NFL Draft Mania ramps up again this week, as the awkward mating dance known as the Combine begins in Indianapolis on Thursday. Teams poke, prod, quiz and chronicle the actions and words of potential prospects, while the players attempt to put their best foot forward (and best 40 time on the board) to improve their chances of playing in, pardon the Ron Jaworski here, THE National Football League.
By this stage of the process, most fans and media are well aware of the big names from the big schools, those players likely to be taken high in the 2013 draft. But what about those "small school" players who, despite the lack of name-brand recognition, could not only be contributors but stars at the next level? Teams likely have them on their draft boards somewhere, but my guess is many of these players are not on the radar of fans. So I thought highlighting a few of these players might be a good exercise, in case you want to track their Indy 3 cone drill and shuttle run performances over the next few days.
Brandon Kaufman, WR, Eastern Washington
Kaufman put up huge numbers in 2012 for pass-happy Eastern Washington, amassing a FCS-record 1,850 yards on 93 catches, with 16 touchdowns. The 6'5, 215-pound wideout could obviously be a redzone target at the next level due to his size and, as his NFL.com draft profile notes, he is adept at catching the ball at the highest point. Concerns about his physicality and ability to create separation, as well as a glut at the position, could see Kaufman fall to the later rounds, where he would be a steal for a wide receiver-needy club. Kaufman currently sits in the 34th and final slot of the SB Nation 2013 NFL draft wide receiver rankings.
Miguel Maysonet, RB, Stony Brook
The runner-up for the Walter Payton Award as FCS player of the year, Maysonet put up stellar numbers for the Seawolves this season, rushing for 1,964 yards and 23 touchdowns. Listed at 5'10, 210 pounds, scouts contend Maysonet has the size, speed, and competitive drive to contribute at the next level. Unfortunately, after never missing a game in his four-year college career, the running back injured a hamstring and missed this year's East-West Shrine Game. The injury will also prevent Maysonet from running the 40-yard dash in Indianapolis (he will run the 40 on March 21 at Stony Brook's pro day). In a league that churns through running backs the way I vaporize a sleeve of Girl Scout cookies, Maysonet's physical attributes and collegiate body of work indicate he would add needed backfield depth in the NFL, and perhaps even break out as a star in the right setting. One last interesting nugget, from Ed Valentine of SB Nation's Big Blue View: if Maysonet gets drafted, he would be the first Stony Brook player ever selected in the NFL Draft.
Earl Watford, G, JMU
Like clockwork, offensive linemen are sought-after each and every offseason, with teams spending high draft picks and wads of cash in an effort to maintain quality and depth along the line. A player like Watford, one of the best guards in the FCS, will pay major dividends for the team drafting him in a middle round in April. Agile, quick on his feet, and loaded with feistiness, Watford started all 11 games last year for JMU, allowing just one sack the entire season. Watford, a team captain, had 25 knockdowns, and the Dukes' offensive line unit paved the way for the fourth-best rushing attack in the CAA (209 yards per game on the ground). The 6'4, 290-pound Watford played in 43 games for JMU, starting in 37 of those contests, including the last 35 straight.
Keith Pough, LB, Howard
Simply put, 6'3, 236-pound Keith Pough is a tackling machine. The 2012 MEAC defensive player of the year, Pough recorded 72 total tackles, with 10 tackles for a loss last season. Pough finished his four-year career with 349 tackles, 83 for loss, a FCS record. The athletic linebacker can harass quarterbacks in the backfield, and also make plays in space from sideline to sideline. Scouting reports indicate Pough can be used as both a coverage linebacker and a blitzing threat from either the strong or weak side. Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com named Pough his No. 1 "riser" after strong East-West Shrine Game practice sessions. Special thanks to NFL.com for this colorful (and cliched) description of Pough's talents: "Brings bad intentions in his tackle attempts." Linebacker-starved teams should not pass on this guy.
Aaron Mellette, WR, Elon
The second wide receiver on our list, Mellette is actually considered the better prospect than Mr. Kaufman above (Mellette is No. 16 on the SB Nation 2013 NFL draft wide receiver rankings). The 6'4, 212-pound Elon star posted video-game numbers in his career, which is why you could say he's rising like a Phoenix up team draft boards (sorry, I just couldn't help myself). As a junior, Mellette set Southern Conference records with 113 receptions and 1,639 yards through the air, and as an encore he nabbed 97 throws for 1,408 yards and 18 touchdowns in 11 games as a senior. NFL.com's draft profile sees Mellette perhaps being one of the first 100 picks in the 2013 draft, while ESPN draft guru Todd McShay does express some concern over Mellette's ability to create separation against NFL defensive backs.
B.W. Webb, CB/S, William & Mary
Speaking of NFL defensive backs, B.W. Webb will soon be one, and a good one at that. Yes, I will admit to being biased here, as I am an alum of William and Mary, but I think Webb has the potential to become not only a valuable contributor in the NFL, but a star at the next level. A four-year starter in Williamsburg, the 5'11, 180-pound Webb has excellent athleticism, cover skills and hands. His NFL.com draft profile also notes an "explosive closing burst" and "excellent recovery speed." The DB started in a school-record 48 games, finishing his career top 10 all-time in interceptions and punt return yards. The special teams skill set, in addition to his play as a defensive back, can only help Webb's stock. He earned the 2012 CAA Special Teams player of the year award last season after averaging 11.2 yards per punt return and finishing third in the conference in punt return yards. A strong showing at the Senior Bowl has positioned Webb squarely in the sights of many clubs, and a repeat performance at the Combine could boost his selection as high as the third round.
Brad Sorensen, QB, Southern Utah
If you've heard even a minute of pre-draft chatter this year, you know pundits are down on the overall 2013 quarterback class. Teams that have the luxury not to reach for a QB early might find a late-round gem in the Thunderbirds' Sorensen. The 6'5, 235-pound former BYU walk-on threw better than 3,000 yards in all three seasons at Southern Utah, completing 62.2 percent of his throws for 3,139 yards, 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in his 2012 senior season. He has the size and above-average arm strength teams look for in the draft and, though not mobile, can make plays outside the pocket. Sorensen comes in as the 14th-best quarterback prospect in SB Nation's draft rankings. As an aside, I don't think it was very nice of NFL.com to list his "NFL Comparison" as John Skelton. Not exactly setting the bar high with that one.
Da'Rick Rogers, WR, Tennessee Tech
Our final entry comes from the "Hey, don't I remember you from somewhere?" file. You likely recognize Rogers as the former Tennessee wideout suspended indefinitely by then-head coach Derek Dooley in August of 2012 for a violation of team rules. After getting the unceremonious boot from Tennessee, the 6'3, 208-pound Rogers ended up at Tennessee Tech last season, which means for the sake of this post, he is a small-school guy, but only kinda sorta. Rogers caught 61 passes for 893 yards and 10 touchdowns at Tennessee Tech in 2012, but his most impressive season came the year before as a Volunteer, where Rogers grabbed 67 balls for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns against SEC competition. His physical skills warrant a higher draft grade than what he is currently receiving, due to character concerns. I will leave you with some tremendously high praise for Rogers, from CBSSports.com: "Rogers is a virtual Julio Jones clone, exhibiting an exciting combination of size, strength and explosiveness."
It's possible not all of the players above will get drafted, and some may never make the league, but I contend it is more than likely a few of these small-school guys will contribute at the next level, and perhaps even become stars. And if you think that's a crazy notion, just go ask the newly crowned Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens what they think of "small school" players like Jacoby Jones from Lane College or the dynamic Delaware duo of Gino Gradkowski and Joe Flacco.
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