2014 NFL Draft: Unheralded Stars Primed to Rise in Coming Months

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistDecember 29, 2013

Oct 5, 2013; Kent, OH, USA; Kent State Golden Flashes running back Dri Archer (1) runs as Northern Illinois Huskies defensive end Jason Meehan (49) chases during the third quarter at Dix Stadium. Northern Illinois beat Kent State 38-24. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Which team will strike gold in the 2014 NFL draft with a small-school star?

Each and every offseason, the event features stars that come out of smaller schools, who thus haven't received a ton of attention throughout the year.

Once the season's over and the predraft workouts begin, those players begin to rise up the experts' draft boards.

Last year, Central Michigan's Eric Fisher went No. 1 overall, while Florida International's Johnathan Cyprien went from a possible third- or fourth-round choice to getting selected with the first pick of the second round.

This year's class has plenty of stars, whether they're from a non-AQ conference or a different division altogether, capable of jumping up a few rounds between now and May.

Among that large crop of potential diamonds in the rough, these three players stand out the most.


Jordan Tripp, OLB, Montana

In today's NFL, it's becoming more important to find athletic pass-rushers. You can't get too physical with opposing receivers, so the easiest way to defend the passing game is pressuring the quarterback.

Jordan Tripp is the kind of player coaches have in mind when attempting to build a pass rush through the draft.

Bleacher Report's Matt Miller raved about the Montana linebacker in his most recent scouting notebook:

It's fun to imagine how dominant Jordan Tripp could have been at a major program or even at Montana if used better. A fluid, impressive athlete in space, Tripp was never unleashed on the offense. His numbers may not be special, but his upside is.

Tripp is an attacking player off the edge, and I see a future NFL starter in his range, instincts and three-down ability as a linebacker. Tripp, who recently accepted a Senior Bowl invite, has the tools to shoot up boards once NFL teams get a closer look at him.

Tripp probably won't be breaking into the first round, because he lacks the kind of ceiling that guys like Dion Jordan, Ezekiel Ansah and Barkevious Mingo had coming out of last year's draft.

But the Grizzlies star has the talent to be a dependable linebacker coming off the edge. He's got the speed/acceleration to get into the backfield quickly, and his strong tackling ability means ball-carriers won't slip through his grasp.


Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, Eastern Illinois

Dec 13, 2013; Charleston, IL, USA; Eastern Illinois Panthers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) throws the ball during the fourth quarter against the Towson Tigers at O'Brien Field. Mandatory Credit: Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports
Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

Calling this year's quarterback class weak isn't entirely accurate. But there aren't a ton of can't-miss prospects that you earmark as a lock for the Pro Bowl, nor are any on the level that Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III were heading into their rookie seasons.

That leaves the door open for Jimmy Garoppolo to make a move up the board.

Garoppolo has a lightning-quick release. There's no doubt whether he'll be able to release the ball when under pressure. Chris Johnson of Sports Illustrated explained how working with former Eastern Illinois quarterback Jeff Christensen improved Garoppolo's technique:

The first time he worked with Christensen, Garoppolo's throwing motion was long and inefficient. "I threw it like a baseball player," Garoppolo said. "I had that long, extended release, bringing in the wheelhouse. The Tim Tebow -- that's never good."

Christensen adjusted the way Garoppolo planted his feet. Garoppolo's motion naturally tightened thereafter, but only once he was willing to listen to one key piece of advice. "Very few quarterbacks today allow their shoulder -- the rotator cuff -- to drive the throwing motion," said Christensen, who used tape of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady to help Garoppolo visualize the correct motion. "Jimmy just did.

Rather than a cannon arm, the Eastern Illinois star is more of a pinpoint passer. Arm strength is nice, but scouts will likely be more impressed by a quarterback who's accurate with his throws. Peyton Manning doesn't have a ton of power behind his throws and he's done fairly well for himself.

Although Garoppolo doesn't have the Senior Bowl with which to impress scouts, he should perform well at the combine and could easily sneak into the second round.


Dri Archer, RB, Kent State

Jan 06, 2013; Mobile, AL USA; Arkansas State Red Wolves defensive back Don Jones (5) tackles Kent State Golden Flashes running back Dri Archer (1) during the first half at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports
Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

Dri Archer is listed at 5'8", 175 pounds, so there's no doubt that size will be an issue with the Kent State running back. Ideally, he'd add some muscle between now and draft day, but he's not going to get any taller.

However, Archer's speed will make him an attractive option in the later rounds. He has the kind of explosion that will seduce coaches and scouts into taking a flier.

You could see Archer fitting into a Darren Sproles-type role. He's listed as a wide receiver, but he could get a couple of carries here and there, in addition to returning kickoffs.

Many will wonder if Archer's level of competition has made him look better than he really is. Playing in the MAC hasn't stopped Julian Edelman, James Harrison, Josh Cribbs and Brian Winters from having fruitful NFL careers.

Archer has the physical tools that will shine at the combine. As long as he puts up a strong 40 time, the Golden Flashes running back will find a home on draft day.