While Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota ran nationally televised sprints and drills at the NFL Scouting Combine on Saturday morning, Chris Bonner trudged through the heavy Denver snow to a performance facility for a morning of running, throwing, studying and perhaps a little boxing.
While Winston and Mariota played pitch-and-catch with uncovered receivers in front of hundreds of NFL decision-makers and a national audience, Bonner lifted weights hundreds of miles away. Bonner did not have time to watch the combine quarterbacks work out on live television. He didn't really have the opportunity, either. "Where I'm staying, I don't have the NFL Network," he said.
Bonner watched some of the highlights on a computer at Six Zero Strength and Fitness, then saw some evening replays of the combine at a nearby restaurant after a full day of his own draft preparation. "I thought Jameis looked really good," Bonner said. "He had good timing. Same with Marcus."
"Just like everyone thought, they were the best," Bonner added. "And then the rest of the guys are good quarterbacks too, but they aren't getting as much hype as those two."
Bonner should have been among the "rest of the guys." He led his team to a national championship in 2014. Granted, it was a Division II national championship, but Bonner dominated his competition level. He stands nearly 6'7" and moves pretty well for such a tall fellow. He has a live arm. He played in an offense with NFL roots that required him to call plays in the huddle and make adjustments at the line.
Maybe Bonner does not belong in a class with Winston or Mariota, but he surely belongs in a class with Jerry Lovelocke, Cody Fajardo and other late-round prospects who shared the field with the big names last Saturday.
Bonner probably ranks a cut above the more obscure quarterbacks who worked out last week.
"I think he throws the deep ball as well as anybody I have ever been around coaching," said John Wristen, Bonner's coach at Colorado State-Pueblo, who was an assistant at UCLA, Colorado and Northwestern for nearly two decades. "And that includes all the opponents we played against."
Wristen may be biased toward the quarterback who brought him a title, but the scouts and experts mumbling around the combine campfires offered similar opinions while wondering why he was not invited.
"I was really hoping to attend," Bonner said. "But I just use it as motivation to get better."
In some ways, it may be better to be the best quarterback not at the combine than just another guy in shorts. On his journey to the NFL, Bonner has always taken the road less traveled.
Sticking With It
Bonner was already 6'6" when his high school career ended. He had been the starting quarterback at Clairemont High School in San Diego since his freshman year. Division I programs, mid-majors or high FCS schools at least should have come calling.
But Bonner was rail skinny—about 190 pounds in his estimation—and Clairemont was a gridiron weakling. Bonner played for three different coaches, so the program was always in transition. Teammates quit or transferred to nearby powerhouses like crosstown rival James Madison, which won a California championship while Bonner's Clairemont Chieftains went 1-9.
"Going into high school, I wasn't really thinking about a football career," Bonner said. "Maybe if I went back, I could have gone to a bigger, better high school for football."
Bonner chose to be true to his school. "I'm really glad that I stuck with it, stuck with my friends, and ended up where I am now," he said.
No Division I school made Bonner an offer. Rather than pursue some D-III nibbles, he enrolled at nearby Grossmont Junior College. After splitting time as a freshman, he threw for 2,470 yards and 19 touchdowns in a 10-game schedule in his second season. Grossmont was loaded with future D-I talent at the skill positions—Bonner's teammates would go on to Utah, BYU and Colorado State—but the Griffins had a habit of losing by 66-42 final scores.
Bonner sent out tape to programs all over the country in an effort to move to the next level. Meanwhile, CSU-Pueblo coach John Wristen had just lost Ross Dausin, the quarterback who led the ThunderWolves to a handful of Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference titles and went on to stints in NFL training camps. "I was desperately looking for a quarterback," Wristen said.
Bonner's video arrived in Pueblo the day after Christmas. Wristen shared it with offensive coordinator Daren Wilkinson. "We said, 'This guy's pretty damn good,'" Wristen said. "'Why is he still available?'"
Bonner made the trip from sunny San Diego to the high plains of Pueblo in the dead of winter. "I was walking to school in the snow in my Vans, slipping all over the place," Bonner recalled. "I wasn't ready that first month. I didn't have a lot of cold gear."
