With the 2012 college football season now in it's last leg, NFL draft boards are beginning to take shape.
NFL teams are midway through their own seasons at this point, and they have a pretty good idea of their future.
Some are rebuilding.
They will focus on adding as much talent as they can get their hands on through the draft. Others are looking for more polished veteran players, and will instead use the draft to fill immediate needs and to add depth at thin positions.
This year's crop of talent isn't quite as exciting as last year's. The 2012 draft class featured two of the best college quarterbacks in history, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, as well as a bevy of electric athletes like star wide receivers Justin Blackmon, Kendall Wright and Michael Floyd.
Next spring's group has a more traditional talent distribution, with a few multi-talented stars at the top and a lot of role players and one-trick ponies throughout. As a result, teams looking to build their foundations, will have to scout and work especially hard to find value in the draft's later rounds.
Many of the NFL's top players were late round picks or undrafted free agent signings. For every franchise player like Luck or Calvin Johnson (second pick in '07), there's a Jamarcus Russell (1st overall in '07) type whiff. But, for teams like the Patriots and Steelers, there's also a late round gem like Tom Brady (199th pick in 2000) or a James Harrison (undrafted in 2002) if player scouting is made a priority.
The late rounds of the NFL draft are generally reserved for developmental projects and role players. But if a team is savvy in player scouting, there's also plenty of impact-level talent to go around—even if it's harder to find.
These prospects have significant flaws that can range from sub-par athletic ability, checkered injury histories or off the field problems. Some of them have simply had bad luck, or have played for small programs or below the DI level.
In terms of investment return, the risk is definitely higher after the first two or three picks, but a smart spending team can hit jackpot if they can acquire a blue chip talent for undrafted free agent money. And even for those teams that don't strike it rich with a diamond in the rough like Jason Peters or Wes Welker (both undrafted Pro Bowlers), they can still find very valuable commodities for their niche positions or on special teams.
Here are six potential late round steals on Draft Day 2012:
Weight: 228 lbs
40-Yard Dash Time: 4.57 Seconds (4.45 Low)
Comparable NFL Players: Eric Smith, James Ihedigbo, Bernard Pollard
After a tremendous freshman season at Georgia Tech in 2008, safety Cooper Taylor was on the fast track to stardom heading into his sophomore year.
A highly recruited local high school product, Taylor had shined right out of the gate, ranking second among ACC freshman with 69 tackles and he finished '08 with an interception and two pass break-ups despite starting only three games.
But in 2009, his luck changed quickly. In practice one day, a fast uneven heart rate sent him to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. Immediate surgery fixed the problem, but he sat out the remainder of the season with a medical red shirt status.
By the next summer, GT's secondary was overflowing with talent. Rod Sweeting had developed into a dominant corner while freshman Isaiah Johnson's premium athleticism and playmaking ability made him a favorite of his coaches. He slid in to Taylor's spot on the left side and never looked back. By the end of 2010, Taylor had played in just four games, collecting a meager five tackles.
So, Taylor transferred to University of Richmond in the offseason. A program that runs a hybrid 4-3/4-2-5 defense, the Spiders' head coach LaTrell Scott appreciated Taylor's size, hard-hitting style and nose for the ball.
Taking over the strong safety job, Taylor once again shined. In eight starts, he recorded 63 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception. His intelligence and ability to make hard open field tackles earned him some extra playing time in the defense's bandit hybrid safety/linebacker.
This season, Taylor established himself as one of the CAA's premier players, and as one of the top strong safeties in the NFL Draft. He's a two-time CAA Player of the Week, and he's putting together his best performance lately, collecting 13 tackles, a forced fumble and two QB hurries in a 39-0 route of Rhode Island last week.
Through eight starts, Taylor's racked up 63 total tackles, three tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. In coverage he's having his finest overall season, totalling five pass break-ups and three interceptions—one returned or a touchdown.
Taylor isn't built like a prototypical coverage NFL safety. He's long and strong (6'4", 228 lbs) and lacks the fluidity and body control to be an every down defensive back in the pros.
