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Rookies from small schools looking to prove they belong in the NFL

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Players who were drafted from small programs sometimes have higher ceilings.

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Between the buildup and aftermath of the draft, rookies have been getting most of the attention in the NFL for the past couple of months. Now, as OTAs are starting up, they're ceding the spotlight back to well-established players. Still, this is an important time for rookies, who are looking to assert themselves early in their careers.

Many of these rookies are used to top-notch competition. The NFL Draft was filled with picks from football powerhouses, led by Ohio State with 12 players selected. Of the 253 players drafted in 2016, 182 players (72 percent) were from one of the Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC). Only two players were drafted out of Division II schools -- tied with international players, one from Canada and one from Germany -- while 21 came from an FCS program and the rest from an Independent or Group of 5 school.

Seeing players taken from big-name schools is routine, but every so often a name is called that has fans scrambling to Google for info. A combination of visibility, competition level and talent tend to keep the number of small-school players drafted low, but there are plenty of success stories in the NFL of players coming from little-known programs and exploding on the scene, like Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler (West Alabama) and Chargers running back Danny Woodhead (Chadron State).

One common thread among successful small-school players is their work ethic. Putting in effort on and off the field will be what separates the one- and two-year players and those with long careers -- like the 20-year veteran kicker Adam Vinatieri, who played collegiate ball at South Dakota State.

These four small-school players had their dreams realized when their names were called during the draft, but with enough effort, they could take their dreams even further and develop into starting-caliber talent.

Tajae Sharpe, WR, Tennessee Titans (from UMass)

The Mid-American Conference produces more draft picks than some of the other smaller conferences, but UMass hasn't particularly been a hub for future NFL players. Heading into this year's draft, the school had only 16 total draft picks since 1970, and their first of the millennium didn't come until 2010. Sharpe, a fifth-round pick, became the first Minuteman ever drafted by the Titans.

"I look forward to facing the best competition there is," Sharpe said after he was drafted. "That's something I had to hear throughout my whole college career is playing at a small school in the MAC not playing the top competition every single week. But at UMass we had some very big games there and during those big games I showed up in every single one."

The two-time first-team All-MAC pick had a stellar career with the Minutemen, wreaking havoc on both short and deep routes. The 6'2, 194-pound receiver led the nation with 9.3 catches per game while averaging 109.9 yards.

"Coming from a smaller school ... you know it’s not the SEC or ACC ... so people kind of overlook guys coming from smaller schools," Sharpe said. "Just being able to say I caught the most passes in the country and more passes than anybody around the country it means a lot to me."

Sharpe showed off his route-running and personality at the first day of rookie minicamp, and despite an early drop he started to settle in as practice went on. He made a leaping catch, but downplayed it afterward, saying, "Once you get out there, it is all just football at the end of the day."

He may need to bulk up a bit in the NFL, but Sharpe has the skills to be successful after a year or two of training with the best.

Matt Judon, DE, Baltimore Ravens (from Grand Valley State)

The Division II strongman led all of college football his senior campaign with 20 sacks, 23.5 tackles for loss on 81 total tackles and three forced fumbles. Judon was a standout at the NFL Combine, finishing as a top performer in his position group in three events, including the 40-yard dash (4.73 seconds), vertical jump (35 inches) and bench press (30 reps). He became just the eighth player drafted out of Grand Valley State when the Ravens picked him in the fifth round.

"I'm glad I ended up at Grand Valley and I was blessed to be put in that situation, I thought they had the best fit for me. They had some great coaches," Judon told the Baltimore Sun after his second rookie practice.

"I don't care who didn't draft me or who didn't give me a scholarship. I care about the people I'm playing next to."

He was the first player in the Ravens draft class to sign his rookie deal, four years worth $2.596 million. Judon will have to beat out Za'Darius Smith and rookies Kamalei Correa, and Victor Ochi in order to climb up the depth chart, but he is expected to get a lot of reps during offseason workouts, especially with veterans Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil unlikely to participate much.

He has the size to be successful but will need to use his time at minicamps and offseason workouts to improve his technique. If he does, the small-school edge player could end up being the Ravens' outside linebacker of the future.

Trevor Bates, LB, Indianapolis Colts (from Maine)

Growing up, Bates was physical enough and nimble enough to play multiple positions including, punter, free safety, fullback and tight end. It wasn't until college, at FCS school Maine, that he took up a position on defense full-time. His coaches lauded him during his senior season for his work on and off the field and were excited to see what the honor roll member could do in the NFL.

"His character will be very hard for them to cut," Maine head coach Joe Harasymiak said after Bates' pro day workout, according to the Maine Sunday Telegram. "That's the best I've ever seen him look. I always get amazed by, for our level, his size and his quickness, his explosiveness."

Bates was expected to go undrafted, but following his pro day workout and regional camp appearances, he was picked by the Colts in the seventh round. Part of his appeal was that he isn't pro ready, but has all the natural talent and speed to get there.

"Talking to them after the draft, they definitely see me as an outside linebacker to begin with, and eventually moving back inside," Bates said, according to Stampede Blue. "Just to kind of catch up with the speed of the game and get acclimated, I think they want to get me in a familiar position before I make that transition to middle linebacker."

While he will likely start his career as a pass rusher and see some snaps on special teams, his future could include an inside linebacker role with some development. Working his way from the outside in could ensure his place on the Colts roster until he's proven he is ready to make the transition and take on the additional responsibilities.

His attitude is already there.

Marqui Christian, SS, Arizona Cardinals (from Midwestern State)

Known as an "in-the-box safety," Christian won just about every award for D2 players his senior season -- including the Cliff Harris Award as the nation's top small-college defensive player -- after putting up 95 total tackles (49 solo), three fumble recoveries (two for touchdowns) and three pass breakups. The 5'10, 196-pound safety had a career game in an overtime win against Colorado Mesa last season, recording nine tackles, 1.5 sacks and forcing a fumble.

Christian was drafted in the fifth round by the Cardinals, and will likely see snaps early in his career as a backup in the secondary and on special teams. After his first rookie practice, Christian told ArizonaSports.com what he wanted to prove he could do.

"I just want to show them that I can do everything in the back end: play in the box, play deep, be rangy, be a quarterback in the backfield — get everybody lined up. Communicate in the backfield and be a leader."

He might see some playing time earlier than planned with safety Tyrann Mathieu expected to sit out until his ACL is 100 percent healed. Like Mathieu, Christian is versatile -- if the Cardinals are comfortable with their fifth-round pick's ability to fill in most of the roles performed by Mathieu, and with his proven success in zone coverage and physical style of play, Christian could build off a backup role in Arizona.

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Small-school prospects might be looked at under a stronger microscope, but their ceilings could also be higher than players from Division I schools.

New York Jets GM Mike Maccagnan spoke at the NFL Combine on the benefit of drafting someone from a small school.

"I tend to believe the smaller-school guys [...] really make great jumps as you kind of get them in. And sometimes the jumps that they make from Years 1, 2 and 3 are much more dramatic than, maybe, a guy at a bigger school has reached more of his potential at that point."

There are a few sleepers in every draft class and some of those could be players few have seen on the collegiate level. It will all depend on their development in the pros, and that process starts now.