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Uninvited but undaunted

Posted Feb 17, 2014

Remember Malcolm Kelly, Limas Sweed and Dexter Jackson? They were invited to the NFL Scouting Combine six years ago and Andrew Hawkins wasn't.


Andrew Hawkins

Even six years after he was uninvited to the NFL Scouting Combine, three years after he was signed by an NFL team and two years after he burst on the scene with 51 catches and four touchdowns, Bengals wide receiver Andrew Hawkins plans to once again DVR the combine as televised this week by NFL Network.

With workouts beginning each day at 9 a.m. from Saturday (Feb. 22) through Tuesday (Feb. 25) as beamed by the NFL from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Hawkins begins to follow the trail that ends with the May 8-10 draft.

“I learn the names of the guys from the combine and I keep track from there,” Hawkins says. “I’ve been taping it since I had a VCR my freshman year in college. I still get excited about it. Those couple of names that rise from obscurity to whom everyone is talking about, those are the cool stories to me.”

But Hawkins is one of the cool stories because he wasn’t invited to that 2008 combine after his senior season at Toledo. Here’s a guy that got left home and he’s still playing in the NFL with more touchdowns (four) than Devin Thomas (three), more games (35) than James Hardy (16), and more than twice as many catches (86) than Limas Sweed, Malcolm Kelly and Dexter Jackson combined (35). He's also got more catches as a Bengal than Jerome Simpson, the club's second-round pick that season whom left Cincinnati four years later with 71. 

All of those receivers went to the ’08 combine, were drafted in the second round, and didn’t play in the NFL this past season. Meanwhile, Hawkins stands to be offered a one-year deal worth more than $1 million by the Bengals this year because he’s a restricted free agent.

So even though each shuttle run, each bench-press rep, each sigh at a news conference is going to be treated like a playoff game, not every good NFL player from the class of 2014 is going to be one of the 350 or so prospects at Indy this week.

The only combine Hawkins ever made it to is the one a year later, when he was able to get behind the curtain with a credential, but only as an assistant coach for Toledo.

They’re still trying to figure out a drill to measure heart.

“I think it’s valuable,” Hawkins says. “The combine shows you more what a player isn’t than what he is. You can coach up somebody to run the 15 routes he has to run at the combine (against no defenders). If a guy goes in there and can’t catch the ball when no one is guarding him, well, you can’t imagine he’ll have better hands when a defender is draped all over him. … If he can’t run a comeback route with no coverage, I can’t imagine he can run a better comeback route with somebody pushing and grabbing him 20 yards downfield.”

At 5-7, 180 pounds, Hawkins had small numbers out of a small college. He had as many TDs in four seasons (four) as he does now after three seasons in the pros, so he can understand why the combine invite never came. But after a pro day he ran sub-4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash, had a vertical jump of 38 inches, and ran 3.96 seconds in the short shuttle, he knew he could have impressed somebody on a stage in front of all 32 teams.

He left the ’09 combine to get on a plane to try and make a reality TV show in which the winner would earn a spot in the Cowboys training camp. And if the ’08 replay of the combine left Hawkins with some what-ifs, the ’09 combine made him feel a lot better as he left for Dallas.

“I always thought if I’m not getting the opportunity, these guys must be light years ahead of me and way better than I am,” Hawkins says. “But from my standpoint, I could see I’m as fast as this guy or I‘m better than this guy or I run better routes than him. The more you see, the more you realize, ‘It’s not me, it’s more of a glitch in the system.’

“Not to be self-promoting, but I feel like I’ve got special abilities that a lot of guys don’t have. My quickness, my change of direction, how I’m able to stop. I wasn’t blessed with size and some other things, but I knew my strong points. It was more analyzing what I brought to the table.”

Hawkins went to that ’09 combine to root on some of his players with no plans to sell himself because he thought that would drive him “two steps back” since he’d already been out of school a year.

But he didn’t think talking to Dallas owner Jerry Jones about the show would be such a bad idea and he waited for two-and-a half hours outside the Cowboys box at Lucas. Hawkins had to leave and when he got back to his hotel, Jones’s car just happened to pull up next to his and Hawkins got out so he could introduce himself and tell him about the show.

“I actually think that helped me,” says Hawkins, who didn’t make Cowboys camp but ended up in Canada for a two-year run that paved his way to the NFL.

