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Insider

Small schools, big talents

9/3/2013

When it comes to first-round selections, there's no question NFL front offices value a higher level of competition, and the proof is in the numbers. Over the last five drafts, teams have spent 147 of their 160 first-round picks (92.5 percent) on players who played for BCS automatic qualifying schools.

In the past, teams have been burned for taking prospects from non-AQ schools. The San Diego Chargers' taking Northern Illinois OLB Larry English with the 16th pick in 2009 stands out. On the other hand, plenty of teams have been rewarded for taking a chance on a player from a non-AQ school in the first round. Baltimore got a Super Bowl-winning quarterback when it took Joe Flacco out of Delaware in 2008. Denver got a franchise left tackle when it took Ryan Clady out of Boise State in 2008. Dallas got one of the most consistent and productive edge rushers in the league when it drafted DeMarcus Ware out of Troy in 2005. Tampa Bay got one of the most talented runners in the league when it took Doug Martin out of Boise State in 2012. All of these players have made their marks in the NFL.

Still, Kansas City's decision to take Central Michigan OT Eric Fisher with the first overall pick in 2013 is remarkable. Fisher is the first player from a non-AQ school to go first overall since San Francisco took current Chiefs QB Alex Smith out of Utah -- then not in the Pac-12 -- in 2005. Even more noteworthy is that the Chiefs passed on a highly rated SEC product at the same position in Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel. As interesting as the Fisher pick is when it comes to the history of the draft, Detroit's taking BYU DE Ziggy Ansah with the fifth overall pick makes the 2013 first round unique. It's the first time since the BCS came into existence that two players from non-AQ schools went in the top five.

Right now, every one of our preseason top 32 plays for an AQ school. Yet an outside linebacker who plays in the Mid-American Conference against teams like Akron and Toledo is ranked 35th and it looks as if he'll be moving up our board.

Buffalo OLB Khalil Mack's ability to defend in the passing game stood out on his 2012 tape and again against Ohio State, the No. 2 team in the country, as he finished with 2.5 sacks and a pick-six in the Bulls' 40-20 loss to the Buckeyes. The interception, in particular, was impressive. He fought off a low block, read Buckeyes QB Braxton Miller, quickly got his hands up and snatched the ball out of the air. The 6-foot-2 ⅝ and 245-pound Mack runs a 4.65-second 40, showing he has excellent speed for the position. He turned on the jets once he secured the ball. As a pass-rusher, Mack showed above-average speed to power and active hands coming off the edge.

Finally, the captain's "C" on Mack's chest looked good, and it could help him, considering there are red flags when it comes to his intangibles. The school suspended him for the 2012 season opener against Georgia after he got into an altercation with a teammate, and he has always been a big fish in a small pond. Mack has another opportunity to shine and improve his draft stock against Baylor this week. He should draw plenty of attention from the Bears. On Monday during a press conference, Baylor head coach Art Briles compared him to Denver Broncos OLB Von Miller.

Another linebacker who stood out over the weekend is Western Kentucky ILB Andrew Jackson, who racked up eight tackles, broke up a pass and recorded a highlight-reel tackle for loss in the Hilltoppers' 35-26 win over SEC foe Kentucky. The tackle for loss came on a third-and-1 play in the third quarter, and Jackson showed great timing on an A-gap blitz. Jackson leveled RB Jonathan George before the Wildcats could get a body on him and before George could build up any steam. That play is another example of his above-average instincts and diagnostic skills defending the run. He doesn't have to win with quickness and penetration to be effective, either. At 6-1 and 265 pounds, Jackson has size that makes it tough to move him out of the hole. Plus, he has heavy hands and flashes the ability to shed blocks quickly.

Jackson is projected as a late Day 2 pick based on his 2012 tape. Jackson could challenge 2002 Indianapolis Colts third-round pick (No. 74 overall) Joseph Jefferson as the earliest pick to come out of Western Kentucky if he has a strong year. If he is drafted, Jackson will be the second player from his school to get drafted in the last 10 years. Also, it will be the first time since the 2002 and 2003 NFL drafts that a Hilltopper has been taken in consecutive drafts. Denver took DE Quanterus Smith in the fifth round in 2013 although he tore the ACL in his left knee in November of 2012. The Broncos placed him on injured reserve, and it will be interesting to see if he can get healthy, because he showed considerable potential before the injury.

