25 Average College Players Who Will Succeed in the NFL

David LutherFeatured ColumnistApril 24, 2013

25 Average College Players Who Will Succeed in the NFL

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    With the NFL draft just around the corner, we started thinking about all the great college football players that have gone on to make their marks in the NFL. But success in college isn't a guarantee of success in the NFL, and, interestingly enough, success in the NFL doesn't require a heap of success in college.

    The NFL is chock full of players who never made an All-America list in college, never brought home a trophy or individual award or never had a highlight appear on SportsCenter. Heck, before earning a spot on an NFL roster, you might never have heard their names and probably had to look up where they went to school.

    That trend isn't likely to die anytime soon, and so we've put together a list of 25 average college players who will succeed in the NFL, whether they're headed for the pros this season or have a year or two left in college.

Brandon Williams, D2 Missouri Southern

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    NFL Draft Year: 2013

    There are a number of things Brandon Williams will need to work on if he hopes to make a big impact in the NFL. Of course, that's not unique to players from “small” programs, like Division II Missouri Southern.

    Williams has been a force in Division II over the past several seasons, and in 2012 he emerged as the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association's defensive Player of the Year award winner. He had 68 total tackles in 2012, which included a whopping 16.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. He also forced five fumbles and recorded a safety in 2012.

    He's a two-time All-MIAA and first-team All-American, and he should be the first D2 player taken in the 2013 NFL draft.

Charles Johnson, D2 Grand Valley State

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    NFL Draft Year: 2013

    At 6'2” and 225 pounds, Charles Johnson is not your typical undersized wide receiver from a Division II program. Johnson was a standout at Grand Valley State after transferring from FCS Eastern Kentucky.

    In his two seasons at GVSU, Johnson gained over 1,000 each season, earning first team All-Conference honors in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in 2011 and 2012. He was also an All-America Honorable Mention in 2012 with 72 receptions for 1,199 yards and 16 touchdowns.

    Johnson is part of a new breed of D2 athletes, possessing both the size and speed of their FCS and FBS counterparts. Don't be surprised to see him find a roster spot as a hidden undrafted free-agent gem.

Manase Foketi, D2 West Texas A&M

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    NFL Draft Year: 2013

    NFL prospects at the tackle position need to be big, and they don't make them much bigger than Manase Foketi. This behemoth man-child is 6'5” tall and tips the scales at a whopping 320 pounds.

    This Kansas State transfer wanted field time after recovering from an Achilles injury in 2010. After taking a medical redshirt in 2011, he transferred to West Texas A&M in 2012 and immediately made an impact.

    He was arguably the best lineman in Division II last season, and if NFL scouts can get past his heel injury and the resulting stiffness that lingers, he could be a solid late-round pick.

Robert Alford, FCS Southeastern Louisiana

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    NFL Draft Year: 2013

    Southeastern Louisiana's Robert Alford could easily be the top non-FBS player in the 2013 NFL draft. Alford was impressive in the Senior Bowl, and this corner's ability to post sub-4.4 times in the 40-yard dash puts him on par with the elite speed wideouts.

    His physicality is well suited for the pro game. He has fluid hip movement, and his ability to transition from press to downfield coverage mimics the best the FBS has to offer.

    He may not have been good enough in high school and college to garner a lot of attention, but he has the skills necessary to follow in his older brother's, Fred Booker, footsteps; Booker was the first-ever player from Southeastern Louisiana to have his name called in the NFL draft.

B.W. Webb, FCS William & Mary

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    NFL Draft Year: 2013

    No player in the history of William & Mary has started more games than B.W. Webb (48). During his college career, Webb landed on nine All-Conference lists (defensive and special teams), setting a Colonial Athletic Association record.

    Webb nabbed eight interceptions in 2009 as a freshman, and opponents quickly learned to never throw the ball to his side of the field again. He is better than average when it comes to reading the quarterback, and his closing speed in zone coverage is among the best in the FCS.

