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Arkansas Football: Razorbacks Fare Well in 2014 NFL Draft

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Arkansas Football: Razorbacks Fare Well in 2014 NFL Draft
Michael Conroy/Associated Press
C Travis Swanson

The Arkansas Razorbacks are a very respectable team when it comes to churning out NFL talent. Since 2000, the Hogs have had 45 players selected in the NFL draft.

There weren't a ton of expectations for Hogs being drafted this year. Arkansas figured to have two players who would be drafted in defensive end Chris Smith and center Travis Swanson. However, by the end of it all on Saturday, four Razorbacks heard their names called.

Smith and Swanson were taken as expected, but the big surprises came in the seventh round when kicker Zach Hocker and fullback Kiero Small were selected. For the Hogs to have four players drafted this year is a huge win for the program.

Not only will it help recruiting, but it also shows that despite a rough couple of years, there is talent on this team. 

The Razorbacks had as many players drafted as Auburn, Florida, Oregon, Oklahoma and Missouri, to name a few. The only SEC teams to have more players drafted than Arkansas were LSU (nine) and Alabama (eight). If you want to dive into the numbers even more, only 11 teams in the entire country had more players drafted than the Hogs.

Not bad for a team that went 3-9 and failed to win a conference game.

Now, let's shift gears and take a look at the four Hogs who were drafted, how they fit into their new teams and what their roles will be, whether that's starting or just trying to make the team.

 

C Travis Swanson, 3rd Round, 76th Overall by Detroit Lions

Ever since Bret Bielema took over the reins of the program, he's raved about Swanson. The Detroit Lions have Dominic Raiola starting at center right now, but he's 35. The Lions were looking for a future starter to take Raiola's place when he's gone, and Swanson was their guy with the 76th pick in the third round.

What the Lions get with Swanson is durability, a hard worker and a student of the game. He tied the record for most consecutive starts with 50. That was against SEC competition, where he was good enough to be a Rimington Trophy finalist in 2013.

That was something Lions general manager Martin Mayhew told Tim Twentyman of DetroitLions.com he loved about Swanson:

He's got a lot of starts against really good competition. That usually bodes well for guys early, gives those guys confidence when they get here, so that's definitely a factor.

As Twentyman also pointed out, in his last two years of starting, Swanson had a 90 percent blocking consistency grade, the highest of any active player in the country. 

He wasn't the strongest, fastest or most athletic O-lineman in the draft, but he has a high football IQ and gets the job done. Don't expect Swanson to start right away or maybe even for the first few years. The Lions will allow him to develop behind Raiola before Swanson takes over the job full time when Raiola's time in Detroit is over.

 

DE Chris Smith, 5th Round, 159th Overall by Jacksonville Jaguars

Let me be clear, I absolutely love this pick for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Not only was it a great value pick getting Smith in the fifth round, but he could end up becoming a key contributor on a D-line that needs difference-makers.

There's a good chance that the Jags could use him as both a defensive end and an outside linebacker who rushes the passer from a standing position, as indicated by Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union:

Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell said Smith stood out in the 1-on-1 drills at the Senior Bowl and will get looks at the Leo spot and outside linebacker.

Smith doesn't have ideal size for an NFL rush end, measuring in at 6'1", 266 pounds. However, he does have excellent speed and quickness for a guy his size, clocking a 4.66 40-yard dash time at the combine, per NFLDraftScout.com. He also has long arms, which allow him to get leverage on blockers in running situations or get by them with his arsenal of moves.

His strength is an underrated aspect of his game. Smith bench-pressed 225 pounds 28 times, which is a very solid number. If he's going to make a real impact, though, Smith must get more consistent with his burst off the snap and learn to drop into coverage, something he rarely did in college.

Smith showed that he can be an impact pass-rusher, racking up 22 sacks in his last three years as a Hog. It's a safe bet that he'll make the team, but it could be awhile before he contributes on the field. 

Then again, if Smith makes the necessary improvements and stands out in camp and practices, he could make an impact this season.

 

FB Kiero Small, 7th Round, 227th Overall by Seattle Seahawks

Small's stature might be small at 5'8", but his game is anything but that. He's firmly built at 244 pounds and hits defenders with the force of a truck.

His blocking ability is at an NFL level for a fullback, which could be a big reason why the Seahawks selected him. The O-line was a big reason why Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams had such great years, but so was Small. 

Once the ball was snapped, he would immediately go and hit a defender to carve a path for the backs. Just take a look at this video. On almost every single play, Small makes a great block or a big hit:

He also has good hands and is surprisingly nimble in the open field with the ball. However, it is his blocking ability that I think will be the reason he makes the team. 

Seattle currently has two fullbacks on its roster with Derrick Coleman and Spencer Ware. Small is stronger and can block better than both of them. If he goes into training camp and shows off his bone-crushing blocks and good hands, don't be surprised if Small not only makes the team, but also ends up starting.

 

K Zach Hocker, 7th Round, 228th Overall by Washington Redskins 

The most surprising Hog to be selected was Hocker. Despite there being a number of kickers rated ahead of him, the Redskins took the four-year starter who showed he can make the long kicks from 50-plus yards. 

Kickers who are consistent from over 40 and 50 yards out are a valuable asset in the NFL, and Hocker definitely fits that mold.

During his career at Arkansas, he hit five of seven (71.4 percent) attempts from 50-plus yards and went 14-of-23 (60.9 percent) from 40 and over. He had longs of 50 his freshman year, 51 as a sophomore and 54 as a senior in 2013.

While he'll need to be more consistent at the next level, Hocker has the leg strength to be a starting kicker in the NFL.

Washington was intrigued enough to use a pick on him, which tells you he has a legitimate shot at winning the job if he can show more consistency. His main competition will be veteran Kai Forbath, who made 18 of 22 attempts last season with a long of 50. 

Redskins head coach Jay Gruden offered some strong words in favor of Hocker to CSN Washington's Tarik El-Bashir:

His leg strength is very good. He was a very productive kicker at Arkansas. I think he was ranked ninth or tenth in the nation as far as touchbacks, which is excellent.

Gruden also didn't rule out Hocker being the kickoff specialist while Forbath remained the kicker on field goals:

That's not out of the question. We'll see in training camp. Kai needs to kickoff better; that's a fact. He's obviously a very good field goal kicker, which is important. And we have a lot of respect for his talent as a kicker, but we also felt like we like we needed to bring another kicker in here and compete and look at for the kickoff specialist [role] and compete with Kai.

For a team that struggled so mightily, the Hogs can call the 2014 NFL draft a big success for the program. All four guys drafted have a great shot at making their respective teams and even making early contributions. 

 

Bryan Heater is the Featured Columnist for the Arkansas Razorbacks football team. Follow him on Twitter @BHeaterRivals.

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