Everybody knows the big names who will be at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine.
Bridgewater. Clowney. Manziel. Watkins.
Big names from big schools.
But anyone who covers the NFL will tell you that it’s the lesser-known guys who can make or break a team’s draft—the players from smaller schools who maybe don’t get as much press as the folks from USC, Alabama and Notre Dame.
Everyone knows about guys from the bigger schools, but sometimes it’s worth knowing the smaller-school players. If you can do that before the other 31 teams, then you’re ahead of the game.
For an exhaustive list of small-school prospects, check out this list from Optimum Scouting and Bleacher Report writer Eric Galko.
For now, here are eight players who are in Indianapolis for the combine whom you should get to know.
We’ll start with a guy who is probably better known to the casual NFL or draft fan than anyone else on the list.
Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo impressed at both the Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl. While Eastern Illinois is a Division I FCS school, you’ve likely never seen the Panthers play, and their highlights aren’t the stuff of SportsCenter.
They did produce Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (whose school records Garoppolo supplanted) and New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton. Other than those pieces of trivia, you probably haven't heard much of them.
By the end of the combine, you’ll hear a lot more about the program, as Garoppolo is likely to impress—just as he has all winter long.
He has a nice, quick delivery, a solid arm and the ability to process what’s going on rapidly. In Mobile, Ala., I felt that he threw everything too hard, so I would like to see some touch on his throws, especially on shorter routes. His release point tends to be at an awkward angle, and he holds the ball too long.
At the combine, he won’t have to deal with pressure or beat coverage. It’s a tailor-made situation for him to show off his assets, not his flaws.
You are also likely to hear some good things about his interviews. Having spoken with him, I can tell you that he is a sharp, likable young man.
The Kent State Golden Flashes aren’t exactly a household name, and neither is running back Dri Archer.
But by the time the 40-yard dash is done, you may know an awful lot about him.
Archer isn’t big (just 5'8" and 175 pounds), and while the ideal size for a running back has changed, he’s even below that. He’s also coming off a season when he was hurt early, so his numbers are down.
Most often used as a running back, he can split out wide and is a very dangerous kick returner. In 2012, he was the MAC Special Teams Player of the Year and was on the All-MAC first team as a running back and kick returner. In addition, he was a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award. Given all that, it's not surprising that he was a consensus All-American.
He plays far bigger than his size, although he isn’t someone you would use as the primary or loan back. Pair him with a big bruiser or someone more like an every-down back, though, and he’s be perfect.
Archer has good vision, excellent hands and a great deal of toughness.
More than anything else, though, you will see speed. He could challenge Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson’s 4.24 40 time.
So we’ll probably talk about his speed after the fact. But he’s a lot more than that and could be a great asset for any number of teams.
Isn’t it enough that Princeton is filled with all those smart people? The school needs to produce great NFL prospects too?
Maybe great is a bit over-the-top for a guy whom CBS Sports grades as a fourth-round selection, but after seeing him in Mobile, I was impressed.
The biggest worry with any of these small-school players, no matter how good, is the quality of opposition. The NFL is the best of the best. Can he stack up?
In Mobile, I feel like he answered that question for the most part. Reid consistently beat offensive linemen in drills, and I often saw the orange stripe of his Princeton helmet in the backfield.
Now he is give teams another chance to gauge how he really looks next to prospects from the bigger schools, and I expect him to shine.
One thing that I have read in some scouting reports, such as CBS Sports’, is that he might be too smart or “well-rounded off the field.”
I hate that analysis and the idea that a smart guy isn’t going to care about football. Plenty of very smart individuals line up every Sunday and have for years. Most of them are quarterbacks but not all.
Of course, one only has to remember Myron Rolle to know that some positions don’t seem to have that latitude.
A recent article by Aaron Gordon of SBNation wonders if Rolle’s failure to stick was because of his intelligence. There is some debate about that, and ESPN’s Paul Kuharsky isn’t wrong to point out that maybe Rolle just wasn’t good enough.
