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Top Small-School Sleepers in the 2016 NFL Draft

Eric GalkoFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2016

Top Small-School Sleepers in the 2016 NFL Draft

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    In last year’s draft, 19 players were selected from non-FBS programs, about on par with recent draft history. Last year’s small-school standouts include Arizona standout running back David Johnson and Tampa Bay’s All-Rookie center Ali Marpet.

    This year's class may feature the first first-round quarterback to hail from the smaller school since the 2008 draft had Joe Flacco. Carson Wentz, fresh off an FCS national title, may work his way into Round 1. But there’s another small-school prospect, one with elite talent but off-field concerns, who appears destined for Round 1 as well.

10. Anthony Fabiano, OG/OC, Harvard

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Anthony Fabiano is the lesser of two Harvard offensive line prospects, but he offers versatility to play multiple offensive line spots. Best suited for a zone-blocking system, Fabiano compares to Marpet—last year’s small-schooler who moved from tackle to center at the pro level and made the NFL’s All-Rookie team.

    He struggles with power rushers and doesn’t offer great in-space pass-blocking talent, making his move to center one that is both out of athletic necessity as well as enhancing the value of his technique and football IQ. He won’t be a high draft pick, but he’ll be one of the more coveted late-round center prospects who could emerge as a starter during his rookie season.

9. Michael Jordan, SAF, Missouri Western

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Hailing from the same college conference as former small-school standout Pierre Desir, Michael Jordan has experience at both safety and cornerback. Fluid with great ball skills, Jordan will get a chance at the East-West Shrine Game to prove his ranginess transitions to FBS talents. 

    His ability to drop down to a nickel set as well as switch between free and strong safety will make him valuable, but as an open-field defensive back, his NFL Scouting Combine testing will be crucial to his draft position. And based on his explosiveness upfield, quick-twitch change of direction and leaping ability in jump-ball situations, I have little doubt he’ll impress in Indianapolis.

8. Deiondre' Hall, CB, Northern Iowa

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    Justin Hayworth/Associated Press

    Fitting the prototype of the long, lean cornerback, Deiondre' Hall played in a primarily Cover 3 defense at Northern Iowa that saw him press, turn and run vertically and work in off-man coverage. With plus-length and a willingness to engage in coverage, Hall fits what NFL teams covet in a cornerback.

    While his straight-line speed is a strength, his vertical coverage when pressing isn't refined, stemming from hip fluidity concerns. He’s a willing tackler who will stick his nose in traffic, but tends to take poor angles and footwork in pursuit. A plus-athlete who offers strong balance and adjustments away from his frame, Hall appears to be a moldable cornerback to develop as a potential starter.

7. Victor Ochi, OLB, Stony Brook

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Beginning his football path as a high school sophomore, Victor Ochi was under-recruited and remains under-developed as an NFL prospect after four years at Stony Brook. Ochi has produced at a high level at Stony Brook, primarily relying on a tremendous first step, bend as an edge-rusher and body control to adjust on the perimeter and in traffic in pursuit of the ball-carrier.

    Still raw in his pass-rush repertoire, Ochi relies almost entirely on his flexibility and initial explosiveness to produce. He was too often pushed to the perimeter and neutralized due to a lack of a counter rush move, something he’ll need to develop at the next level. But Ochi’s raw athleticism, explosiveness on the perimeter, and smoothness in space makes him a worthwhile developmental edge-rusher who could fit perfectly in a “LEO” role that the Seattle Seahawks, Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars utilize.

6. Cole Toner, OT, Harvard

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Harvard's right tackle Cole Toner, playing outside of teammate Anthony Fabiano, is a more coveted blocker thanks to his position (tackle versus guard/center) along with added power as an upfield blocker. As a pass-blocker, Toner sets up well in initial pass protection, struggles a bit with his kick slide, but overall working to the perimeter with plus-balance and patience with his hands. 