Despite his size, he has explosive speed, running 40-yard dashes as low at 4.47. He's stiff in the hips, but his nose for the ball and ability to read the play makes him effective in zone coverage. Taylor also moves well laterally, overcoming his height by maintaining a low center of gravity close to the line. He's an aggressive tackler, with the feet and technique to cover shiftier running backs and speedier slot receivers.
Where Cooper makes his money is his combination of size, speed and football acumen. He's a fierce hitter with a fearless playing style. A monster in the box, he loves to blow up running backs, and his above average wheels make him a top-shelf blitzer. Blessed with great hands, his motor and extra length helps him shed blockers and get to the ball.
Right now, Cooper ranks just outside of the top 10 strong safeties. However, his rare skill set carves him out a niche as a bandit or a defensive back in 46 Bear defense. He's experienced playing in the box, and if his snaps are managed properly, he has the power and size to turn in to an impact-level player in the NFL.
He could also fit into other schemes, particularly with a team speed-focused 4-3 defense like the Bears' Tampa-2. Those scheme's demand premium speed and top-notch zone coverage from their linebackers. Taylor's premium size, speed and smash mouth style would fit well as a nickel outsider linebacker, or even as a starter in the middle.
Weight: 260 lbs
40-Yard Dash Time: 4.68 Seconds (4.58 Low)
As far as producing NFL tight ends go, few schools can replicate the success that big, high-powered programs like Miami have had. But Cincinnati, a Big East school more known for it's annually punishing defense than anything else, is quietly harvesting a lot of solid talent at the position.
Cinci products Brent Celek (drafted in Round 1 in '07), and Adrian Robinson (Round 4 2012) are some of the NFL's most gifted, all-around tight ends. Both players possess a remarkable size and speed combination, and though Robinson hasn't had a chance to prove his case yet, both are capable of making valuable contributions receiving and blocking.
Current NFL fullback Ben Guidugli and Texans star linebacker Connor Barwin also played tight end for the Bearcats. Barwin tallied 399 yards in 2007, and earned a second-round draft pick in 2009. Though he's concentrated on defense full-time in the NFL, he too is another example of Cinci's history of producing premium athletes at the position.
This year, Travis Kelce is Cincinnati's newest unheralded tight end. Like Celek, he boasts an extraordinary combination of speed, athleticism and size. Not only is he one of the biggest ends in his class, standing at 6'5" and an athletic 260 pounds, he's also one of the five fastest, running an (unofficial) 4.58 40-yard dash.
Most years, the draft's tight end crop features players in three categories—toolsy development projects, stone-handed blockers and undersized receivers. It's exceedingly rare for a team to hit the number and find complete players like Jason Witten, Rob Gronkowski, Heath Miller and Celek, who all perform at a high level in every facet of the game.
One player per class, maybe, is a true all-around contributor. And, beyond the first two rounds, it's exceedingly rare to find an end that can block and receive effectively. That's what makes Brent Celek, a former fifth-round pick, so extraordinary.
That's also why Kelce is severely underrated. He is a complete tight end. Despite his remarkable physical gifts, he isn't a high-risk player development project. Playing for the Big East's strongest program, he's proven himself as one of the best blocking tight ends in college football.
Taking over as the team's starter this season, Kelce has helped Cincinnati's young line outplay their competition. The Bearcats have allowed the least sacks in the Big East, and they're 16th in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 227 yards per game. Kelce's pass and run blocking have drawn rave reviews from both his coaches and NFL scouts.
Kelce has also established himself as one of the better receiving tight ends in the college ranks. After playing sparingly in his first two seasons—he was suspended for all of 2010—he caught 13 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns as the team's back up in 2011. In part-time duty, he actually caught more balls (15) than Robinson (12) and tallied one less touchdown.
This season Kelce has broken out in a big way. He leads Cincinnati's offense with 422 yards, four touchdowns, 18.3 yards per catch and he ranks second on the team with 23 receptions. He's gotten better and better as the season's progressed, and he recorded a career-game against Syracuse last week. Facing the Orange, he caught four passes for two touchdowns and 77 yards, and turned heads by taking a trick play pass 37 yards for his second score.