But we should also remember his intelligence and choice to be a Rhodes Scholar was a negative for some scouts when he was drafted.
So it will be interesting to see if Reid’s Princeton degree comes up in a positive or negative light, if it does at all.
I expect his production to be very solid though, so he’s a name worth knowing.
You may have heard the name, as Pierre Desir just won the first-ever Cliff Harris Award as the best small-college defensive player.
You’ll be forgiven if you missed that though, or if you don’t know where the heck Lindenwood is even if you heard the announcement.
Desir is an impressive player to look at. At 6’1” and 195 pounds, he seems to be the type of defensive back that will be used to counter the “big-bodied wide receivers” that we see more and more of in the league, as Mike Mayock told Mike Huguenin of NFL.com.
While size is the attraction for Desir, so is speed. If he can prove to be quick in the 40 (and the first 10 yards, which in my opinion is far more vital), then his stock will continue to rise.
As with Jimmy Garoppolo, Desir is coming off strong appearances at both the Senior Bowl and the Shrine Game.
The biggest issue with him is one that cannot be judged much at the combine. He is a very raw cornerback and seems to use his athleticism to make up for technique and other issues. That won’t fly in the NFL, and whether or not he can overcome them can only be determined by studying the tape rather than the combine footage.
You probably won’t recognize Tyler Starr’s name (unless you’re a South Dakota Coyotes fan), but you should make a note of it anyway.
According to an article on ProFootballTalk.com by Michael David Smith, Starr is aiming to set a record in the three-cone drill.
He is another player who has momentum from the Shrine Game, and he has the skill set to continue to do so in Indianapolis.
At 6’4” and 250 pounds, he is a huge athlete. If he can show the agility to really fly in the three-cone drill, teams will be falling all over themselves to talk to him in interviews.
Starr is able to rush the passer as well as drop back into coverage, so he could project as an outside linebacker at the pro level.
While he had some early struggles at the Senior Bowl, North Dakota State's Billy Turner had a solid week overall and could find himself moving up some draft boards post combine.
He is a bit of a waist-bender, which means he doesn’t use his knees enough to gain leverage. He does use his hands very well, though, and has significant power.
Turner also moves his feet well in pass protection and does a good job of guarding the edge. On run plays, he gets to the second level, where he can take out linebackers and defensive backs in the open field.
He may need some polish, but in Mobile, he worked at both tackle and guard. That versatility will keep him around as he gains experience and improves his game.
It’s going to be a challenge to stand out among some of the top offensive linemen in Indianapolis, but Turner has the opportunity to make scouts take another look at his tape with a solid combine performance.
Two years ago, Isaiah Crowell was kicked out of the University of Georgia over a weapons-related arrest, per RedandBlack.com.
While he ended up with a successful career at Alabama State and those charges were dropped, you can bet he will be answering a lot of questions about it anyway.
His on-field production isn’t a question, though some may point out that he compiled impressive numbers against unimpressive competition.
We’ll be able to see Crowell’s explosiveness, speed and hands in drills, but you won’t see the surprising physicality he shows running the ball or ability to break tackles. The running back drills don’t feature those skills as much.
That’s something scouts will have to go back and look at tape to assess.
Still, his most critical test will be in interview rooms. If he can convince teams that his past is behind him, he has the skill to launch himself higher on some draft boards.
Montana's Jordan Tripp destroyed the opposition during his time at the FCS level. He was twice nominated (and among the finalists) for the Buck Buchanan Award for the best small-school defender in the country and was a 2013 AP FCS First-Team All-American.
At 6'3" and 237 pounds, he has the prototypical size for an NFL linebacker, which was likely part of the reason he dominated the players at his level.
This week, he’ll show off that size as well as the strength to clog up run lanes and the speed to close on a ball-carrier. Tripp is solid in coverage as well, although that may not be as evident in the drills in Indianapolis.
He has already been graded by CBS Sports as a third-round prospect, but with a solid week at the combine, he might see his value crawl higher.
Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.