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5 Small-School Standouts Who Offer Big Value in 2014 NFL Draft

Gary DavenportNFL AnalystApril 2, 2014

5 Small-School Standouts Who Offer Big Value in 2014 NFL Draft

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    STEPHEN HAAS

    As it is just about every year, the top of the 2014 NFL draft is loaded with players from college football's biggest programs. Schools such as Alabama, Ohio State and Texas A&M will all be well-represented on the draft's first day, May 8.

    However, in recent years, smaller schools have been making a bigger dent. Last year's top pick, offensive tackle Eric Fisher, hailed from Eastern Michigan. Buffalo's Khalil Mack might make it two in a row for the MAC this year.

    There's been a trickle-down effect as well. More and more, on the draft's third day, NFL teams are rolling the dice on small-school stars, hoping that their gaudy collegiate stats had more to do with their athletic prowess than the relative level of their competition.

    With that in mind, here's a look at some players from little schools who could have big futures ahead of them.

Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, Eastern Illinois

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    STEPHEN HAAS

    At this point it would be very difficult to call Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo an "under the radar" prospect.

    Well, impossible, actually.

    After topping 5,000 passing yards and throwing 53 touchdown passes in 2013 en route to winning the Walter Payton Award as the top offensive player at the FCS level, Garoppolo was invited to the East-West Shrine Game.

    A strong performance there led to an invitation to the Senior Bowl, and then the NFL Scouting Combine. Along the way, the 6'2", 226-pounder has drawn more than one comparison to Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys, including from Rob Rang of CBSSports.com.

    "The comparison goes beyond coming from the same college program," Rang said. "Both lack elite physical skills, but are productive due to their timing, smarts and quick release to get the ball out."

    At this point, Garoppolo's stock has soared all the way into the second round on many draft boards, which may not appear much of a value until you consider this.

    For teams who need a quarterback, but are wary of spending a first-round pick on one, Garoppolo may well represent the best chance at landing a viable NFL starter.

    And you can't put a price on that.

Isaiah Crowell, RB, Alabama State

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    Jay Sailors

    Some small-school stars have a higher profile than others.

    Often, that's for all the wrong reasons.

    Such is the case with Isaiah Crowell of Alabama State. The 5'11", 224-pounder began his career at the University of Georgia, but a failed drug test and 2012 arrest on weapons charges led to his dismissal from the team.

    Crowell transferred to Alabama State, and after topping 1,100 yards and scoring 15 touchdowns as a junior, Crowell declared for the 2014 NFL draft.

    Per Bleacher Report's Andrew Hall, NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller sees a ton of upside with Crowell:

    Crowell has all the natural talent in the world. He's powerfully built with the legs needed to drive through would-be tacklers and pick up positive yardage. With his combination of size and speed, Crowell definitely fits the model of a franchise running back. In years past, he would have been a 20-carry bell-cow featured in a pro-style offense.

    Miller is far from alone in his esteem for Crowell, as Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com recently tweeted, "If Isaiah Crowell was clean off the field, he would be in every 1st round mock draft. I hope he doesn't waste his talent in the NFL."

    Crowell, for his part, told Hall his past is just that. “Right now I have the work ethic to play in the NFL," Crowell said. "I’m not going to let anything block my dream. I’m not the same person I used to be.”

    If that's true, and Crowell can put those missteps behind him, then he could be one of the biggest steals of the draft's third day.

Billy Turner, OT, North Dakota State

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    For a small school in a small state (population-wise, at least), North Dakota State has most definitely not played small the past two years.

    The Bison are the two-time defending FCS national champions, due in large part to an offensive front anchored by tackle Billy Turner.

    The 6'5", 315-pound Turner was an FCS All-American during each of the Bison's national-title runs and didn't allow a single sack last year. Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com went so far as to rate Turner as a top-50 prospect, calling him a "bully" after a strong showing at the combine.

    Granted, most scouts aren't quite that high on Turner. Alex Dunlap of Bleacher Report rates Turner as a second- or third-round prospect, writing Turner has the "versatility to contribute at four possible positions along the offensive line."

    Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com, on the other hand, sees Turner as a late-round prospect. In Nawrocki's opinion, Turner "flashes a nice combination of foot quickness, punch strength and nastiness to warrant consideration as a project. Has a bit of a bull-in-a-china-shop element at this stage of his career, but has moldable tools and could develop into a swing backup."

    Whether it's inside at guard or as a "swing" tackle, there is absolutely no such thing as too much depth on the offensive line, and depth with the sort of potential Turner presents is doubly in demand.

Jordan Tripp, LB, Montana

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    Michael Albans

    It's certainly not unheard of for a defensive player from the University of Montana to be drafted by an NFL club. Just two years ago, cornerback Trumaine Johnson made the jump from the Big Sky Conference to the St. Louis Rams.

    The next Grizzlies standout set to make the leap is linebacker Jordan Tripp, who posted 100 tackles for Montana a season ago.

    The 6'3", 234-pounder is a "fluid athlete with good closing speed," according to Rob Rang of CBSSports.com. ESPN's Todd McShay (subscription required) went one better than Rang, ranking Tripp as the best value in the back seven this year among under-the-radar prospects:

    He was a two-time AP FCS All-American at Montana, he had a great week at the Senior Bowl and recorded the fastest short shuttle and fourth-fastest 40-yard dash among all linebackers at the combine. In addition to his speed and toughness, Tripp possesses great versatility -- he can play inside linebacker, outside linebacker and will be great covering kicks in the NFL.

    Mind you, this isn't to say that Tripp will necessarily make an immediate impact for an NFL team. However, at the very least, Tripp to appears to be capable of becoming a fine reserve linebacker and special teams contributor.

    Given Tripp's athleticism, his ceiling is quite a bit higher than that.

Pierre Desir, CB, Lindenwood

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    Jeff Roberson

    Football-wise, schools don't get a lot smaller than Lindenwood, a Division II liberal arts school located in Missouri. It's certainly not a team known for producing Day 2 picks in the NFL draft, but that may change this year.

    Cornerback Pierre Desir split time between Lindenwood and Washburn, but despite the fact that Desir played in relative obscurity, he's on the radar of more than a few NFL teams and draftniks alike.

    It's not hard to see why. At 6'1" and 198 pounds, Desir has the sort of size that is very much en vogue among NFL cornerbacks.

    Rob Rang of CBSSports.com writes that "Like DRC (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie of the New York Giants), Desir possesses intriguing size, athleticism and ball-skills. With improved physicality -- especially in run support -- Desir could emerge as a legitimate NFL starter." 

    According to Justin Rodgers of MLive.com, former Chicago Bears college scouting director Greg Gabriel agrees:

    Desir has talent, but is very raw. It will take some time for him to develop, but I can see him as a starter by the end of his second year or beginning of his third year. This player has a lot of upside and should get drafted in the third to fourth round.

    It's going to take some time for Desir to acclimate to the NFL, given the level of receivers he faced (or more appropriately didn't face) while in school, but after watching Seattle's "Legion of Boom" secondary propel the Seahawks to the Super Bowl, plenty of NFL teams are looking for the next "big" thing at cornerback.

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