For the second season in a row, the college tight end crop is fairly weak. Last year, beyond Coby Fleener there wasn't a lot to get excited about, and this time around, no prospect has really differentiated himself as the clear-cut prize of the position. The guys that can block, like Michael Williams, don't have great play-making ability, and the guys that can catch like Joe Fauria, either don't have size or blocking chops.
Kelce offers it all.
He's one of the biggest, strongest bodies in his class, and he's maturing into a first-rate blocker both downfield and in the passing game. He lacks a great receiving track record, but he's put together a very impressive 2012 season.
Despite playing for an offense that lacks a quality pocket passer, and focuses heavily on the run, he's led his team in nearly every receiving category and his highlight reel is packed with big plays.
Kelce boasts all of the tools for stardom in the NFL. He's an athlete that's capable of making difficult catches and racking up tough yards with his legs. He has great body control and the speed and leaping ability to break away from coverage down field. He's an all-around contributor, and as a former quarterback, he understands the inner workings of his offense.
He also possesses NFL bloodlines, as the brother of Eagles center Jason Kelce. And like his brother, he's a selfless blocker.
The only things keeping keeping Kelce from the top of the draft are worries about his character and his offense's lack of production in the passing game. He's played behind NFL talent during his previous two seasons, and though he still managed to make an impact, he hasn't drawn full-time touches until 2012—when the Bearcats have struggled with the air attack.
He was suspended by the team for undisclosed reasons, and he ended up sitting out the entire 2010 season. However, he worked tirelessly on the scout team and returned to the field a much more polished product. The adversity also appears to have changed him for the better.
Kelce is a late riser.
Most teams will be infatuated with Fauria, Gragg and Eifert's stats and receiving ability, but Kelce deserves just as much credit for his all-around play. He may not break the last two rounds, but he possesses second or even first-round talent.
Not just a legitimate NFL receiver, Kelce is also a top-shelf blocker. He could fit well in to a smash mouth offense that values his size, ability to throw a block and deep-ball hands. Teams like the Jets, Steelers, Dolphins or Seahawks could use him as a back-up immediately, while a smarter club that recognizes his value could groom him as a starter.
Though the Bears haven't valued tight end contributions as a part of their offense the past few years, Kellen Davis' subpar performance has killed them this season. They could be very interested in Kelce, especially because he plays for a local school.
Weight: 207 lbs
40 Yard Dash Time: 4.56 Seconds (4.45 Low)
Though they've been inconsistent, UCLA's defense has still been one of the best units in the NCAA this season.
The unit features one of the most exciting playmakers in the college ranks, defensive end Datone Jones. But really, their secondary deserves the largest portion of the credit. Despite their stiff PAC-12 competition and the team's high scoring air attack, which often forces the opposition to counter by passing more, UCLA's defense has been dominant at times.
They've picked off 12 passes, and opposing quarterbacks have struggled, posting a 128.62 rating.
But, considering two especially bad games (against Arizona State and Oregon State) skewed their overall numbers, they're actually even better. When they're in the zone, there are few secondaries that can strangle an air attack like they can. Last week they held one of the top college quarterbacks, Arizona's Matt Scott, to just 124 yards and no touchdowns. Outside of his ugly game against Oregon on 9/22, Scott's 101.7 QB rating against UCLA was his season-low.
UCLA's cornerback Aaron Hester is their defense's veteran leader, and he's developed in to one of the top shutdown corners in the college ranks.
As a redshirt freshman in 2009, he impressed Rick Neuheisel with his remarkable athleticism and earned a starting job opposite All-American Alterraun Verner. But almost as soon as he got the gig, he went down with an ankle fracture he sustained in the season opener.
Hester returned to the field in 2010 and hasn't looked back since. He racked up a team-leading three interceptions, made 26 tackles (two for loss) and also defended four passes.
