A posse of professional scouts holding clipboards and stopwatches, eight former Navy football players in special Under Armour outfits, a couple anxious agents and about two dozen interested onlookers.
That was the scene Friday morning at Navy Pro Day, a new spectacle for the academy campus.
Scouts from 18 different NFL teams showed up in Annapolis to evaluate a group of Navy seniors with pro aspirations. Most experts think the Midshipmen have two potential draft picks in quarterback Keenan Reynolds and running back Chris Swain. Nose guard Bernie Sarra, defensive end Will Anthony and slotback DeBrandon Sanders could possibly sign as free agents.
Those players — along with placekicker Austin Grebe, cornerback Quincy Adams and defensive end A.K. Akpunku — participated in the two-hour event that featured testing in a variety of areas the scouts use to obtain base measurements.
Sarra was the star of the weighlifting portion, bench pressing 225 pounds a whopping 29 times. That ranks right up there with the top performances at the NFL Combine and proves the pure power of the 6-foot-1, 297-pounder.
Reynolds wowed the scouts with a 37 1/2 -inch vertical leap and 10-foot broad jump, both of which were on par with the best numbers posted at the NFL Combine. Scouts are looking at Reynolds as either a slot receiver or running back; so it was important that he show that type of explosiveness.
Swain showed his unique combination of power and speed by bench pressing 225 a total of 23 repetitions then running the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds. The 6-foot-1, 245-pounder had already been tested by scouts at the Senior Bowl and has intrigued many NFL clubs with his ability to be a jumbo tailback in the mold of Green Bay's Eddie Lacey.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo was on hand for the entire event and marveled at the sight of so many scouts putting Navy players through the paces. Mark Azevedo and Matt Evans, area scouts for the Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins, respectively, were in attendance. So were Todd Brunner of the Seattle Seahawks and Tariq Ahmad of the San Francisco 49ers.
"I think it's a monumental day for our program. To have this many NFL teams out here looking at our guys is unprecedented," Niumatalolo said. "I've been here 19 years and we've never had a Pro Day like this. Before we've had three or four scouts come out to look at one or two players. I'm grateful the program has gotten to the point there is a need for this."
When I first started covering Navy football in 2001 it was not necessary to schedule such an event. The Midshipmen barely had any Division I caliber players, much less potential pros.
Even after former head coach Paul Johnson got the program turned around it was rare for Navy to produce a pro prospect. Fullback Kyle Eckel, Class of 2005, was the first Midshipman in a long time to attrack NFL interest.
During Navy's current run of success (winning records in 13 of the last 14 seasons) only three players have made an NFL roster — Eckel, fellow fullback Eric Kettani and long snapper Joe Cardona. For the Midshipmen, legitimate pro prospects are few and far between.
However, clearly the talent level has risen in recent years — evidenced by the fact eight current seniors were deemed worthy of participating in the Pro Day. Niumatalolo thinks Reynolds, Swain, Anthony and Sarra may all be the best players to come through the academy at their positions during his two-decade tenure.
"It's encouraging that a lot of NFL teams recognize we have good players in our program," Niumatalolo said. "However, the thing I'm most proud of is they're all top-quality, high-character kids."
According to Sean Magee, director of player personnel for Navy football, representatives from all 32 NFL franchises visited Annapolis at least once this past season to speak with players and watch practice.
Enough NFL teams have shown interest in Reynolds and Swain to warrant each player hiring an agent. Brooks Henderson, with International Sports Advisors in Marshfield, Massachusetts, is representing Swain. Che Mock, with the Esquire Agency out of Nashville, signed Reynolds as a client on Jan. 10.
Following the testing portion of Navy Pro Day, all the scouts gathered in a circle to compare notes. Chris Prescott of the Chicago Bears seemed to be in charge and asked his colleagues to call out the best times they recorded for each player in the 40-yard dash, pro shuttle and three-cone drills.
Henderson made sure to get within earshot so he could hear what times were recorded for Swain.
"To run a 4.63 at 250 pounds, that's pretty darn solid. There is no question that Chris has tremendous speed for his size once he gets moving," Henderson declared. "This is a chance to get some solid numbers on Chris and, hopefully, it opens the door for him to get some additional looks from individual teams."
Sure enough, several organizations plan to put both Reynolds and Swain through individual workouts — either at their facility or the Naval Academy. When a prospect is invited to partake in private workouts for an NFL team that means they have draft potential.
"For Chris, the Senior Bowl was a great opportunity. He got to meet with representatives from a lot of teams and go through the interview process, which was valuable," Henderson said.
Henderson also represents Cardona and agrees the long snapper's success with the New England Patriots this past season has opened the door for other Navy players. Cardona, a fifth round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, was the starter in every game for the Patriots while simultaneously serving in the Navy.
Cardona was based at the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, Rhode Island, during the season. As soon as New England was eliminated from the playoffs, Cardona was assigned to the USS Zumwalt — a guided missile destroyer based out of San Diego.
"Everything I heard back from folks in the organization and other players in the locker room was that Joe was great. He showed up wearing his uniform and was just a class act in every way," Henderson said. "Joe earned a lot of respect for his ability to play pro football while serving his commitment at the same time."
Of course, the United States Navy's decision to allow Cardona to play pro football a huge revelation and opened the eyes of executives with every NFL organization. For years, the Navy was unbending in its determination that academy graduates could not pursue professional sports until completing their full five-year military commitment.
Ray Mabus, current Secretary of the Navy, has softened that stance a bit in recent years. After serving three years on active duty, Kettani negotiated a deal with the Department of Defense that allowed him to serve part-time in the Naval Reserves. Joseph Greenspan, a member of the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer, has a similar deal as Cardona in that he serves while playing professionally.
"I don't think there's any question that Joe making the Patriots and playing all season has opened the doors for future Navy grads," Henderson said.
For the time being, Reynolds, Swain, Sarra and company are still students at the Naval Academy and therefore have a full plate of academic and military requirements. NFL prospects at civilian schools routinely drop out in order to train full-time for workouts such as the one held on Friday.
"It's really tough. Other guys are living football every day. They wake up in the morning and do football stuff until the afternoon," Swain said. "I'm waking up at 7 and starting classes and I don't get out of school until about 2. That only gives me about two hours to do football drills. It's definitely a disadvantage, but we all know the academy comes first."
Swain has been training primarily on the artificial surface at Navy's indoor facility in Halsey Field House. He slipped a few times while doing the pro shuttle and cone drills on the turf at Rip Miller Field.
Sarra conceded there was considerable pressure to perform on Friday with 18 scouts watching your every move. The beefy nose guard felt he did well in the positional drills that more closely mimic what a defensive lineman must do in a game setting.
"Chris Swain and I are were staying together last night and we tried our hardest to tell each other it was just football and we would come out here and treat it like a regular practice," Sarra said. "Even though we've been out here hundreds of times, being under the eyes of the scouts definitely made it pretty nerve-wracking. You want so badly to perform to the best of your ability. Once we started moving around and doing drills, it felt like football again and everything was OK."