2016 NFL Draft: Undersized Prospects Who Will Come Up Big

Luke Easterling@@LukeEasterlingCorrespondent IFebruary 5, 2016

2016 NFL Draft: Undersized Prospects Who Will Come Up Big

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    Bigger, faster, stronger.

    That's the name of the game in the NFL, and that's exactly what teams are looking for when it comes to evaluating prospects for the 2016 NFL draft.

    But from Maurice Jones-Drew and Antonio Brown to Steve Smith and Wes Welker, smaller players have proved over the years that size isn't everything when it comes to carving out a successful NFL career.

    Whether it's making huge contributions on special teams or bucking conventional wisdom by becoming a quality starter or bona fide star, even the league's most diminutive players have shown they can also be among the best.

    Here are some of this year's undersized prospects who could make a big splash at the next level.

Tavon Young, CB, Temple

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    With NFL receivers seeming to get bigger and faster every year, the league has begun to value taller, more physical cornerbacks who can match up with them. But smaller cover men like Tavon Young are out to prove they can still hang with the "big boys" on the outside.

    While in Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl, Young told Brandon Howard of Sports Talk Florida he's confident he can be effective no matter where he lines up.

    "It's attitude and confidence," Young said. "I know that I can play anywhere on the field, whether it's outside or inside. It just comes from watching film, knowing what the receiver is going to do and knowing what the offense is going to do. If you know that, then that'll lead you to making more plays."

    Despite being listed at just 5'10", 180 pounds, Young was easily one of the more impressive corners at this year's Senior Bowl, making plenty of plays in one-on-one drills in practice. Some may dismiss him as nothing more than a nickelback at the next level, but he's got the toughness and competitive attitude necessary to become an effective starter on the outside.

Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma

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    The son of the late Sooners great Derrick Shepard, Sterling Shepard surely did his father proud with his on-field performance in Norman over the past four seasons. After three years of solid production, the younger Shepard posted career highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns in 2015, catching 86 passes for 1,288 yards and 11 scores.

    Dane Brugler and Rob Rang of CBS Sports agree Shepard's list of strengths is a long one:

    Coordinated athlete with electric feet off the line of scrimmage and at the top of his route to gain separation and give his quarterback a target. He has quick eyes to make snap decision, tracking the ball well to make tough grabs look easy. Displays quick feet and movements at the line of scrimmage to avoid press and works well in tight spaces with his shifty moves and quick eyes.

    Shepard is a nightmare to cover because he possesses the straight-line speed to beat defenders over the top, as well as the quickness and balance to change directions in a flash. He shows soft, reliable hands to pluck the ball outside of his frame, as well as the awareness and toughness to "body catch" when necessary to protect the ball.

    At just 5'10", 191 pounds, some might peg Shepard as nothing more than a slot receiver at the next level. But his combination of short stature and a stout frame, along with his toughness and refined skill set as a receiver, are reminiscent of another "SS"—the Baltimore Ravens' Steve Smith.

    While Shepard may initially earn his stripes in the NFL in the slot or as a return man, he could easily develop into a productive starter and won't be limited by his lack of ideal size.

Leonard Floyd, EDGE, Georgia

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    The NFL is always looking for explosive, athletic defenders who can camp out in opposing backfields and beat offensive linemen with their quickness off the ball. Leonard Floyd certainly falls into that category after racking up 17 sacks and 28.5 tackles for loss over three years in Athens.

    But at 6'4" and just 231 pounds, many wonder if Floyd has the bulk to be effective against the massive, powerful blockers he'll encounter at the next level, as NFL.com's Lance Zierlein points out:

    Floyd is painfully thin and will struggle to matchup with the strength of NFL players, but he is rangy in space, plays with a good motor and has traits as a pass rusher that would be a mistake to ignore. Floyd’s ability to cover close to five yards in three strides is rare for edge rushers. Add to that his inside counter and ability to play in space and you have a prospect who will be heavily scrutinized. Floyd’s lack of functionality could limit him to sub­-packages unless he proves he can add more beef to his frame.

    Zierlein does note Floyd's impressive athleticism, but the former Bulldog standout will simply have to add some muscle and strength if he wants to be as effective in the pros as he was in the SEC. But if he's able to do that and still retain his explosiveness both off the edge and in space, he could develop into a special player.

Jack Allen, C, Michigan State

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    It's hard to imagine the word "undersized" being used to describe an offensive lineman, but Jack Allen fits the bill. At just 6'2" and under 300 pounds, he's both shorter and leaner than your typical NFL center, but what he lacks in size he makes up for in many other areas.