Last year, taking over at right cornerback, he put together a breakout campaign. He tallied an interception, seven passes defended and led the team's secondary with 57 tackles and two tackles for loss.
So far this season, Hester has once again been top-notch. Through 10 games he has 38 tackles, a fumble recovered and three passes defended. Though he hasn't made an interception, he hasn't drawn many throws either—as most teams prefer to pick on the more beatable Sheldon Price.
Hester still doesn't get the attention he deserves. He's been a dominant player, but his lack of premium speed (4.56 40 time) and small interception total (three in 38 career games) has kept him lower on draft boards than he should be.
But he's a much better player than his takeaway stats show. UCLA's defense utilizes press and man coverage most of the time, and Hester rarely gets to reap the benefits of reading the QB's eyes for a zone coverage pick.
A blanket in coverage, Hester is adept at gaining leverage to either side and pushing receivers (the split end) out of their routes. At 6'1" and 207 pounds, he's a big and strong defensive back with great length. He plays even bigger than his height and weight though, and he's a nightmare in man coverage. He moves well up the sideline and does a nice job of keeping his body on his receiver.
Hester's added size and aggressive hands help him smother receivers after the catch, and he rarely gives up the big run. He's loose-hipped for a taller, thicker back, and he has impressive body control and power in his trunk.
During his UCLA career, Aaron has racked up high tackle totals. In his case, it's a sign of his impressive open-field tackling ability. He doesn't have burner speed, but he's difficult to beat.
Receivers struggle to add yards after the catch against him, and he's quick with his take-downs. Not only is he top notch in pursuit, but he's also solid against the run, showing plenty of courage near the line of scrimmage.
Hester has great size and length for a cornerback, and he plays faster than his mediocre 40-yard dash times suggest. His experience playing in a strong, hybrid unit in a competitive Pac-12 circuit should make him a fairly swift learner when it comes to more advanced NFL playbooks as well.
After his leg injury, Hester made a concerted effort to balance flexibility and power. He trains incessantly and he's developed a passion for yoga, helping him build a top-shelf NFL body.
His build and approach are similar to current Seahawks corner Brandon Browner. He plays stout against the run, and his extra strength helps him jam receivers up close. He has the mixture of length, muscle and body awareness to turn into an asset in bump 'n run in the NFL.
He lacks the hands to rack up interceptions, but in a man-coverage-focused scheme that values size, like the Jets or Seahawks defense, his skills could flourish on the weak side. His frame could add even more power without sacrificing flexibility, and he should be a great tool at the line of scrimmage, jamming and harassing split ends.
Hester's biggest weakness is his zone coverage skills. UCLA's premium talent in their secondary has limited his experience playing zone. He lacks the low center of gravity, plus speed and playmaking hands to fit in an NFL zone defense like those in Chicago and Detroit.
For any team looking for a quick study cornerback with size and plus-man skills, Hester is a steal. He boasts all of the ingredients for success. He's great at funneling receivers to the inside, and he's a hard hitter with solid open field tackling technique.
Though he doesn't have the premium tools of a first-round pick, he's a strong athlete with nice football aptitude. He could contribute immediately on special teams and as a utility defensive back.
Weight: 345 lbs
40-Yard Dash Time: 5.48 Seconds (5.28 Low)
Next spring's draft features plenty of explosive talent on the defensive line. And that's a good thing, because the NFL is enjoying a renaissance in the trenches. Superb size and speed playmakers like J.J. Watt, Justin Smith, Ndamukong Suh and Richard Seymour are all putting together remarkable careers at positions that don't traditionally attract the spotlight.
For NFL teams looking to add a playmaker up front in next year's draft, there's plenty of athletic defensive tackles and ends to choose from. But for those smash mouth defenses that need a nose tackle, like the Jets and Steelers, the pickings get much slimmer.
At the top, Georgia nose tackle John Jenkins owns first place, offering unbelievable size and explosiveness. But outside of him—Star Lotulelei fits more into the pass-rushing Tampa-2 mold—and after you get out of the first round, few prospects have the power to play the one technique in the pros.