The two years Hawkins spent under future NFL head coach Marc Trestman in Montreal led to workouts in Cincinnati and St. Louis and when the Rams cut him after one practice at the beginning of the 2011 training camp, the Bengals were there waiting and it has translated into a very solid 2.5 seasons in the slot. His bid to build on his 2012 breakthrough season was stymied last year when Hawkins missed the first eight games with an ankle problem, but the appointment of new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson bodes well for his role since Jackson is a big believer in speed.

The 2008 draft now? Hawkins figures he’d go around the fourth round “if everyone knew what they do now.” The best picks, it will be recalled, were late. Donnie Avery, the first receiver taken with the first pick in the second round at No. 33, has been on four teams. DeSean Jackson, that draft’s most productive receiver, was the 49th pick. The best after that? Pierre Garcon was the 205th player and taken in the sixth round. Stevie Johnson of Buffalo went in the seventh round.

And Hawkins, Davone Bess (363 catches in 91 games) and Danny Amendola (250 catches in 54 games) were undrafted receivers out of ’08 that held up better than many of those second-rounders.

“Let’s see, Pierre Garcon and Stevie Johnson are guys that went low that would probably be first- or second-rounders,” Hawkins says. “(Mario) Manningham (19 TDs in 68 games) went in the third round. In hindsight, regardless of my production, I’m still 5-foot-7, 180 pounds, so there’s a ceiling. I think in today’s football, there are more 5-8, 5-7 receivers in the first round and I like to think at some level I might have affected that in a positive way.”

“Ace Sanders (5-7, 178 pounds and a fourth-rounder last year) down in Jacksonville had (51) catches this year. You look at Danny Amendola (5-11, 188) and Wes Welker (5-9, 185) guys like that, honestly, I’d have to say fourth round.”

And according to the ’08 draft, Hawkins is a lot better than anyone that went in the fourth round that year. Missouri’s William Franklin and New Mexico’s Marcus Smith went back-to-back at picks 105 and 106 and accounted for seven NFL career catches. All by Franklin. Richmond’s Arman Shields, at No. 125, never had a catch. Kentucky’s Keenan Burton, the 128th pick, played just two seasons and had 38 catches in 22 games. Cal’s Lavelle Hawkins, at No. 126, was active last year but had no catches in four games with the Chargers last season and was inactive for the playoff game against the Bengals.

Andrew Hawkins, a self-proclaimed “football head,” knows why it is so difficult for scouts to get it right.

“The thing about being a prospect is you’re a prospect until you play in a game,” Hawkins says. “You’re a prospect until you get on film. Now that I’m on film, it doesn’t matter what my 40 time is or what my shuttle time is. All you have to do is put on the tape. ‘OK, he beat this guy on this play.’ Once you get into it, you don‘t have to speculate because this is what you do against the best players in the world. I can look at this and say, ‘You do this vs. the best players, so we know you’re this value.’ ”

Hawkins watches all positions at the combine and while there is a special attention paid to wide receivers and defensive backs, he got a major kick watching Dontari Poe a few years backs as the 350-pound defensive tackle from Memphis went through the paces.

“Those guys are so big and athletic, it’s fun to watch,” Hawkins says.

And, he’s got a soft spot for slight receivers when asked about any guys he remembers from the past few combines.

“I remember watching DeSean Jackson and I guess that’s not that recent anymore. That’s the year I came out," Hawkins says. “He went out there and I remember he weighed like 169 pounds. There were a lot of questions and he ran a 4.33 40 and he was still the (seventh) receiver taken. Going back, he probably would have been a No. 1 pick. A top 10 pick if people knew then what they know now.”

Now they know that Hawkins can freeze NFL DBs long enough to break off 50-yard runs after catch and leave everyone looking like they’re standing still. Now they know he can come back from shaking off a raft of disappointment and go back for more. And there’s no combine drill for any of it.

“You can’t tell what kind of professional somebody is at the combine. You can’t get that gauge, you can’t see how a guy compartmentalizes what’s happening to him on and off the field,” Hawkins says. “You can’t tell who has that chip on their shoulder all the time and wills himself to max out their potential even though they might not be the biggest or the strongest. You’ve seen countless examples of it.”

One of them says there are going be some future NFL players not in Indy this week.

“There’s a lot,” Andrew Hawkins says. “A lot more than you think.”

 

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