    Webb is a little undersized, and there are some questions about his man coverage ability. Still, with his proven special teams skills, we expect some franchise to spend a middle-round pick on him.

J.J. Wilcox, FCS Georgia Southern

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    NFL Draft Year: 2013

    Our final non-FBS player on the list is J.J. Wilcox, a safety out of soon-to-be FBS Georgia Southern (Georgia Southern will join the Sun Belt and transition to the FBS in 2015).

    During the early part of his career at Georgia Southern, Wilcox spent his time at various receiver positions. As a senior, he moved to defense and took over duties as a safety. It turned out to be a great move as he recorded 88 tackles and two interceptions in his lone defensive year.

    He has a lot of potential to grow at the position, but that could also work against him: NFL teams are necessarily interested in teaching a player how to play a particular position.

    Even with the negative hanging around his neck, his hand-eye coordination, speed and strength in his lower body will be enough to earn him a late-round selection.

Shaquelle Evans, UCLA

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    NFL Draft Year: 2014

    Shaquelle Evans still has one more year left at UCLA to prove he can be an elite receiver, but as of now he's solidly in the average-to-good category.

    Evans hauled in 60 receptions of 877 yards and three touchdowns in 2012, which doesn't even place him in the top 90 receivers in the nation.

    But if you're looking for a player who could make solid contributions to an NFL team as a “role player,” Evans may be your guy. He has demonstrated ability to return punts and kicks, and although UCLA may not utilize him as much on special teams in 2013, that may be from where his future NFL impact will come.

Jordan Taylor, Rice

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    NFL Draft Year: 2015

    Jordan Taylor just completed his sophomore season at Rice, so how can we possibly know he's an “average” college football player this early? First off, he plays for Rice. Secondly, while he's shown a solid ability to produce, there's nothing so spectacular about Taylor that leads us to believe we're about to witness a miraculous leap forward in talent or output.

    He had 14.5 yards per reception in 2012, covering 57 receptions in 13 games. That firmly put him in the top 100 in the FBS last season, but he was in the bottom quarter of those players.

    At 6'5” and 210 pounds, however, he has all the makings of a NFL receiver or special teams role player. If Rice can get Taylor more touches as his career goes on, it may be enough to get him some late-round consideration when it's his turn to throw his hat into the eligibility ring.

Conner Vernon, Duke

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    NFL Draft Year: 2013

    Duke isn't typically the place NFL franchises go looking for pro talent, but after the unusually successful season the Blue Devils had in 2012, don't be surprised to hear Conner Vernon's name called at some point during the draft.

    Vernon was a big part of the success the Blue Devils had this past season, breaking through the 1,000-yard mark in receiving with 1,074 yards and eight touchdowns on 85 receptions. While certainly not spectacular, his leadership abilities and experience at returning punts might be enough to earn him a roster spot next fall.

Jamison Crowder, Duke

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    NFL Draft Year: 2015

    Conner Vernon's teammate, sophomore receiver Jamison Crowder has a few years yet to grow, but he also finished with 1,074 yards—identical to Vernon's numbers. The difference here is that Crowder did it with nine fewer receptions.

    Crowder is also a bit on the short side for the NFL. At just 5'9” and 175 pounds, he may be more suited for specialty roles, such as returning punts (where he averaged over 13 yards per return in 2012 for Duke).

Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin

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    NFL Draft Year: 2014

    Jared Abbrederis has been playing at Wisconsin for three seasons, and his Badgers have earned at least a share of three Big Ten championships. Abbrederis and his fellow Badgers have a tall task to make it four straight, but with a roster full of potential NFL picks—even if they're not what we consider stars—it's certainly possible.

    Abbrederis accumulated 837 reeving yards last season, but on just 49 receptions. His 17.1 yards per catch ranks him in the top 30 nationally in that category, quietly making significant impacts when needed.

