A lot of big-time NFL talent comes from small schools, and there are always players who are underrated. It is no different when we look at the prospects for the 2013 NFL draft. From schools like Princeton to East Central University in Oklahoma, we see that all levels of football can produce very good talent.
As each year passes, the talent coming from small schools gets better, and NFL cupboards are stocked with players who play at these so-called “small schools." The reality is that if a guy can play, he can play, and there is a place in the NFL for him. Talent is talent, regardless of where it comes from.
There are also circumstances of players who get overlooked, and this year’s example is a player like Auburn outside linebacker Corey Lemonier. Only those who are really involved know who he is, but he has fringe first-round talent and is a potential star in the NFL as a pass-rushing 3-4 outside linebacker.
The combine is almost here, and with it we have this list of small-school and underrated players we should all be watching over the next eight days.
Terron Armstead took advantage of his opportunity at the East-West Shrine Game and parlayed that into an appearance in the 2013 Senior Bowl. He looked particularly solid in pass protection, flashing a very good kick-slide and the ability to keep defenders away from his frame.
He looks like the kind of player who can play out in space right away as a swing tackle pulling on running plays. There are strength questions with Armstead, but he more than answered the challenges he faced in Tampa Bay and Mobile.
He played at a small school, but at 6’5” and 304 pounds with 33.5-inch arms, he has the requisite size and arm length for the tackle position. He needs a good workout at the combine, but his meetings with teams are certainly what will be most important.
Armstead is a project at the position and a player who could eventually get kicked inside to play guard, but he is a good prospect with an interesting future. He should come off the board in the middle to later part of the 2013 NFL draft.
David Bass is a small-school standout who came to the East-West Shrine Game as a bit of an unknown. He had a good week of practices, showing the ability to dip his shoulder around the edge and get to the quarterback. He showed good hand placement and speed throughout the week.
He can be rewarded greatly with a strong showing at the combine. He needs to show that he can put up similar workout numbers to the big-school kids, and a strong showing in Indianapolis will leave a good impression on teams.
Bass has the talent to come off the board in Round 4 because of his ability to turn the corner and get to the quarterback. With a good workout, he can solidify his draft stock and become a viable prospect that teams will look to add in the draft.
Jordan Mills is a nasty, mauling right tackle who really moved up draft boards with his play at the Senior Bowl. Mills played at the Raycom College Football All-Star Classic and came to Mobile because a slot opened up due to an injury. He stood out right away as a feisty player who looked physically superior to the other players on the field.
He displayed great technique to go along with superior functional strength throughout the week of practices. He plays like a piece of sandpaper, constantly rubbing at the defensive linemen coming at him. Mills is a player who is going to get drafted higher than anyone thinks because of his ability to step in and dominate the right side of the line right away.
It is not inconceivable to see a team like the Seattle Seahawks taking Mills early in the 2013 NFL draft, as their running game is perfect for what he does well. Mills is in contention with D.J. Fluker to be the first pure right tackle to be selected in the draft, and a good workout can solidify his stock.
At this point in the draft process, Armonty Bryant is a gem waiting to be mined out of the ground. He has the talent to be drafted in the second or third round but is an unknown because he plays at a small school and wasn’t at a premium all-star game after his senior season.
Bryant played in the Texas vs. the Nation All-Star Game, and he stood out as the best player on the field throughout practices. At 6’4” and 262 pounds, he was difficult to block all week, consistently beating tackles around the corner or running through them.
Bryant will have a good workout, as he is an outstanding athlete, but his work will get done in meetings with teams, as he has to dispel any character issues stemming from a drug-related arrest. It will be interesting to hear what teams say about him after meeting with him for long periods of time.
Emory Blake is a well put-together wide receiver who runs routes at full speed and consistently gains separation because of his high football IQ. He is very adept at sitting in open spots of zone coverage and getting open for his quarterback.
He isn’t a burner who will beat NFL defenses deep, but he has enough playing speed to keep defenses in check because everything he does is quick. He uses head fakes and shoulder moves to sell routes and beat defenders, and it works because he is at full speed.
He isn’t a physical receiver and will struggle against press coverage in the NFL. He will have to play out of the slot because he needs a free release off the line of scrimmage. Blake looks like a very solid possession receiver who could excel over the middle and in softer areas of the defense.
