Finding Those Hidden Gems: Major Program vs Small School Prospects

The 2014 NFL Draft is only a few months away, sadly the Colts do not have a 1st Round selection to draft a potential starter or future elite prospect as it was traded away to the Cleveland Browns for the acquisition of Running Back Trent Richardson. But to be honest and straight to the point, this article is not about who we can draft in the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd Rounds. This article is about a draft strategy that most NFL General Managers apply when scouting for that next superstar while others might or might not even bother to employ such a strategy when going through the drafting process.

I am what you call an armchair NFL scout. I have absolutely no intimate knowledge or experience of scouting future NFL prospects who are fresh out of college, I rely solely on the true fundamentals and understanding of professional American football. It is more of a hobby to me. Right between the conclusion of the Super Bowl and the first day of the draft, I search numerous websites dedicated to informing the general public about certain prospects and NFL hopefuls, I try to distinguish whether the prospect fits the current scheme currently being utilized by the Indianapolis Colts; where is heart, mindset, and passion for football is; how well did he fare up against talented fellow prospects; and most importantly, how good is he physically at doing the job required by the position he plays. Next, I try to find as many coaches film or even highlights of the prospect that I have garnered a good bit of interest in. Highlights and film don’t really tell the whole story of how good a guy will be, but it does provide great insight of what his capabilities are. It can illustrate whether the QB has good arm strength or accuracy; if a WR can run routes or make big plays, or if a Tackle or Guard has good footwork and upper body strength.

How far up a NFL hopeful gets drafted depends on several factors like:

  • On and off the field issues
  • Health risks and concerns
  • Production
  • Potential at being great at the NFL level
  • Size, speed, and work ethic
  • Personality
  • Level of talent displayed against certain competition

That’s just to name a few. But don’t count out guys that get drafted in the 5th, 6th, 7th Rounds or even prospects that don’t get drafted at all. There are even more factors on why certain players never get drafted or garner any interest from scouts, after all when it all boils down; it’s all about picks and chooses. Just because 31 other NFL GMs did not select a certain guy does not make the 32nd GM who did any right or wrong or even smarter. General Managers go after guys who they think have the skill set to be good or great NFL players and disregard players who they don’t feel strong about. Players who don’t get drafted can turn out much better than guys that were originally drafted but have to face certain factors like:

  • Level of Competition
  • Experience
  • Undersize for position (280 lbs DT, 180 lbs. CBs and/or WRs)
  • School Conference
  • Under evaluation
  • Scout Interest

Now to get down to the juicy part. What I have noticed is that small school NFL hopefuls have a greater chance to be more of a hidden gem in the 5th Round to 7th Round or even as Undrafted Free Agents than players coming from Major NCAA schools with respectful football programs. Major BCS schools are the ones with the most funding, more NFL experienced coaching staff, and better prospect recruiting compared to Division II, Division III, or even FCS schools. Allow me to provide a decent amount of examples that support my theory.

Dominic Rhodes, RB
Midwestern State University (Div. II)

Rhodes wasn’t the most stellar RB, but considering where he came from and how much experience he had prior to the draft (2 yr. starter). Rhodes is what people can call an all-round RB. He was solid running the ball, he had hands like a WR, he could return punts and kick-offs, and his pass protection was pretty decent for a guy undrafted coming from a Division II school. So far, he’s the only UDFA rookie RB in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season with 1,104 rushing yards.

Nick Harper, CB
Fort Valley State University (Div. II)

This was a guy that no one in the NFL originally wanted. He was not invited to the NFL Combine nor did he get any training camp invites from a NFL organization, he had opted for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League in 2000 before getting a call from then Colts GM Bill Polian. He was not a stellar player like fellow teammate Dominic Rhodes, but he provided decent CB play during his tenure as a Colt and was one juke away from sending the Colts to Super Bowl XL.