    Wisconsin doesn't run a pass-centered offense, so it might be difficult to see the tremendous upside Abbrederis possesses. After the 2013 season concludes, scouts will want to keep an eye on Abbrederis during the combine and pro days to see if his speed and yards-after-catch numbers will translate to the NFL.

Dan Molls, Toledo

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    NFL Draft Year: 2013

    If the name doesn't ring a bell, don't worry about it. Not many people outside of Toledo have heard of or paid much attention to the Rockets' defense over the past few seasons. That doesn't mean there isn't any NFL potential on that side of the ball, though.

    Dan Molls, an inside linebacker, actually led the FBS in total tackles last season with 166. Now, it's perfectly reasonable to assume a linebacker made that many tackles because the opposition was able to get past the defensive line a ton, and there's a certain amount of truth to that statement when it comes to Toledo in 2012. But Molls' consistency throughout the season leads us to believe he could be good for some heavy mileage in the NFL.

    There wasn't a lot of flash to Molls in 2012, and most of the fireworks in Toledo are centered around the offense. That lack of attention will likely keep Molls' name off the boards until very late on the second day, never discount a 240-pound linebacker capable of making 166 tackles in 13 games.

Bronson Hill, Eastern Michigan

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    NFL Draft Year: 2015

    The MAC has never really been a conference of stellar college football players, and even the best the conference has to offer can't compete with their counterparts from the power conferences. Still, the MAC does produce more than its fair share of NFL talent, and Bronson Hill looks to be the next unheralded MAC player to make his presence known in the pros.

    Hill had a decent sophomore year at Eastern Michigan in 2012 with 905 yards and six touchdowns on 140 carries.

    At 5'10” and 211 pounds, Hill has also made an impact in the receiving game, hauling in 12 receptions for 208 yards and a touchdown last season. When it comes to this kind of player, versatility is the name of the game, and Hill has it.

Joe Windsor, Northern Illinois

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    NFL Draft Year: 2014

    Joe Windsor probably won't be the biggest name in the 2014 NFL draft. Heck, he won't even be the biggest name out of Northern Illinois next year. But what he lacks in name recognition, he makes up for with some pretty good versatility for an NFL roster.

    Windsor is a defensive end of the Huskies and finished last season with just 36 total tackles. But of those, 10.5 were for a loss and seven were sacks. Say what you will about the MAC, it's not a pushover conference when it comes to offensive linemen. In fact, the 2013 NFL draft is likely to feature Central Michigan's offensive tackle Eric Fisher as one of the top 10 picks—possibly even top five.

    If Windsor can keep his numbers steady or improve in 2013, he could be a late-round pickup for a team looking for a little depth at defensive end or even outside linebacker.

Nathan Herrold, Arkansas State

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    NFL Draft Year: 2013

    As is the case with most players from the Sun Belt, the long and dark shadow cast by the overlapping SEC obscured any view of Nathan Herrold, the senior linebacker from Arkansas State.

    Herrold had 114 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, four interceptions (with 119 return yards) and a fumble recovery. He also broke up five passes and forced two fumbles. All in all, pretty impressive numbers. Still, we're talking about Arkansas State, a team that lost to Western Kentucky last season.

    Herrold also has some issues with his closing ability, particularly in pass coverage, and reading the quarterback isn't a strong suit. But Herrold does have pro size and his numbers have to be good enough to at least get him a shot at being picked up as a priority free agent.

Kendial Lawrence, Missouri

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    NFL Draft Year: 2013

    Kendial Lawrence never really lived up to the hype surrounding him. Still, he put in some consistently decent performances for Missouri—not spectacular, but decent.

    Lawrence is just 5'9” and 194 pounds, but that's not a problem for a guy who has posted sub 4.4 times in the 40-yard dash.

    Once believed to be relegated to the ranks of the undrafted free agents, we see Lawrence's stock rising as a possible return specialist in the NFL, particularly after the solid spring he's had at various workouts. Size is still a limiting factor, but he wouldn't be the first small guy to make a big impact on Sundays.

