Highlighting the Best Small-School Prospect at Every Position in 2014 NFL Draft
Johnny Manziel, Jadeveon Clowney and Sammy Watkins steal the headlines when it comes to NFL draft talk, and in general, the major FBS conferences dominate the NFL draft conversation each year. And for good reason: They produce a heavy majority of the top draft picks.
But the non-FBS prospects shouldn’t be disregarded. In the 2014 draft, we find that one of the best quarterback prospects, two high-upside former transfers who could be impact rookies on offense and a cornerback who may sneak into the top 40 overall picks hail from the lower level of the college football hierarchy.
Each position has a small-school (FCS or lower) player you’d better get to know before draft weekend kicks off. Here’s the lowdown on the lower-level prospects in the 2014 draft who could pay huge dividends to teams willing to take a chance.
Quarterback: Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Illinois
By now, most who follow the NFL draft have gotten to know Jimmy Garoppolo. With gaudy passing statistics at Eastern Illinois, impressive performances during the East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl, and recent buzz that teams would love to get their hands on him, per CBS Sports’ Dane Brugler, Garoppolo has quickly become a Day 2 sleeper to know.
With a quick release, adequate arm, plus athleticism and high football IQ and character, he’s an ideal developmental quarterback for an offensive coordinator to mold for the future. While concerns linger about his pocket composure, in my opinion, based on film and speaking with Garoppolo and his coaches, all of his issues are coachable. Don’t be surprised if Garoppolo is picked quickly once Round 2 begins.
Running Back: Isaiah Crowell, Alabama State
Character has grown in importance for NFL teams since Roger Goodell took over as commissioner, climaxing during the Aaron Hernandez saga in New England. So for prospects like Isaiah Crowell, who was kicked out of Georgia after being arrested for having a concealed weapon in a school zone (via AJC.com), it’s an uphill battle to get into teams' good graces, regardless of talent.
But on film at Alabama State, Crowell displayed the power-running style, athleticism in the open field and big-play finishing ability to put him in the discussion for most talented runner in this class. He’ll likely slip until at least Round 3 due to his character issues, but he’s clearly the best small-school running back and may end up as this draft’s best back in a few years.
Wide Receiver: Matt Hazel, Coastal Carolina
Receivers who can finish at the catch point and have adequate size to finish catches in the middle of the field will always be valued by NFL teams. Matt Hazel may hail from a small school and have a lackluster vertical speed on film, but his ability to finish catches away from his frame will have teams intrigued.
Likely viewed as a fringe Day 2 prospect, Hazel posted plus numbers at the NFL combine, with a 4.50-second 40-yard dash and a 36.5” vertical jump, which could get him to win tiebreakers on draft day with other top receivers in this loaded class. He has the best chance of the non-FBS pass-catchers to be drafted.
Tight End: A.C. Leonard, Tennessee State
Like Isaiah Crowell, A.C. Leonard was forced to leave a top SEC school due to off-field issues. Leonard was charged and pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery with his girlfriend in 2012 (via ESPN.com) and was asked to transfer.
Landing at Tennessee State, Leonard was asked to fill multiple roles in the offense. Playing outside receiver, in the slot, in-line tight end and H-back, Leonard has ample experience as a route-runner and pass-catcher from multiple spots in an offense. He’ll draw comparisons to Aaron Hernandez for his on-field ability and could be a surprise impact rookie for a team that scoops him up on Day 3.
Offensive Tackle: Billy Turner, North Dakota State
The former North Dakota State left tackle is currently being viewed by those in the media as a guard prospect, and that’s likely where he’ll start his NFL career. He’s very raw in his kick slide and overall body positioning, and he struggled mightily as an edge protector during Senior Bowl drills due to improper footwork. But as a mauling run-blocker and with ample athleticism to win in the short area, Turner should be able to step in fairly smoothly and play inside in the NFL.
But his real upside (and why he’s a top-64 prospect) is his future as an offensive tackle, where, with coaching and patience, he could develop into one of the premier power right tackles in the NFL. His issues in pass protection and on the edge appear to be coachable, and the offensive line coach who gets his hands on Turner should be excited to mold the physical, athletically gifted blocker into an NFL starter.
Offensive Guard: Dakota Dozier, Furman
Like Billy Turner, Dakota Dozier is a former college offensive tackle. However, unlike Turner, Dozier's best position is inside at guard, where he can maximize his strong hands, dominance when asked to drive ahead and comfortability working laterally when controlled in a confined space.
The Furman product was impressive during East-West Shrine Game practices, proving that his run-blocking capabilities are NFL-ready. For teams in need of an instant guard contributor, Dozier could be viewed as a fairly safe pick. The second or third round isn’t out of the question.