The combine offers Blake an opportunity to show his quickness in the cone drills. It also gives him the chance to show his intelligence to teams in the meeting room. Blake should leave the combine as a better prospect for NFL teams than he did coming into the workout in Indianapolis.
Mike Catapano is an all-effort player who excelled in the Ivy League because he was simply better than the competition. He came to the East-West Shrine Game with one goal in mind, and that was to prove to scouts that he could hang with better competition. He accomplished that goal and more during the week of practices in Tampa Bay.
At 6’3” and 270 pounds, Catapano is bigger than some other defensive ends. There won’t be an issue with strength, as Catapano plays with plenty of it and should excel in that area. He flashed a powerful bull rush and the ability to jolt an offensive lineman with his leading shoulder.
It will be interesting to see Catapano perform in the 40-yard dash. Perhaps more important to the 40-yard dash is the 10-yard split, as that is the more important number for a defensive lineman. Catapano needs to jump well in the broad and vertical jumps, as these are barometers for explosion in the legs.
It is baffling that Corey Lemonier has had such little national exposure, because he is an excellent outside linebacker who can get to the quarterback. He has a great first step and consistently threatens the edge of the offensive line with his speed and ability to turn the corner.
Lemonier can also drop into coverage and displays fluid hips and the ability to turn and run with tight ends and running backs. He is a very smart player who is aware of where the ball is, and he has the athletic ability to get to the ball to make plays. He is smart at diagnosing plays and quickly flows to the ball.
Lemonier is a fringe first-round player most haven’t heard about. He is explosive, and the combine is going to put him on the national radar screen. He is going to look extremely athletic and will be a rising prospect moving forward.
Mark Harrison is a very big receiver (6'3", 230 pounds) who runs smooth, efficient routes and displays the ability to consistently catch the ball away from his frame. He has the ability to run through arm tackles and gain extra yards simply because of his size, and he is an intriguing prospect entering the draft.
Harrison is not an elite athlete with great speed, but his combination of size and speed is enticing. He is much smoother than expected, and he does a strong job boxing out smaller defenders with his big body. Harrison is certainly a developmental player, but one worthy of a selection in the 2013 NFL draft.
He needs to show good athleticism during his workout at the combine, especially in the 40-yard dash and the cone drills. The cone drills show the ability to change direction by stopping and starting quickly, and it is a critical drill to demonstrate the ability to get open.
In the NFL, sometimes the ability to quickly separate is better than running a fast 40-yard dash time. Take a player like Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who ran a 4.71-second 40-yard dash. That’s a pretty slow time, but Boldin’s physicality and ability to get open quickly got him drafted, and he has had a fantastic career.
Da’Rick Rogers led the SEC in receiving in his sophomore season in 2011, but he had to transfer to Tennessee Tech in August 2012 because he was suspended from playing football due to failing drug tests.
There is little debate amongst scouts as to whether or not he has NFL talent. The debate is about his character and decision-making, and he will have to quiet critics at the combine.
Rogers has legitimate second-round talent, and his ability to play a physical brand of football is certainly intriguing. He will go over the middle and make tough catches and is willing to take the play to the defense, but he lacks elite acceleration and won’t run away from NFL defenses.
If Rogers can flash a really strong 40-yard dash time and quiet character concerns during his meetings with teams, he could entrench himself amongst the 10 to 12 wide receivers with second-round grades. Rogers is another player who has a lot invested in the meetings, and it will be interesting to see where he ultimately gets drafted.
Ray Graham is an intriguing running back prospect with some amazing change-of-direction ability. He can stop on a dime and quickly run away from a defender. Graham makes defenders look silly because of his elusiveness and ability to move laterally without slowing down.
He is a smaller player who won’t be an every-down running back, but he doesn’t shy away from contact and does an admirable job of running between the tackles for such a small back (5'9", 190 pounds). He is also willing to pay the price in pass protection and take on bigger players to protect the quarterback.
Graham is a player who will help on third down immediately as he continues to heal from the torn ACL he suffered as a junior. He could develop into more as he gets stronger in an NFL system. I have a third-round grade on Graham, and I see him as a contributor for an NFL team from the day one.
The combine gives him the chance to show he is fully healthy and display his amazing change-of-direction skills. I look forward to watching him run the 40-yard dash, but more importantly, I want to see him run the shuttle and cone drills.