The jump from junior college to Division II also required an adjustment. "In JUCO, it's really hard to build chemistry," he said. "You don't have student housing. You're not seeing these guys all the time. I realized I had to be a lot more of a leader and a lot more social: get to know my players and coaches. It was a whole new ballgame."
Wristen had just hired Wilkinson, now the head coach at Texas A&M-Kingsville, and Wilkinson imported a system he learned from Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild, formerly an offensive coordinator for the Rams and Bills in the NFL. Bonner suddenly had to call plays and make decisions in an offense much closer to a pro system than most RMAC Conference teams run, one that was far more advanced than what he encountered at Grossmont.
"In JUCO, we're just sent out there with a play, and we just run it," Bonner said. "At this level, I had to make checks frequently, get guys in the right spots and all that."
Bonner led the ThunderWolves to an 11-1 record and a Division II playoff run in 2013, all the while getting used to life in the RMAC: icy, windy game conditions; 13-hour bus rides to outposts like Silver City, New Mexico. Last season, CSU-Pueblo lost four receivers to injuries. Freshmen were forced into the starting lineup, which caused major problems for Wristen and Wilkinson, whose system mixed no-huddle concepts with complicated shifts and adjustments.
Wristen scrapped the no-huddle so Bonner could call plays and answer questions for the newcomers before they reached the line of scrimmage. "Chris had to get everybody lined up, make sure everybody was coordinated, change our protection, change our plays," Wristen said. "He's great in that aspect of the game."
Bonner made the switch back to a conventional system quickly, leading the ThunderWolves to the national title. Fans met the team at the Pueblo airport. There were parades and pep rallies. "It was a cool experience."
After the glow faded, there was no combine invitation. Bonner participated in the Medal of Honor Bowl and was named a team captain for that All-Star Game, which draws heavily from small programs. He spoke to about a dozen NFL teams during the bowl practice week in Charleston, South Carolina. Then he was off to Denver for the next leg of his strange, roundabout NFL journey.
Breaking the Scoreboard
Bonner towers over everyone else on the screen when you watch his game film. He looks like an uncle taking snaps with the Pop Warner squad. Load up this all-22 game film of Bonner taking on Chadron State and watch the very first play, and you can see the size/athleticism differential:
Bonner takes an I-formation center snap, drops seven steps and delivers a 59-yard strike up the sideline to Kieren Duncan for a touchdown.
You can also tell from the first play that you are watching CSU-Pueblo vs. Chadron State, not Notre Dame vs. Michigan. There are plenty of empty seats near midfield and beach blankets sprawled on a grassy hill near the end zone.
At one point in the Sam Houston State game film, the cameraman zooms to the scoreboard to display the down and distance, but there is no down and distance, just a repairman on a high ladder trying to fix the blank scoreboard. There are no prairie dogs popping out of the grass at midfield, but if you saw one, it would not shock you.
CSU-Pueblo is beyond the hinterlands, far down the rungs that start with the power conferences and descend to mid-majors, then the high and low FCS schools and finally to a level where a conference schedule includes opponents like Colorado School of Mines and Black Hills State.
Sam Houston State, a warm-up school for a major program, was a challenge game for the ThunderWolves. For the record, Bonner's ThunderWolves met that challenge with a 47-21 win, not that you could tell from the broken scoreboard.
It takes some mental adjustments to project Bonner from the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference to the NFL. But the scuttlebutt at the combine revealed that Bonner is on the NFL's radar.
He has pro size, of course, but there are other attributes: good velocity, an ability to throw while rolling left or right, the anticipation to make throws before his receivers make their cuts. Deep-divers among media scouts, like Football Outsiders' Matt Waldman, have poured through Bonner's film and seen a lot that they like.
No one is claiming to have unearthed a fully formed Ben Roethlisberger toiling away in Southern Colorado. Waldman concludes that "Bonner has some of the tools to develop into a much better player than his current stock suggests, which makes him worth getting to know as a late-round project." Others suggested at the combine that Bonner is worth a selection in the middle of Day 3.
Even the folks in Bonner's camp are realistic. "I think if he doesn't get drafted by the fifth or sixth round, I'm going to be very, very surprised," said quarterback trainer Warren McCarty, who is preparing Bonner for his pro day.