T.J. Barnes, who's quietly developing into a premium defensive asset, could be a great pick for a team looking for a nose late in the draft. The Georgia Tech senior is listed at 6'6", 345 pounds (more like 360 lbs), and he's the biggest defensive lineman in his class.
A highly recruited offensive lineman out of Enterprise High School (AL), Barnes found a home on the defensive side of the ball in college. After Barnes spent a year on the scout team, coach Paul Johnson started playing him in the middle of his defense during his first season at Tech.
The presence of Vance Walker and Darryl Richard (both in the NFL now) limited his playing time, but he performed well when he got the opportunity. He improved as the season wore on, and finished with a very solid 16 tackles (1.5 for loss) in 13 games.
During the last two seasons, Barnes was relegated to back-up duty behind Logan Walls. But, he still managed to play impact-level football. He recorded at least one tackle in every game he played between his first game in 2010 and his third in 2011. Overall, he totaled 31 tackles, two tackles for loss, a pass defended and a sack in those two years.
Heading into 2011, Barnes did his best to get in shape and add more finesse and technique to his game repertoire. He ended up shedding over 20 pounds, and began the fall well-prepared to take over the starting job.
This season, Barnes has done a nice job as the Yellow Jackets nose tackle. Through 10 games he already has 24 combined tackles (nine solo), and he's also recorded a pass defended, two tackles for loss and his second career sack.
But as a nose tackle, his performance can't be fully appreciated by individual stats.
Georgia Tech had the 66th-best rush defense last year but wasn't necessarily expected to replicate that production this fall after losing two of their most experienced linemen. With Barnes in the middle, they now rank 49th in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game (148.6) and they're 69th in total defense.
Though he hasn't drawn a lot of pre-draft interest, Barnes' premium size and strength makes him a great late-round pick or free agent signing. With a father and brother who've both put together successful division-I football careers, he has football bloodlines.
He didn't start playing the game until his sophomore year of high school and didn't become a full-time defensive player until college. If he earns the opportunity to work with an NFL player development team, he could grow into a monster.
Right now, Barnes is still an unpolished product. He's posted a very impressive (for his size) 5.28 40-yard dash time, but he doesn't carry that kind of athletic ability on to the field. He isn't explosive and he struggles to shed blocks. However, he's smart and receives coaching well. And besides, his size and remarkable brute strength alone make him a valuable asset.
Barnes is one of the few tackles of this year's class that profiles as a legitimate two-gap stuffer. He man handles blockers, and even when he doesn't get to the backfield, he does a nice job of collapsing the pocket and clogging his gaps.
Once he learns to play lower and use his hands, his powerful trunk will make him a formidable opponent in the running game.
Coming out of high school, Barnes was considered a top offensive tackle prospect. If he doesn't add more technique and aggressiveness to his defensive game, he has the balance and raw power to succeed as a blocker in the NFL.
Unlike most offensive tackles his size, he moves well and shows above average body control, suggesting he could grow into a balanced all-around blocker.
In all likelihood, Barnes will end up as an undrafted free agent and sign with a 3-4 defense that appreciates his size—like the Jets. He could also play for a team like the Seahawks, who are willing to develop a size-speed project.
Weight: 220 lbs
40-Yard Dash Time: 4.48 Seconds (4.34 Best)
McGuffie drew a lot of buzz coming out of Cypress high school in Texas. He was a 4-star recruit, and Rivals.com ranked him the 38th best running back and top all purpose back prospect in the nation in 2008. He racked up over 5,800 rushing yards and 81 touchdowns in his high school career. But it wasn't just his stats that made him the most talked about prospect in the nation, it was the YouTube mixtape showing his remarkable skills.
After setting the Houston-area high school rushing yardage record, McGuffie started generating a wave of buzz that turned into a tsunami after the video. The nation's top programs, teams like Notre Dame, Alabama, USC and Michigan, all did their best to reel him in with scholarship offers. In the end, he signed with Michigan to play for Rich Rodriguez's Wolverines.