    Fellow Spartan linemate—and potential first-round pick—Jack Conklin knows Allen's leadership and intelligence were the driving forces behind the entire unit's performance, per Nicole Auerbach of USA Today:

    He sets the tone. A lot of times he sets up the blocking schemes for not only the offensive line but the running backs and even occasionally the receivers. He’s a guy we look to on the offense a lot during games. He’s really taken on the role of being a verbal leader and getting on guys if something isn’t going right. He’ll get on someone and bring them back into the game.

    You'll be hard-pressed to find an offensive lineman with more starting experience at a high level than Allen, who ranks second all-time among Michigan State blockers with 47 career starts. He was one of the more impressive blockers at this year's Senior Bowl, proving his lack of ideal size won't keep him from getting the job done against top competition.

Su'a Cravens, LB, USC

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Deone Bucannon has carved out a unique role as an undersized inside linebacker for the Arizona Cardinals, having moved down from the safety spot he manned at Washington State. If you're looking for a prospect in this year's draft who could do the same, look no further than Su'a Cravens.

    NFL.com's Lance Zierlein pointed out back in October that Cravens' experience as a hybrid safety/linebacker gives him increased value in today's NFL:

    Players that used to be known as "tweeners" are now called hybrid players, and they carry more value due to their ability to match up against the increasing percentage of sub-packages that offenses are running out on the field. Cravens would have been a devalued box safety in the past, but he might be considered a valuable matchup player in today's game.

    At 6'1", 225 pounds, Cravens' frame indeed straddles the line between the prototypical NFL safety and 4-3 weak-side linebacker. He's flexible and quick enough to be effective in space, but he's also tough enough to mix it up in the box as a run defender. He's a first-round talent who could slip to the second round and end up being quite a steal.

Rashard Higgins, WR, Colorado State

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    It may be strange to see a 6'2" pass-catcher on a list of "undersized" players, but it's Rashard Higgins' thin frame that may be cause for some concern when it comes to handling the punishment of an NFL season. At just 190 pounds, some may fear Higgins won't be able to match up with bigger, more physical corners at the next level.

    Rob Rang of CBS Sports notes that while he has some intriguing traits, Higgins' lack of ideal bulk could be a red flag to some teams:

    Beset by nagging injuries (and the loss of aggressive play-caller Jim McElwain and quarterback Garrett Grayson), Higgins hasn't enjoyed nearly the production in 2015 that he did during record-breaking sophomore season in which he led the country with 1,750 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. He's a slippery route-runner with deceptive speed and good hand-eye coordination but his lanky frame and lack of experience playing against press coverage make him a lesser prospect in the eyes of scouts that his press clippings might indicate.

    He's not a speed demon, but Higgins is smooth and quick and does the little things that allow him to create separation from faster defenders. He should be able to bulk up as a rookie, allowing him to be more effective at beating the press at the line of scrimmage and going over the middle. If he can do that, the rest of his skill set could make him a solid value pick.

Karl Joseph, S, West Virginia

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    One of this year's top safety prospects heading into the season, Karl Joseph's 2015 campaign was cut short by a knee injury in October. Up to that point, Joseph had started all 42 games of his career for the Mountaineers, becoming the unquestioned leader of their defense.

    Despite his small frame at 5'11", 197 pounds, Joseph earned a reputation as a punishing hitter in the secondary. His style of play earned him the top spot on NFL.com's list of college football's most physical players heading into the 2015 season, per Mike Huguenin:

    Joseph is not the most gifted safety when it comes to coverage skills. But when it comes to punishing opposing players, whether they be wide receivers, running backs, tight ends or quarterbacks, he has no peer in the college game. He excels in run support because it allows him to be physical. The bottom line: Joseph is a tough guy who loves to deliver a big hit (truthfully, he can get a bit sloppy at times because he always is looking for the big hit). He hits a ton; he's a sledgehammer masquerading as a defensive back.

    He's definitely raw, and there's a huge difference between packing a punch in college and doing it against NFL talent, but Joseph clearly has the skills and mentality to be a playmaker at the next level. Though his injury will likely cause him to go later in the draft, he could become an impact player early in his career should he make a full recovery.

Aaron Green, RB, TCU

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    It's easy to look at a running back who is barely over 200 pounds and think he'll be nothing more than a change-of-pace reserve at the next level. But Aaron Green is out to prove he can be an every-down back in the NFL, and a strong performance at this year's Senior Bowl certainly helped.