"He has to understand that those throwing windows aren't going to be quite as wide-open," said Wristen about the leap to the NFL.
Based purely on his size, arm and upside, Bonner belonged at the combine. His absence was a mystery to many. "That is mind-boggling to me," McCarty said. "We're still all mystified by that. But he's just used it as motivation."
Not every drafted player attends the combine, and not every combine attendee gets drafted. Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler did not attend the combine. Neither did Victor Cruz, Doug Baldwin, Osi Umenyiora, Julian Edelman, Wes Welker, Sebastian Vollmer and many other players around the NFL. Sometimes, there are obvious reasons for the omissions: Some guys bloom late, others (like Antonio Gates, who did not attend the combine) switched over from different sports late in their college careers.
Other combine "snubs" represent a poker match among NFL personnel experts. You can't hide a player you want to draft from Florida State by keeping him off the combine invitation list, but Colorado State-Pueblo? Bonner's health and character records are spotless, so teams may not feel the need for formal physicals and interviews. The sheer number of Patriots who did not attend the combine indicates that some gamesmanship is at play when filling out the bottom of the invitation list.
Some teams that wish to steal Bonner late in the draft hope that other teams may have overlooked him. Dropping him off the back of the combine list made him as much of a secret as any prospect can be in the age of Twitter and easily downloadable game film.
Bonner spends most days lifting, throwing, working on combine-style drills, practicing precise mechanics, watching film, drawing plays on a whiteboard and studying. He spent Tuesday boxing.
"My philosophy is that the body mechanics of throwing a ball the right way are exactly the same as the lower body mechanics of a boxer in terms of weight transfer, being on the balls of your feet," said McCarty, who is training Bonner at Six-Zero performance center in Denver.
Bonner is scheduled to throw at San Diego State's Pro Day. He also plans to perform at Colorado's Pro Day and CSU-Pueblo's much smaller event. McCarty wants Bonner quicker in all elements of his game when he performs for NFL scouts. The performance coach times Bonner's drops and throws, consistently lowering his "quick three" drop (think of the setup for a quick slant in a West Coast offense) to below 1.2 seconds.
After grueling drills and boxing sessions, McCarty gives Bonner pop quizzes. Can you make the pre-snap adjustments based on the situation and defensive alignment on the whiteboard? Can you list all 32 current NFL coaches?
Bonner's experience in the under-center game puts him ahead of many college quarterbacks, including some big names, in many of the fundamentals. "I see all these quarterbacks, spread guys in particular, who are so flat footed," McCarty said. "They stay flat-footed, they lock their front knee, and they lose all that power. Everything is about their arm."
"In the fighting ring, if you are flat-footed, your ass is going to sleep." On an NFL field with tighter windows and faster defenders, McCarty adds, an arm-only throw can become a pick-six.
Bonner performs hour-long footwork drills in which he never actually throws the ball: only drops, slides, steps and cocks. He has endured 11,000 (by McCarty's count) calf-raises in the last few weeks. He's growing more muscular, but more importantly, his footwork mechanics are becoming innate.
"We've conditioned that part of the body so he's not stagnant in the pocket," McCarty said. Bonner is doing what many draft hopefuls do at their performance facilities. It's just that his results aren't listed at NFL.com.
Bonner's story is part Rocky, part Joe Flacco. He's a king-sized kid with a rifle arm from a high school with a rudimentary football program, like Flacco (who earned a combine invitation from FCS school Delaware in 2008). Like Rocky, he's trudging through the snow and boxing in a gym, far from the limelight, while flashier superstars grab all the attention.
"I'm still a huge underdog," said Bonner, who lists Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers as his favorite quarterbacks but acknowledges the Flacco comparisons. "Nothing is guaranteed. So I just need to be working harder than every quarterback out there if I want to get the shot."
Wristen believes there may be a silver lining to being left off the combine list. "When you go to the combine, they're looking for warts," he said. "When they come work him out, Chris will blow them away."
Bonner will only have a few chances. When the time comes, he may not prove that he belongs in the same category as Winston or Mariota, but he can prove that he belongs in an NFL training camp.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.