Since then, it's been a long, hard road to McGuffie's success at Rice this season.
Talent has never been the problem, as McGuffie carries his 4.3 speed, 41" vertical leap, phenomenal body control and quickness on to the field when he plays. He started as a true freshman at Michigan, and racked up 561 combined (rushing and receiving) yards and scored four touchdowns.
However, McGuffie suffered three concussions during his freshman season, and was brutally knocked out returning a kickoff against Ohio State. The serious injuries paired with homesickness led him to transfer to Rice University, a school based in his home state.
After sitting out a season because of the move, he put together an impressive debut for Rice. McGuffie rushed for 883 yards, ranking him third in Conference USA, and also caught 39 passes for 389 yards. He scored nine touchdowns overall. Injuries came back to bite him again last season though, and he ended up playing sparingly in just seven games.
McGuffie's injury woes led him to make the move to wide receiver heading into 2012. His premium speed and quickness made him a phenomenal all-purpose back, and the same tools have played well as a pass catcher.
In his first season at slot receiver, McGuffie has played a key role in Rice's offense. He's totaled 41 receptions and he leads the team with 463 receiving yards. His team-leading five scores ties him for fifth in the conference. He also continues to be a solid special teams player, scoring a touchdown as a punt returner and adding 74 yards on four kick returns.
McGuffie doesn't project to hear his name called on draft day. However, there's no doubt that he has the talent to flourish as a slot receiver in the NFL and he should sign shortly after the draft.
He's proven himself with a very solid performance at a top program earlier in his career at Michigan, and while Rice is a much weaker program, C-USA West produced a number of NFL slot receivers lately. Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders are both SMU products, Donnie Avery went to Houston and Jarrett Dillard is a fellow Rice Owl alumnus.
The modern NFL utilizes a lot of Coryell and Bill Walshian west coast attacks, demanding more and more quick-footed, sure-handed receivers from the draft ranks. Like Danny Amendola or Lance Moore (Welker might be going too far), McGuffie is a prototype for the job. He's sure-handed, with the shifty-feet and the agility to make catches underneath the defense and rack up yards after the catch.
Rice head coach David Bailiff has raved about McGuffie's playmaking ability at slot receiver, citing his "great hands" and "exceptional speed."
McGuffie's speed is his trademark tool, and it's difficult to believe that NFL team's will overlook a former top high school recruit that can run a sub-4.4 second 40-yard dash. He's experienced on special teams and he could slide in as a return man immediately in the NFL.
McGuffie has shown a great football acumen and has transitioned to the slot position seamlessly. However, moving from C-USA to the NFL is a hefty jump.
McGuffie needs time to learn the position and polish his routes and technique. He could spend his first couple of seasons as a special-teamer and look to make the jump in to the offense after his sophomore campaign. Given that timetable, he'd fit best with a rebuilding west coast offense-oriented team like the Saints, Chargers, Raiders or even the hometown Cowboys.
Of course, he could also test the speed-oriented CFL.
Weight: 218 lbs
40-Yard Dash Time: 4.53 Seconds (4.43 Best)
A job that demands remarkable mental and physical gifts, wide receiver is an expensive position for NFL teams to draft and develop.
Generally, if a team wants a first-rate pass catcher and playmaker like Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald or Percy Harvin, they need to use a high pick and then spend significant time and resources building the player's knowledge of an NFL offense.
Slot receivers and flankers can be had later in the draft, but true wideouts are tough to come by. The position demands peak coordination, size, speed and the mental prerequisites for precisely timing their routes.
Elon wide receiver Aaron Mellette has the tools to break this norm. A massive receiver, standing 6'3" and weighing at 218 pounds, Mellette has the ideal size, hands and speed for the modern NFL split end. But, as a small school (DI-AA) product, he's also not considered a top-100 prospect by most analysts. Instead he's projected to hear his name called as late as the sixth round.
A former basketball star, Mellette didn't starting playing football until his sophomore year of high school, and didn't play varsity ball until he was a junior. But almost as soon as his feet hit the gridiron, he drew the eyes of scouts. A local school, Elon coaches offered him a scholarship immediately after watching him play, believing they found a superb, under the radar prospect.