Center: Chris Elkins, Youngstown State
It’s rare to see a small-school center get drafted, and this year is no exception. However, Chris Elkins of Youngstown State has the best opportunity of the center-capable small schoolers in this draft. Elkins was a Shrine Game invite, where he held his own with the fellow centers in attendance during the week of practice.
Elkins doesn’t play with great length and lacks ideal upper body strength to control his rusher, especially nose tackles. But he plays with decisive footwork and works hard to bend and position himself post-snap and when asked to laterally slide. Elkins could have an NFL home as an undrafted free agent thanks to his college experience, flashes of mobility and consistency in his positioning.
Defensive Tackle: Caraun Reid, Princeton
After impressing evaluators in the past two seasons at Princeton, Caraun Reid was firmly on NFL teams’ radars. Playing across the Tigers defensive line at every position possible, Reid has had the opportunity to showcase a versatile skill set. After watching him on film, Reid’s best skill is his ability to win with rush moves on the interior working from either direction.
As a 300-pound defensive tackle, Reid can fill both nose tackle and 3-technique roles for an NFL team, and his 33" arms could intrigue teams as a 5-technique as well. While other interior linemen in this class have more nose tackle experience, played at a high level or produced more during their college careers, teams can rest easy if they secure Reid in the early rounds of the draft, as they’re getting one of the safer, more versatile interior linemen.
Defensive End: Larry Webster, Bloomsburg
After playing basketball for his first three years at Bloomsburg, Larry Webster opted to try his hand at football. The power forward-turned-defensive end immediately produced at the college level in both seasons on the football team, and with his 6'5" size and 33.5" arms, there were bound to be NFL suitors.
Despite his production and impressive NFL combine numbers (4.58 seconds in the 40-yard dash), I have concerns as to whether Webster possesses the flexibility to bend around the edge in the NFL. Combine the fact that he’ll be making a sharp jump in competition level and has only played the position for two years, and the odds are stacked against Webster to last in the pros.
If I were an NFL draft decision-maker, I’d consider Webster as a tight end due to his athleticism, basketball background and length to play away from his frame.
Outside Linebacker: Howard Jones, Shepherd
Despite his production and on-field success at Shepherd, it was Howard Jones’ NFL combine numbers that thrust him into the Day 2 discussion in the 2014 draft. At 6’2” and 235 pounds, the edge-rusher posted a 4.60-second 40 time, a 40.5” vertical jump and a 10’4” broad jump, all wildly impressive numbers.
Jones played more of a defensive end role in college, but at his size and with his skill set, teams will be looking to turn him into an every-down 3-4 outside linebacker. A quick-twitch, explosive edge player, Jones will need development in his rush moves and overall anticipation of blockers before he’s ready to be a regular starter. But teams are constantly looking for upside in the draft, and Jones has one of the highest ceilings of any projected 3-4 outside linebacker in it after the first round.
Inside Linebacker: Jordan Tripp, Montana
After playing outside in college and being known for his ability to finish plays on the edge (and in the backfield), Jordan Tripp may be considered for 3-4 inside linebacker and 4-3 middle linebacker roles in the NFL. With the size and bulk to slide inside, Tripp’s anticipation of the ball-carrier and ability to finish tackles due to plus positioning is why teams likely feel his versatility adds near-top-100 value to his draft grade.
He still may be considered for outside linebacker roles for teams depending on the scheme, but the lackluster inside linebacker talent in the 2014 class may force teams to consider Tripp, whether it’s for depth or for potential starter options down the road as a worthwhile early-round prospect on the inside.
Cornerback: Pierre Desir, Lindenwood
Despite hailing from Division II Lindenwood, Pierre Desir has quietly become highly respected by those in the media and NFL who have gotten the chance to watch his film and meet him. Coming from a background that forced him to grow up quickly, his story from struggles to NFL aspirations is worth getting to know. While he was recently featured on ESPN, here’s Sporting News’ recent story on Desir by Rana Cash.
On film and while watching him during Shrine Game and Senior Bowl practices, Desir displayed ample NFL talent to warrant a top-100 grade. Add in that he wasn’t able to receive the type of coaching top program prospects had access to and his repeated success against top receivers he faced during the Senior Bowl practices, and it’s clear to me that he’s simply coaching and time away from being a starter-level cornerback in the NFL.
Safety: Dexter Moody, Albany State
After signing with Georgia out of high school, the highly talented Dexter Moody was forced to make other plans when the school revoked his letter of intent after he was suspended in high school (via AJC.com). The well-built, athletically gifted Moody made the move to a community college before landing at Albany State to finish his college career.
Moody flashed his capabilities at Albany State, but he didn't produce at an elite level needed to secure a draftable grade for NFL teams. Still, the 6’1” safety with the explosiveness and feet to play at the professional level is worth a camp tryout, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he lands on a roster (or at least a practice squad) next year.