard Knocks" with the Dallas Cowboys in 2008.
"I just want to keep playing, keep perfecting my craft," Lattimore said. "It's a great opportunity."
Inside the practice facility, scouts from four NFL teams (including the Ravens and Washington Redskins) fiddled with their stopwatches while each position group sprinted in between cones. Players fidgeted and paced in circles as they waited to participate . Shirtless linebackers pumped out pushups before photographers snapped their full-body pictures.
Each drill was filmed by an NFL camera crew so talent evaluators from Miami to Seattle could check out prospects on their computers without having to book a flight to BWI. The top prospects at each regional event will be invited to next month's Super Regional Combine, which should be attended by all 32 teams. But the tape is there if scouts want a sneak preview.
This is the second year for the regional combines. In 2011, more than 2,000 players were poked and prodded and 21 were eventually invited to NFL training camps. One was Houston Texans linebacker Bryan Braman, who played against the Ravens in the playoffs.
Saturday's workout was the fourth in this year's series of regional combines, which concludes on March 17. Other stops include Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, Tampa, and New York/New Jersey -- meaning a hidden gem could be within a day's drive from being discovered by the NFL.
"I'm so blessed and thankful to be here," said safety Jazz Morales, who attends Towson but wasn't recruited in high school and never played football for Towson. A year ago, a friend who plays for Salisbury told him about the opportunity. Morales, 21, applied and was invited to the morning workout. "This is my dream. I want to make it one way or another."
But not just anyone can sign up. The regional combines are not advertised to the public. The NFL asks schools to send prospects their way. And, in part to weed out the pretenders, Austin said that Saturday's workout had a $190 registration fee.
"It's a litmus test," he said. "If you're a guy on the street, you're not going to drop $190 for a goof."
That financial obligation is nothing compared to the emotional toll chasing a dream, said former Maryland cornerback Colin Nelson, whose final year with the Terps was 2007.
"A lot of my friends, we had the same aspirations but a lot of guys fell short, had other responsibilities, priorities changed," said Nelson, who plays for the Arena Football League's Tampa Bay Storm. "It's tough on your psyche. ... You feel like you can do it. But it's humbling."
And Saturday, the dreams of a handful of players stayed alive while those of some others died.
One defensive end crashed and burned after running a 40-yard dash. He clutched his hamstring and squirmed on the turf in pain. Then, after the trainers helped him to his feet, he vomited.
There were five 30-somethings on the event roster, the oldest being a 35-year-old wideout.
"The NFL genuinely appreciates these guys," Austin said. "They've all devoted their entire youth to football -- and they deserve an interview with the NFL. They're mature. They know it's a world-class athletic level, so it gives them closure with dignity for the guys who don't make it."
The overwhelming majority will not -- but at least now some can get a legitimate opportunity.
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