Every year, teams and fans alike are looking for that next great player, the one that everyone else missed; a lot of the time they come from the small, off-the-radar schools.
This is a list of some of the better players who have a chance to make a difference on the next level. Make sure you watch them, because you know your team’s scouts are.
A position with some of the highest demand from NFL teams right now is the edge rushing outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense. With several teams moving to this type of defense last year, and even more changing to it this year, over half of the league is now running a 3-4.
Because of the enormous amount of responsibility given to these linebackers, they have to be freakish athletes in order to make it at the NFL level. Here are three of those athletes from the lower-level college ranks that scouts will have their eyes on in the next week.
Brandon Lang —Troy
Maybe the most well known of the bunch (and no, not the guy from Vegas), various draft sites have him being drafted anywhere from late second round to late fourth round.
Measuring in at 6’4” and 260 lbs, he has excellent size to make an immediate impact for whichever team opts to draft him.
Lang is one of those Jack-of-all-trades kind of guy—he is good at everything, but not elite at anything. He will probably be drafted in the middle rounds.
He is quick, but will not wow scouts with his timed runs this week. However, he should impress with his overall strength.
He is swift enough to play OLB in the 3-4, and stout enough to play with his hand in the dirt for a team that plays in the 4-3, making him an option for every team in the league.
Lang has some red-flags that teams will be on the lookout for though. He originally committed to Georgia, but did not qualify academically, so digesting the playbook will be a concern they will look at in the personal interviews.
Less of an issue nowadays, but still may be a concern, is the ACL in his left knee, which he tore in 2007. While this surgery seems to be almost routine, teams will still want this checked out in their personal physical.
Austen Lane —Murray State
This is the kind of player coaches and scouts drool over. I mean, who doesn’t love an athletic freak with an unrivaled work ethic?
As a pass rusher, he has a “relentless motor” and never gives up on a play. He also has an array of pass rush moves and can beat a tackle going inside or out.
At 6’6” 265 pounds, Lane is a freak who was so athletic in high school that he not only played defensive end, but also wide receiver.
During his senior year at Iola-Sandivavia High School he registered 134 tackles and 14.5 sacks on defense. He also caught 31 passes for 717 yards and 13 touchdowns as a wideout (how was this guy not getting recruited to USC, Texas, and Alabama?!).
He is very good at timing the snap and getting a good jump on offensive tackles. However, carelessness is sometimes an issue for Lane, as he gets called for offsides penalties more than he should (which I guess is never if you ask his coach, but you get my point).
After a strong showing at the senior bowl, his draft stock is rising and should continue to do so after a solid combine. Look for him to come off the board anywhere between the third and fifth rounds.
Carl Ihenacho —San Jose State
While Ihenacho is not the most highly touted prospect from San Jose State this year, fellow defensive end Justin Cole is, I think he has the chance to become a better player than Cole after a couple years of development in the league.
At only 6'3" and 250lbs, he is a little light to play defensive end in the NFL, making him a perfect candidate to switch to outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
He's quick, has decent strait-line speed (will run around a 4.6-4.7 40-yard dash), and just simply is a gifted pass rusher.
His junior year he recorded 18.5 tackles for a loss on top of seven sacks, however, he was hampered by a thumb injury this past year and only recorded four sacks and six tackles for a loss.
Remember what made the defensive end from Penn State, Aaron Maybin, such an intriguing prospect? It was his killer first step. Ihenacho has the same gift, and is very adept at timing the snap count, aiding his quick first movements.
The second thing that makes him such a good pass rusher is his ability to change direction. He can deke, fake, and dip under the offensive lineman to get around the corner. So far though, he is flying way under the radar and should be available in the sixth or seventh rounds.
Wide Receiver is a position teams often hold off on selecting in the draft until the later rounds. Many of the starters in the NFL were either drafted very late or went undrafted entirely.
Andre Roberts —Citadel
Coming from a military academy, Roberts has excellent discipline and work ethic that is very important in the NFL. His discipline combined with his athleticism is what teams will get when they look at him.
I’m going to throw some amazing stats at you that I’ve taken from Dave-Te’ Thomas. 59.83 percent of Roberts' 239 career catches went for first downs. He has proved to have Velcro hands, dropping only six passes over his four year career, and catching 73.77 percent of the passes in which he was targeted.
Just to give you an idea of how spectacular that number is: that career number would be the fifth best all-time for a season in the NFL. Not only that, but he’s pulled down a better percentage of “catchable” balls than any collegiate receiver in the past decade.
OK, that’s a lot of numbers, but those alone should convince you that you want this guy on your team.
The coaches at The Citadel realized how great of an athlete he was and wanted to get the ball in his hands anyway they could, so he’s lined up at quarterback, running back, all three wide receiver spots, and as a kick returner.
They actually studied tape of the Miami Dolphins in order to use him like Ronnie Brown in the wildcat formation.
He’s a smaller wide receiver at 5’10” and 190lbs, but could be a very good slot receiver. I’ve seen mock drafts with him all over the place, but if you really want him, make sure you grab him in the third round.