Ryan Diem
4th Round
Northern Illinois University (Div. I FBS)

Diem might have regressed following the 2008 NFL season onwards. But from 2001-2007, Ryan Diem was a fairly excellent Right Tackle. He was a beast in run blocking and held his own in pass protection. Former Colts and current Denver Broncos QB Peyton Manning was year in and year out as one of the least sacked QBs in the league and paving the way for RBs like Edgerrin James, Dominic Rhodes, and Joseph Addai. Diem and Glenn formed a solid bookend Tackle duo.

Robert Mathis
5th Round
Alabama A&M University (Div. I FBS)

I think it’s safe to say that Robert Mathis is one of the greatest draft steals in NFL history. Since being drafted by Indianapolis in 2003, Mathis has wrecked havoc on QBs for an entire decade and just missed out on winning DPOY for 2013 a few moments ago. Mathis is Indianapolis all-time sack leader with 108 sacks, single season sack leader with 19.5, and holds a NFL record of 42 strip sacks in his career.

Antoine Bethea
6th Round
Howard University (Div. I FCS)

Bethea was been very consistent with solid Safety play since joining the team back in 2006. Bethea has been a very vocal leader in the secondary and one of the healthiest players on the team only missing 3 games in 8 years as the starting Free Safety. Despite being the last line of defense and responsible for deep coverage, Bethea has either lead the team in tackles or second and third to the leader with tackles averaging 100+ tackles every season.

Pierre Garcon
6th Round
University of Mount Union (Div. III)

Back in 2008 when Garcon was returning kick-offs, I really did not pay much attention to what he could offer as a WR although I did notice great speed and athleticism coming from him in the return game. Back in 2009 during the Week 1 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars; 1st Round WR Anthony Gonzales suffered a knee injury which would later land him on IR. Garcon took over and immediate carved a niche as Peyton Manning’s deep threat. Despite not having Manning throwing to him in 2011, he was still a bright spot in an otherwise dark season.

Two more current Colt players who came from small school programs but so far has put up major contributions to the Colts having successful winning seasons and two consecutive playoff appearances are ILB Jerrell Freeman and WR TY Hilton. Freeman started out as a LB at University of Mary Hardin-Baylor (DIII) before getting signed by the Tennessee Titans in 2008. He was later released from the team prior to the start of the season and signed with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League. Now why Freeman was released is a question only then Titans GM Mike Reinfeldt can answer but Colts GM Ryan Grigson has been universally praised for signing Freeman. Hilton was a standout slot WR for Florida International University who was drafted in the 3rd Round of the 2012 NFL Draft. His first two seasons with the team has seem him become a very reliable target for QB Andrew Luck with great improvements and achievements.

Here is a list of other non-Colt NFL players who have come from the small school ranks but have achieved modest to great success as NFL players:

Jared Allen DE, 4th Round pick from Idaho State University (FCS)
Marques Colston WR, 7th Round pick from Hofstra University (FCS)
Vincent Jackson WR, 2nd Round pick from University of Northern Colorado (FCS)
Jahri Evans OT/OG, 4th Round pick from Bloomsburg University (Div. II)
Tony Romo QB, UDFA from Eastern Illinois University (FCS)
Joe Flacco QB, 1st Round pick from University of Delaware (FCS)
Brandon Marshall WR, 4th Round pick from University of Central Florida (FCS)
London Fletcher LB, UDFA from John Carroll University (Div. III)
Danny Woodhead RB, UDFA from Chadron State College (Div. II)
Victor Cruz WR, UDFA from University of Massachusetts (FBS)
Brent Grimes CB, UDFA from Shippensburg University (Div. II)

And that’s not even including guys like Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, Donald Driver, Kurt Warner, Al Harris, and Rashean Mathis. Trust me folks, the list can go on and on but I don’t want to put too much effort in an article that will garner little to no attention on Stampede Blue.

So this article is about how GMs who really do their homework and flip over every rock can find some of the best players from FBS, FCS, Div. II and III with just using a 6th or 7th Round pick or without even drafted them. I’ve seen tons of late round guys from major schools barely pan out when compared to small school guys. I’m hoping Ryan Grigson can start scouting more small school prospects and putting more focus on them due to players like that being low risk/high reward and far more cheaper, which can do wonders to the cap space.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Stampede Blue's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Stampede Blue's writers or editors.

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