    Possessing a strong base and finishing strength as both an inside-protecting pass-blocker and downfield punishing run-blocker, Toner offers the natural core strength to develop quickly at the NFL level. His lack of great finishing ability in space and struggles with counter rushes will give him trouble at the next level. It’ll be his Senior Bowl performance against the draft’s best senior pass-rushers that will determine if he’s a late-round project or an early-round starter.

5. Joe Haeg, OT, North Dakota State

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    MIKE STONE/Associated Press

    The left tackle for the FCS national champion, Joe Haeg deserves ample credit for the team’s run and pass success. With quick, meaningful steps off the snap and in pivoting for inside routes, Haeg makes up for a lack of top-end athleticism with efficiency and reliability.

    Haeg does a great job of reengaging after first contact and works hard to keep inside hand leverage, but he could be a be a bit more decisive in pass protection when meeting speed rushers and may be better suited inside or at right tackle at the NFL level. Playing with composure, plus-hand placement and active feet, Haeg has the make-up of a reliable NFL starter.

4. Miles Killebrew, SAF, Southern Utah

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    Rajah Bose/Associated Press

    Highly touted as far as small-school prospects go, including a shout-out from NFL Nework’s Mike Mayock, Miles Killebrew boasts awesome power as an open-field tackler, standing up runners on a consistent basis at the second level. A physical, feisty tackler, Killebrew can be caught waiting and having runners work through him. 

    Killebrew offers some bounce to adjust and evade blockers, giving him a clear path to finish in the run game, certainly his best and most translatable skill set transcending his “level of competition” concern. But he tends to rely on strength as a tackler too much, can be evaded or worked through and is a bit stiff when reading and reacting from a midfield alignment.

    He physically looks and flashes the part of an NFL strong safety, but he’s not without warts that may inhibit his NFL upside.

3. Javon Hargrave, DT, South Carolina State

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Small-schooler or not, Hargrave stands, according my assessment, as one of the biggest Senior Bowl roster snubs this year. He doesn’t boast elite size (hovering just below 6’2 and around 290 pounds), but his production, pass-rush refinement and ability to stay low should allow him to thrive against top-tier offensive linemen.

    Posting 13.5 sacks in his senior season, Hargrave played an interior penetrating role for South Carolina State, showcasing unique quick-twitch athleticism for a defensive tackle and ripping, swimming and sidestepping blockers with remarkable consistency. He’s a bit overly aggressive, leading him to suffer in the run game and containment, but as a pass-rusher, he’s one of the 2016 class’ best.

2. Carson Wentz, QB, North Dakota State

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    TIM SHARP/Associated Press

    Not since 2008 has a non-FBS quarterback been drafted in Round 1, but North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz has a real chance. While Paxton Lynch, Jared Goff and Connor Cook steal the headlines as the top quarterback prospects, NFL teams have begun to sweeten up to the idea of Wentz as the draft’s best quarterback.

    A strong-armed and mobile passer, Wentz’s plays with NFL-level anticipation, footwork and pre-snap determinations. His velocity control and ball-placement are the major concerns that will need refinement in the NFL, but his flashes are certainly worth investing in for NFL teams coveting a franchise quarterback without system or character concerns.

1. Noah Spence, DE/OLB, Eastern Kentucky

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    David Stephenson/Associated Press

    Noah Spence’s talent on the field puts him squarely in the top-20, if not top-10, discussion. But first, teams need to feel comfortable with his past, most notably a drug addiction while at Ohio State. Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman detailed Spence’s recovery from drug addiction, and signs point to the elite talent working his way into pro teams’ good graces.

    As a prospect, Spence possesses elite initial quickness, burst off the snap on the perimeter and countering inside and finishing ability in space to persistently capitalize on tackle-for-loss opportunities. His athleticism and explosiveness as a pass-rusher puts him in the discussion for the best “edge” prospect in the 2016 class, potentially making an immediate impact for 3-4 defenses at the NFL level.

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