Theo Riddick, Notre Dame

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    NFL Draft Year: 2013

    Theo Riddick is off to the NFL after contributing to one of Notre Dame's most successful seasons in two decades. Notre Dame is known for producing some great NFL talent, and it's looking like there will be quite a few top Irish prospects over the next several years.

    Riddick, who will probably go in the late fifth or early sixth round this weekend, has a lot of upside for whichever franchise drafts him.

    First, they're likely to get a deal. Late-round picks come cheap, both in terms of draft stock spent and contract negotiations. Secondly, Riddick's future employer will have a player that can run, catch, return kicks, whatever. While he certainly wasn't burning up any stat sheets last season (70.5 rushing yards per game, 85th in the FBS), his size and quickness will allow him to play a support role at running back.

David Fales, San Jose State

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    NFL Draft Year: 2014

    David Fales is the much-loved quarterback at San Jose State. You'd be much-loved, too, if you lead a team from laughing stock status to the Top 25, an 11-2 record and a bowl victory.

    Fales, while certainly great for San Jose State, hasn't really been proven as anything better than the second-best quarterback in the WAC last season—which is saying something. With the Spartans moving to the Mountain West (now that the WAC no longer sponsors football), the competition will only get tougher. San Jose State also has games at Stanford and at Minnesota this season.

    But while he may not get the press you'd typically see of top performers in the Pac-12 or Big Ten, Fales does lead one statistical category that will sure to get NFL scouts' attention: In 2012 Fales led the FBS in pass efficiency, completing an astounding 72.5 percent of his passes.

    Like every year, 2014's draft is sure to be loaded with quarterback talent. Fales is likely a late-round pick, but he would be one heckuva bargain at twice the price.

Greg Blair, Cincinnati

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    NFL Draft Year: 2014

    The Cincinnati Bearcats have fallen a ways since Brian Kelly packed his bags for Notre Dame. But Greg Blair isn't about to let the loss of a big name coach stand in his way of playing on Sundays.

    Blair had 138 total tackles last season to lead the Big East and is looking to improve on that number for 2013. He's dropped 15 pounds since the end of the 2012 season, and there's no reason to think he won't become a major key in the Bearcats' defensive scheme next season.

    Cincy may not get a lot of love these days across the nation or even in their own backyard, but the program still spits out quite a few NFL-caliber players each season.

Ryan Nassib, Syracuse

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    NFL Draft Year: 2013

    Ryan Nassib led Syracuse through its last season in the Big East before heading to the ACC for 2013, and with an 8-5 record which included a share of the Big East title, it was all-in-all pretty successful.

    Still, Nassib and the rest of the Orange never really gained any real attention last season, and Nassib's passing stats weren't really anything to write home—or in the newspaper—about. He averaged 288.7 passing yards per game last season, a number bested by 46 FBS quarterbacks and tied with Dalton Williams of Akron for 47th.

    But don't think for a second this kid doesn't excite NFL coaches around the league. His numbers are solid and have been consistent all spring. He's primed for the big time, and he could go as early as No. 8 overall if his head coach Doug Marrone pulls the trigger on him.

    Marrone coached Nassib and Syracuse from 2009 through last season and is now in his first year with Buffalo. The Bills are in need of a possible franchise quarterback for the future, and Nassib is that quintessential NFL-style quarterback.

    If the Bills don't snag him, the Jets could at with either the No. 9 or No. 13 overall picks. The Jets also have pick No. 39 before the Bills come up against at No. 41. But that's as far as we expect Nassib to fall.

Prince Shembo, Notre Dame

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    NFL Draft Year: 2014

    When you're a linebacker playing next to a guy named Manti Te'o, it's pretty easy to go unnoticed. Such was the fate of Prince Shembo in 2013.

    The junior outside linebacker had 51 total tackles for Notre Dame last season, which included 10.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks.

