Combine invite not essential

Being invited to the annual NFL combine, which begins Wednesday in Indianapolis, certainly provides a college prospect a pretty good leg up on being drafted. But not being chosen for the combine, and thus avoiding the poking and prodding that is a nettlesome part of the process, doesn't mean a player can't get a solid toehold on an NFL career.

Granted, the path to the NFL is a bit more pothole-strewn minus a combine résumé, but it doesn't necessarily suggest that a player has plummeted into the abyss of anonymity.

"When the invitations first come out," said New England wide receiver and two-time Pro Bowl performer Wes Welker, "it's like a red badge of courage … or a validation. But you quickly realize that, if you don't [get invited], it's not the end of the world."

Welker, who began his NFL career with San Diego as an undrafted free agent in 2004, is essentially the poster boy for non-combine participants who made good. The six-year veteran, who somehow didn't merit a combine invitation despite a solid college career at Texas Tech, has become one of the league's premier slot receivers. Welker has averaged 115.3 receptions in his three years in New England, has twice led the NFL in receptions, and is the only player in league history to post three straight seasons with 110 receptions or more.

And Welker is hardly the only non-combine success story.

Julian Edelman, Welker's replacement in the Pats' wild-card loss to the Baltimore Ravens, had six receptions for 44 yards and two touchdowns in that game. Edelman was a seventh-round pick in 2009, and the conventional wisdom was that New England would make the former Kent State star a Wildcat quarterback. But playing principally as a slot receiver, Edelman had 37 catches for 359 yards in his debut season. And he filled in admirably after Welker suffered torn knee ligaments in the regular-season finale.

According to Edelman, only a handful of teams scouted him, but it took just one of them to be impressed enough to draft him despite a lack of combine experience.

"[Scouts] look for every little wart," said Dallas nose tackle Jay Ratliff, who was not invited to the 2005 combine, was selected in the seventh round of that year's draft, and has been in the Pro Bowl each of the past two seasons. "There are a lot of reasons guys don't get a letter [of invitation]. But when you get to your first training camp, it doesn't say 'combine' or 'no combine' across your helmet.

"They're just looking for players."

And finding players, or at least prospects, from the vast pool of college performers who weren't among the 300-330 guys typically invited to the combine. Simple math dictates that not every player who attends the combine can be drafted. And each one of the 256 draft choices is not a combine participant.

Defensive end Osi Umenyiora of the New York Giants didn't go to the combine. Neither did Indianapolis punter/kickoff specialist Pat McAfee, nor cornerback Derek Cox, who started every game for the Jacksonville Jaguars as a rookie in 2009.

Conversely, the combine scouts were able to unearth Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Pierre Garcon, a little-known player from Division III Mount Union in 2008, and the second-year veteran was one of the heroes of the club's ascent to Super Bowl XLIV. And Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, who went undrafted in 2003, was at the combine that year and able to display his wares for NFL scouts.

Just as the draft is described by scouts as an inexact science, so is combine selection.

Despite the best possible reconnaissance by combine officials -- player reputations, scouts' reports, recommendations from teams and individual coaches, and film review -- a few worthy prospects fall through the cracks every year.

Said Arizona general manager Rod Graves: "You're going to miss [on some guys]."

According to the NFL, 42 of the 256 players drafted in 2009 were not at the combine, the most since 2003, when 43 non-combine players were selected. It's believed that the 51 non-combine players chosen in 2000 is the most since the NFL adopted a seven-round draft in 1994.

Using league figures, the 42 non-combine selections last year represented slightly more than the average of 39.3 for the 10-year period of 1999-2008, and was slightly higher percentage-wise (16.4) than the quota for the previous decade (15.4 percent). Four non-combine players were chosen in the first three rounds in '09, also the most since 2003, and two of those four were second-rounders.

New England chose four non-combine players among its dozen picks, and three more franchises each grabbed three prospects who didn't attend the combine.

There hasn't been a non-combine player chosen in the first round since the Chargers tabbed cornerback Darrien Gordon in 1993 -- and just two other non-combine players were chosen in the opening round in the past 22 drafts -- but teams were not shy in '09 about using second-round choices on non-combine prospects.

Oakland chose safety Mike Mitchell with the 47th overall pick in 2009, but the former Ohio University star was hampered by a strained hamstring and didn't start a single game for the Raiders. The other second-rounder, Patriots offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, started eight games as a rookie and projects as a starter in 2010.

In 2008, the initial non-combine player chosen was defensive linemen William Hayes, selected by Tennessee in the fourth round with the 103rd pick overall. So teams are, it seems, gambling on non-combine players a little earlier in the draft. That's good news for Case Western Reserve quarterback Dan Whalen, a Division III All-American who was not invited to the combine but who will be in Indianapolis for a few days to meet with coaches and club officials.

"Everybody tells you that if you can play the game, they'll find you," Whalen said. "I hope that's the case."

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.