Camps providing street free agents a chance to show their stuff

LA MESA, Calif. — Michael Cornwell jogs to the sideline and wipes the sweat from his brow. The on-field temperature has soared past 90 degrees, but the 6-foot-3, 245-pound tight end doesn’t care. There’s no place he’d rather be than at an organized workout for pro teams, displaying his skills on the same Helix High School field where Reggie Bush and Alex Smith first chased their NFL dreams.

Cornwell had aspirations of being drafted after leading all Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tight ends in receptions, yards and touchdowns as a senior in 2019, but the Maryland native never got a chance to participate in a pro day, because Howard was going through a coaching change. He had hoped to make an impression at the combine for players from historically Black colleges and universities, but that event was cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns. Not surprisingly, he never heard his name called during the 2020 NFL Draft, a reality that made last Sunday so significant to him.

“Right now I’m working as a car salesman and an interior home salesman, so being able to do this is the best thing that’s happened to me in the past year,” he says. “It’s a dream come true to be able to come out here and have fun and be able to dream. Personally, I think life is over when you stop dreaming and stop going for what you want in life. So if you’re asking me what this opportunity means to me, it’s everything to me.”

That sentiment was shared among many of the 58 participants at the invitation-only, one-day camp conducted by HUB Football, a relatively new company that hopes to transform the workout process for street free agents. Under the traditional model, clubs fly players in, house them overnight, put them through drills, then fly them back home — which can add up financially.

HUB Football founder Don Yee, who also represents Bucs quarterback Tom Brady, believes it makes more sense to create centralized locations where groups of players can come in and work out for teams from various pro leagues, perhaps on a monthly basis. The players would assume all travel costs, as well as pay an enrollment fee, with the tapes being made available to interested teams, including those who fail to send a representative.

“It costs teams a lot of money and labor to do it the traditional way, plus you might run into scheduling issues with player or team,” says Yee. “I always felt the way it’s currently done was inefficient, that it made more sense to have players together — 40 to 50 at a time — with scouts present. It makes a lot more sense for players, agents and teams when everyone’s interests are actually aligned.”

The camps are not like traditional combines, in that there are no tests for speed or power. Players, dressed in shorts and T-shirts, are put through football drills by individuals who have coached or played at the NFL level. Geep Chryst, currently the tight ends coach at Cal but previously an NFL offensive coordinator, is the head coach. Ty Detmer is the assistant head coach. Seneca Wallace, Eugene Chung, Dwaine Board and Tim McTyer are among the other nearly dozen coaches, who have more than 100 years of combined experience on the pro and college levels.

Although many of the participants have never appeared on an NFL roster, the camps are gaining traction with those who do have NFL experience, like former Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall. Unsigned the past two seasons because of injuries and team economics, the 31-year-old recently closed his eyes and asked God to send him a sign as to whether he should call it a career. Almost immediately, he saw a post on social media that highlighted running back Darius Clark being signed on the spot at a HUB camp, by Carolina.

“I’m like, I still have that fire, that passion, and I feel 100 percent healthy now — and I haven’t been 100 percent healthy in a while,” says Marshall, who started 63 of 69 games for the Broncos and had three seasons with at least 100 tackles. “So I said I’m going to give it a shot. If this is the route I’ve got to take to get back to the league, then I’m going to take it.”

LBs up next! @BMarshh hasn’t lost a step. ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/O9oSQu6kdy

Marshall clearly was a cut above many of the participants, who were selected from just under 280 applicants, according to Yee. During a 7-on-7 drill, he dropped into coverage and waited for the running back to declare his intentions. When the back juked right and went left, Marshall undercut the route and tipped the ball into the air, nearly coming away with an interception. He looked quick and showed his understanding of angles in pass coverage, catching the eye of the Patriots scout in attendance (New England was the only team to send a representative).

“He said, ‘You look good. You look athletic. You look like you can still play,’ ” Marshall says. “That was great feedback from him, especially telling me I look athletic, because that was probably some people’s concerns — is he still athletic? I knew I was athletic, but it doesn’t matter what I know. It’s what I can put on tape.”

HUB Football has conducted four camps in its current iteration, with roughly a quarter of the participants being signed to contracts, including recent Cardinals addition Jamell Garcia-Williams, an end/outside linebacker. There remain some personnel people who prefer to rely on their own scouting departments. However a handful of general managers and scouts told NFL.com they consider HUB camps an asset.

“We don’t send scouts, per se,” said one, “but we do have access to the film and we review it.”

Added another: “We do take them seriously. It’s just a tough time to send scouts out as we’re in draft meetings and have to test back into the building (under COVID protocols).”

For Marshall, simply getting a chance to have something on tape that teams can see was valuable.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a setting where I can compete and show my skill set,” he said. “I love competition, and the fact that I could be out here with these guys, where we all have one common goal but we can compete to make each other better and to prove something to ourselves — I think I proved that I still got it.”

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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