    Green told Drew Davison of the Star-Telegram he wanted to focus on showing a well-rounded skill set during his time in Mobile, noting the experience of playing for a pro coaching staff reminded him a lot of his college coaches:

    The main thing I wanted to focus on was improving on my pass protection. I definitely did that throughout the week. Also I did really well on special teams. That’s all I really wanted to do. I already knew I could run the ball with the best, so just wanted to make plays elsewhere.

    It was great [working with an NFL staff]. It was a great experience. Being at TCU prepared me for this time here. The head coach is really hard down in Fort Worth. It definitely reminded me a lot of TCU.

    Despite being listed at just 5'11", 205 pounds, Green is an extremely effective runner between the tackles thanks to his combination of patience, vision and explosiveness. After transferring from Nebraska after his freshman season, Green rushed for over 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns over his final two years with the Horned Frogs.

    If he slips down the board due to his lack of size, an NFL team could come up with a productive playmaker to add to its backfield at a bargain price.

    Read more here: http://www.star-telegram.com/sports/college/big-12/texas-christian-university/article57703318.html#storylink=cpy

Sheldon Day, DL, Notre Dame

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    In every draft class, there seems to be a handful of defensive linemen who may be too small to play inside but not explosive enough to play outside. Sheldon Day's measurements may lead some to believe he falls into that category, but his on-field play suggests he could still be a productive pro no matter where he lines up.

    Jon Ledyard of USA Today points out that while Day has some attractive traits, it will take the right system at the next level to allow him to reach his full potential:

    Day is an intriguing NFL prospect, with rare quickness and athletic ability for a defensive lineman, but an undersized, oddly-shaped frame that can get pushed around at the line of scrimmage. Day’s landing spot in the NFL will likely determine how successful his career is, as the Notre Dame product flashes specific skills that can be dangerous when utilized correctly. …

    Day’s best fit is with a defensive coordinator who is able and willing to use him in a plethora of ways, including dropping into coverage and as an interior pass rusher on third downs. I don’t know if Day’s physical limitations will allow him to play an every-snap role, but there is no doubt he can be a difference maker in the right system at the next level.

    Listed at 6'2", 285 pounds, Day is a unique talent who no doubt has the skills to be an impact player in the NFL if he finds the right situation. If he ends up with a defensive staff that can be creative with moving him around the formation and putting him in situations where he can maximize his particular skill set, he could easily outplay his draft position and overcome his lack of ideal size.

Honorable Mention

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    Washington WR Jaydon Mickens

    Listed at 5'11" and just 170 pounds, Mickens could struggle to hold up at the next level. But not only does he have solid top-end speed, Mickens is a quick, savvy route-runner who uses impressive technique to manipulate defenders and create separation. He ranks in the top five in both career receptions and receiving yards in Huskies history.

    Alabama CB/RS Cyrus Jones

    Few players in recent memory have improved more over their career in Tuscaloosa than Jones. Though he lacks the size to be a starting corner on the outside, he should develop into a quality nickelback while making an instant impact as a return specialist.

    Jones made some of his most impressive plays on the Tide's biggest stages, including a key red-zone interception and a punt return for a touchdown in Alabama's 38-0 win over Michigan State in the College Football Playoff semifinal game.

    Texas Tech WR/KR Jakeem Grant

    At 5'7", 168 pounds, Grant might be the smallest non-kicker in this year's draft class. That said, it's hard to argue with his combination of blazing speed and college production. The explosive playmaker racked up over 3,000 yards receiving and 27 touchdown catches over his career, along with over 2,000 yards and four touchdowns as a kick returner.

    Virginia Tech EDGE Dadi Nicolas

    Similar to Georgia's Leonard Floyd, Nicolas was highly productive when it came to making plays in opposing backfields for the Hokies, amassing 17.5 sacks and 36 tackles for loss over his career. Listed at 6'3" and just 223 pounds, Nicolas did himself a favor by weighing in at the Senior Bowl at 235 pounds, but he still needs more bulk if he wants to be an effective pass-rusher in the NFL.

    LSU LB Deion Jones

    Jones finally earned a starting job as a senior in 2015 and made the most of it, totaling 100 tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss for the Bayou Bengals. He didn't do himself any favors by weighing in at the Senior Bowl at under 6'2" and just 219 pounds, but he was easily the fastest off-ball linebacker in Mobile, showing a great motor and flair for the big play.


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