Because of his inexperience and the presence of FCS star receiver Terrell Hudgins, Mellette red-shirted in 2008. After a year on the scout team, he got his first taste of college ball in 2009, catching 12 balls for 117 yards and two touchdowns.
After getting the starting gig, Mellette broke out in 2010. He led the Phoenix with 86 catches, 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns, and his 7.82 receptions per game ranked sixth in the nation. Against Richmond on Sept. 18, he hauled in 18 passes, the seventh highest mark in FCS history. He was voted first-team All-Southern Conference by coaches and earned further recognition as an AP second-team All-American.
Last year, Mellette not only managed to improve upon his excellent starting debut, but his performance made history.
The Phoenix managed a disappointing 5-6 record, but Mellette's play was worthy of the Walter Payton Award (he ended up coming in fifth place). He caught an incredible 113 passes for 12 touchdowns, and his 1,639 receiving yards broke Terrell Hudgins' school and SoCon record. He finished the year by taking home first-team All-American and All-SoCon honors.
2012 is more of the same. With one regular season game remaining, Aaron leads the FCS with 17 touchdowns and he ranks third in receptions (88) and receiving yards (1,210). His success is even more impressive considering Elon's struggles as a unit.
They've managed a 3-7 record and their 250 points is the Southern Conference's worst mark. However, Mellette's contributions have salvaged the squad's passing offense, which will finish the season rating atop the conference.
As a Division I-AA receiver, no matter how good his record-breaking career has been, Mellette's success will be met with a skeptical eye from NFL scouts. Plus, he'll turn 23 in December, making him a bit on the old side for a fairly raw, player development challenge.
But make no mistake, Mellette's talent warrants a top-50 pick. He'll likely fall just out of the third round on the big day, making him a potential late round steal for a smart team seeking a playmaker.
Mellette is a fairly complete receiver, but his size and hands separate him from his peers. He lines up primarily as Elon's split end, and he has little trouble breaking through the initial jam at the line.
When he's pressed, he rarely needs to kick his speed in to high gear for separation. Instead, he'll maintain his timing and simply use his huge reach and strong hands to catch the ball in traffic.
Down field, he provides a massive target for his quarterback, and combined with his surprisingly nimble feet, that makes him a great receiver off of the hitch and deep crossing routes (across the defense).
Mellette lacks true breakaway speed, and despite his 4.5 40-times, he doesn't have those kind of wheels come game time. Instead, he's a top-notch possession receiver with just enough legs for the position (split end) in the NFL.
Similar to Marques Colston, another former FCS receiver, he makes his money with great hands, leaping ability and extraordinary body control. He makes tough catches from all angles, and his reach and vaulting ability makes him extremely difficult to cover down the sidelines and in the red zone.
He's also used to making many of his catches over the middle, and he's strong enough and brave enough to continue to do that in the pros.
Aside from experience facing top competition, Mellette's biggest knock is his lack of top end speed. His athleticism has backed most of his opponents off from using press coverage, so he hasn't often needed to turn on the jets for down field separation.
Most of his film shows him using his quick feet to get his release, or simply bullying the coverage with his size. In the NFL, unless he finds another gear, he'll need to work on his technique and moves if he wants to develop into an impact-level wideout.
Aaron has the physical ingredients and the aptitude to develop into a first-tier NFL wide receiver. Because he's played in a simple offense, and he hasn't been asked to run precise or complex routes against tough coverages, he'll need some time to hone his skill set after he's drafted. But ultimately, his hands and size make him a safe bet to be a quality pass catcher.
Mellette won't be the first DI-AA star to take his career to the NFL. Not at all. A former Mississippi Valley star, Hall of Famer Jerry Rice's name litters the FCS record books, and current and past NFL receivers like Randy Moss, Wayne Chrebet, Marques Colston, Laurent Robinson, Jerome Simpson and Marc Mariani are all veterans of the division.