2012 NFL Draft: 5 Small-School Prospects with Big-Time Potential

Zachary Parker@@zacharyparker49Correspondent IIFebruary 20, 2012

2012 NFL Draft: 5 Small-School Prospects with Big-Time Potential

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    The 2012 NFL Draft presents teams with the opportunity to find players capable of taking their franchises to the next level.

    Despite what NFL scouts and ESPN analysts argue, there is no exact science to the draft. Whether or not a player pans out is dependent on immeasurable factors such as the internal desire to be great.

    Prospects coming from smaller schools have an even harder time proving themselves. While they may have dominated in college, they are hard to judge because they played against less talented competition. 

    With that being said, they also have the potential to be excellent investments. Selecting a first-round talent in the third or fourth round is the catalyst some bottom-dwelling teams need to climb out of the gutter.

    This slideshow will highlight the five small-school prospects who have the best chances of developing into All-Stars in the NFL.

Ladarius Green, TE, Louisiana-Lafayette

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    At 6'6", 237 pounds, Ladarius Green is one of the biggest receiving targets in this year's draft. He will get drafted earlier than he deserves because his height allows him to be open even when he's surrounded by defenders.

    Green will be a tweener in the NFL. He is not a good enough blocker to be a traditional tight end and he is too slow to be a receiver. Green will likely see a lot of time lining up in the slot like he did in college. That way, he can work the middle of the field and use his tall body to out-position defenders for the ball.

    Green is very raw. He utilizes his long arms to snatch balls out of the air, but tends to lose concentration when being pressured by defenders. Green is by no means quick, but once he starts gaining momentum he has the speed to get down the field. As a rookie, he will be mostly used in red-zone jump-ball situations where he is almost impossible to stop.

    NFL teams looking for a dynamic player who can take their offense to the next level will target Green in the late second or third round. He is a boom-or-bust player that will flourish if he plays with a quarterback who trusts his ability to go up and get it.

    Green is the riskiest person on this list, but his upside is undeniable. He has the potential to be a lighter version of Jimmy Graham.  

Bobby Wagner, LB, Utah State

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    Bobby Wagner may be the biggest defensive steal in the 2012 NFL Draft. He is an incredibly versatile athlete who will see substantial playing time as a rookie

    Wagner has the ability to play any linebacker spot on any defense. He is fast enough to catch running backs before they get to the edge and strong enough to hold his own inside. Wagner is not a sure tackler, but will make the tackle more often than not.

    At 6'1" and 235 pounds, Wagner looks more like a safety than a linebacker on the field. His frame could support another 10 pounds of muscle without risk of him slowing down. He will strengthen his stock if he shows up to the Combine heavier than expected.

    What separates Wagner from the rest of the linebackers in this year's draft class is his ability to drop back into coverage. This skill will be coveted by teams trying to find a linebacker who can cover tight ends.

    Wagner will impress scouts with his athleticism at the NFL Combine. If he runs a fast enough 40-yard dash, he could prove himself worthy of an early second-round selection. Regardless of where he ends up, Wagner will surely be one of the most dynamic linebackers in the NFL for years to come. 

Ronnie Hillman, RB, San Diego State

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    In recent years, the NFL has begun to accept and even cherish its lightweight backs. Chris Johnson, Ray Rice and Darren Sproles have all proven that, despite their size, they can handle the punishment that comes with the position.

    Players like David Wilson (Virginia Tech), Lamar Miller (Miami) and LaMichael James (Oregon) are the top change-of-pace backs in this year's draft class. The forgotten man in the mix is Ronnie Hillman, who rivals Marshall Faulk as the best back to come out of San Diego State.

    Hillman may be the only person who does not know that he is supposed to be a scat back. At 5'10" and 190 pounds, Hillman is a deceivingly powerful runner. He will not power over defenders, but he runs low to the ground which makes him difficult to knock down. Quicker than he is elusive, Hillman will make a habit of breaking ankles while remaining at top speed.

    Hillman has one of the most impressive resumes out of all the running back prospects. In 2010, he gained 1,532 rushing yards, which broke Faulk's freshman record for most rushing yards in a season. He improved his totals in 2011 by gaining 1,711 yards and scoring 19 touchdowns.

    Despite his success, Hillman could be the tenth running back picked in the draft. Every team that passes on him will be kicking themselves a few years down the line when he emerges as the next scat back turned superstar. 

Dwight Bentley, CB, Louisiana-Lafayette

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    Dwight Bentley is another prospect who will be downgraded because of his size. At 5'10" and 176 pounds, a lot of teams may pass on the ball-hawking corner, fearing that he will not be able to hold his own against bigger receivers.

    Bentley is by no means NFL ready. Though he is persistent in his pursuit to the ball carrier, he tends to dive at the ankles, which leaves him exposed against shifty runners. 

    What Bentley lacks in size he makes up for with his competitiveness and intuition. He excels when asked to sit in zone coverage and read the quarterback's eyes. This combined with his burst to the ball will result in a lot of interceptions at the next level.

    After an impressive performance at the Senior Bowl, Dane Brugler, from NFLDraftScout.com, wrote the following evaluation:

    He is a fluid athlete with quick, explosive footwork to redirect smoothly in his transition and look natural in his backpedal. Bentley is a tad undersized with a lean, wiry build at [5'10"] and 176 pounds, but he stayed physical all week, competing with bigger, stronger receivers.

    Depending on how smoothly he can transition into the NFL, Bentley has what it takes to be among the most notorious turnover machines. He will likely never be the No. 1 cornerback on any depth chart, but he is the type of player that will make the interception when his team needs it the most. 

Brian Quick, WR, Appalachian State

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    Brian Quick may be the best kept secret in this year's draft. He is huge receiver that has all the skills needed to excel at the next level. 

    Other than being from a small school, his only issue is his lack of speed. However, his 40-yard dash time (4.63 seconds according to cbssports.com) is deceiving. Quick's long legs take a while to get going, but once he's created some momentum, away he goes.

    Quick (6'5", 220 pounds) is a former basketball player, which shows on the field. He has great leaping ability and is a master at using his body to get in between the ball and the defender. Quick is very strong after the catch. He has a unique long-legged juke move that seems to temporarily freeze defenders. His stiff arm will also be devastating against smaller corners.

    NFL teams will likely draft him to be a red-zone target. However, it will not take long before he takes a slant 70 yards to the end zone and establishes himself as an all around playmaker.

    Once Quick is fully developed, he will be a regular in the Pro Bowl. His skill set is a mix between Larry Fitzgerald and Brandon Marshall. Need I say more?