2013 NFL draft: College doesn't have to be the best four years of your life

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

While college success seems dime-a-dozen among successful NFL players, not every storied pro performer enjoyed record-breaking college years but still found a way to cut out a nice role in the NFL

The narrative would have you believe that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady struggled mightily in his college years at Michigan.

Brady, after all, wasn't picked until the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft, after such NFL duds as Giovanni Carmazzi, Chris Redman, Tee Martin and Spergon Wynn. Brady's legend has slowly coalesced into the story that he sat idly by in Ann Arbor for the storied program and showed little potential.

Brady, however, started 25 games, threw for 35 touchdowns against 18 interceptions and won an Orange Bowl at Michigan. Brady succeeded in college, and despite the low draft pick, has succeeded — well beyond expectations — in the pros.

But that's not to say the unlikely performer doesn't exist in the NFL. Plenty of strong NFL contributors in league history actually were overshadowed in college, either sitting at the end of depth charts or leading underwhelming squads, only to see the NFL treat them to niche success they couldn't find in college.

Matt Cassel knows full well what it's like to sit at the end of a depth chart, having spent his entire career with the USC Trojans with a clipboard in hand, watching Heisman Trophy winners Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer toss endless touchdowns in the prime of one of the decade's most prolific collegiate offensive attacks.

Two hundred and thirty picks into the 2005 NFL draft, Brady's Patriots were looking for a strong backup, and used No. 230 on a guy who majored in it at USC. After three more seasons occupying familiar territory, Cassel took advantage of Brady's season-ending injury to complete a 10-win, 21-touchdown campaign that no one expected.

Cassel's performance despite little college success was surprising, but turn back the clock a few decades and you'll find that Cassel is not completely without equal. Dwight Clark might be most famous for one touchdown catch, but in his three years at Clemson he barely set foot in the endzone for the Clemson Tigers.

In three seasons Clark registered just three touchdowns and never hauled in more than 265 yards in a season. But just two years after the San Francisco 49ers paired him with quarterback Joe Montana by selecting him with the 249th pick (then a 10th-round selection), Clark pulled in 1,105 yards in just one professional year — the same year of "The Catch."

Sometimes when it comes to unheralded college performers, it's more about the system than the player.

Such was likely the case for fullback Le'Ron McClain. Four seasons at running back with a down Alabama Crimson Tide squad netted McClain only 170 rushing yards from 2003 to 2006. McClain never ranked higher than fifth in rushing on any of those teams, which were led by the likes of running backs Shaud Williams and Ken Darby.

McClain did haul in 48 receptions for 405 yards in his four seasons, but with little offensive impact expected, McClain went to the Ravens at No. 137 in the 2007 NFL draft fully expected to contribute solely as a blocking fullback.

His first season went mostly as expected, as McClain started 11 games, rushing for only 18 yards but quickly becoming one of the league's best blocking tight ends. He helped Willis McGahee rush for 1,207 yards.

In 2008, however, McClain was a sudden offensive force.

In one year McClain rushed for more than five times his career total at Alabama and scored 10 touchdowns, equalling his career total haul with the Crimson Tide. Since then McClain hasn't produced at quite the same levels, but has provided a strong blocking presence for the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers in recent years.

What McClain, Clark, Cassel and — to a lesser extent — Brady have proved is that while it helps to have shined brightly in college, there's plenty that can be achieved in the pro ranks even if you didn't break records in college.

Not everyone needs to be a Montee Ball to guarantee NFL success, maybe that's why Ball chose to return to the Wisconsin Badgers despite breaking countless FBS records in 2011.

A year later, Ball's draft stock has fallen precipitously. But there's no reason he, or countless other more under the radar members of his draft class, can't make a big impact — or an even bigger catch — in the NFL.

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