Derek Carr, 6-2¾ and 209-pound QB at Fresno State, is another non-AQ prospect coming off a strong performance. He graded out as a middle-round pick with concerns about his frame, durability and inconsistent footwork when we evaluated him over the summer.

It's also important to point out that his stat line -- he was 52 of 73 passes for 456 yards and five touchdowns in the Bulldogs' 52-51 overtime win over Rutgers -- is somewhat misleading. Those numbers are inflated by a lot of short passes designed to let receivers produce after the catch, and there are concerns about his ability to stretch the field. While he puts enough zip on the ball when his footwork is sound, Carr continues to make too many back-foot throws in the face of pressure. In addition, Carr made a poor decision when he threw a pick in the red zone, and his inability to cleanly field a low shotgun snap resulted in a fumble in the second quarter against the Scarlet Knights.

To his credit, he showed great overall poise and leadership. He bounced back from his mistakes and he didn't panic after the Bulldogs fell behind 20-7 in the second quarter. Also, he threw for a touchdown on the final play of the first half, and his 25-yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime ended up being the game winner. He also showed good timing, touch and accuracy working against Rutgers' zone looks.

There are non-AQ schools and then there is the lower-division FCS. The FBS's kid brother made a statement on opening weekend. As Big Ten Blogger Adam Rittenberg noted in a recent post, “the FCS ended up with seven wins against the FBS, which boasts more athletic scholarships (85 versus 63), resources and, of course, home-field advantage.”

Eastern Illinois QB Tony Garoppolo completed 31 of 46 passes for 361 yards and three touchdowns without throwing an interception in the Panthers' 40-19 win over San Diego State. I have now watched two 2012 Garoppolo tapes and the win over the Aztecs on Saturday. He projects as a Day 3 prospect based on what I've seen. His downfield touch is inconsistent. He can place the ball too far inside and force his receivers to play defense. His timing is also off at times, and he can force receivers to slow down to catch the ball. The scheme is an issue. As with Carr, Garoppolo's production is inflated by spread sets that create favorable matchups and quick hitters that put his receivers in position to produce after the catch. He flashes the ability to get through his progressions, but he's an inconsistent decision maker who can try to make the tough throw when there's a safer option.

But Garoppolo could still succeed at the NFL level. At 6-2¼ and 222 pounds, he has a good frame and more than enough arm strength. He flashes above-average accuracy and he can hit receivers in stride underneath. While inconsistent, he flashes the ability to make touch throws like he did on a 37-yard touchdown pass and a 62-yard touchdown pass against the Aztecs. His placement on a 4-yard fade for a touchdown also caught my attention in that game. He has the pocket mobility to evade pressure and he shows good footwork when he moves out of the pocket. Though not a big-play threat as a runner, Garoppolo can scramble for yards, and he protects himself by sliding feetfirst. There's also something to be said for playing quarterback at Eastern Illinois. Dallas QB Tony Romo and New Orleans coach Sean Payton both played there.

Finally, I was at the Connecticut game last Thursday and witnessed a gritty performance from Towson junior RB Terrance West, who rushed for 136 yards and two touchdowns on 36 carries. At 5-foot-11 and 223 pounds, he is a no-nonsense north-south runner who can lower his pads and power through would-be tackles.

Towson decided to hand him the ball on fourth-and-goal from the 5-yard line and up eight with 22 seconds left in the game instead of opting for a chip-shot field goal attempt to seal its first win against an FBS opponent. It was a less questionable decision when you factor in Towson's missing two point-after attempts and West rushing for 43 touchdowns in his first two seasons. West rewarded the faith of his coaching staff by following his guard and bulldozing his way into the end zone.

While the heavy workload he has carried is a concern -- and it will be interesting to see if he generates any buzz over the course of this evaluation cycle -- West is probably best served staying in school for another year. One area where he can make strides in is the passing game. He had just 10 career catches coming into the year, and he caught just one pass against the Huskies.