    Not exactly Te'o-type numbers, but good enough to be named an honorable mention on the All-Independents “conference” list. Considering there were only four independent teams in 2012, that's not saying a ton.

    When it comes to attracting attention from NFL scouts, however, we have a little more faith that they can discover the true underlying talent of Shembo. At 6'2” and 250 pounds, Shembo is a bug guy who is surprisingly light on his feet (he's posted a 4.64 time in the 40-yard dash).

    With another season under the tutelage of the next-best-thing-to-the-NFL staff at Notre Dame, Shembo could easily be one of the top handful of linebackers to go in the 2014 NFL draft.

Jack Tyler, Virginia Tech

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    NFL Draft Year: 2014

    The Virginia Tech Hokies struggled on both sides of the ball last season, and a talent drain was a major reason why. Virginia Tech put together its worst season in two decades, but there were still a few bright spots shining through the clouds. Jack Tyler was one of them.

    While Tyler didn't get any national buzz, he was still named a coaches' All-ACC first team linebacker in 2012. He had 119 total tackles (T-34th in the FBS) and 13 tackles for loss, but he was lost in the shuffle of an ACC race that didn't include Virginia Tech for the first time in quite a while.

    Tyler has good size for a linebacker at 236 pounds, and although we may not see him and the Hokies playing in the final BCS go 'round this season, his potential at the next level shouldn't be overlooked by the scouts.

Zach Zwinak, Penn State

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    NFL Draft Year: 2015

    If you ask Penn State fans if Zach Zwinak belongs in a list of “average” players, they'll probably look at you as if you were crazy. But the fact of the matter is, Zwinak isn't a top-tier back unless you're only comparing him to the rest of the Penn State roster.

    As a sophomore, Zwinak hit the 1,000-yard mark on the nose. But when it comes to yards per game, he was only No. 54 in the FBS last season. What's worse, he found the end zone just six times all season.

    There's some room for improvement, and Zwinak has the time needed to make those advances, but he's likely looking at a big, bruising fullback role at the next level. His strength will attract some attention, and if he can start showing an ability to get the ball to pay dirt, he'll be well worth the late-round pick an NFL team will spend on him.

Denard Robinson, Michigan

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    NFL Draft Year: 2013

    Yes, Denard Robinson is on our list of “average” players who can succeed in the NFL. While his classification as average Is sure to ruffle feathers in Ann Arbor, anyone who has actually seen this guy throw a football can't help but describe him as a thoroughly average quarterback.

    Lucky for him, there's nothing average about his speed.

    His lowest recorded time in the 40-yard dash was an eye-popping 4.30 and his official time stands at 4.34. Robinson, while not really NFL-ready at any position, is simply too good of an athlete to ignore. He also has the perfect attitude for the next level, willing to do anything and play any position on any team in order to make a roster.

    If he drops anywhere below the early fourth round, we'll be fairly surprised. If he doesn't end up having at least limited success at some point in the NFL, we'll be shocked.

Ace Sanders, South Carolina

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    NFL Draft Year: 2013

    Ace Sanders makes our list as an “average” player not because he was lackluster, but because we think he could have been better than he was. Sanders also opted to leave South Carolina a year early to try and ply his trade in the NFL.

    Only trouble, he wasn't among the 100 top receivers in the nation last season with just 531 receiving yards and nine touchdowns.

    Sanders' biggest contribution to South Carolina's success, and his likely “in” with the NFL is his highlight-reel punt returns. Sanders averaged over 15.3 yards per return in 2012, and took it all the way back twice. Only five FBS players averaged better, and only one had more touchdowns.

    He also had a pretty spectacular postseason, where he earned Outback Bowl MVP honors in a narrow win over Michigan. Still, at just 5'7”, Sanders is tiny by NFL standards, even for a slot receiver. If he can get a team to spend a late round pick on him, he could develop into a solid interior receiver—and could always fall back on that great return game.


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