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Little big men: The best undersized players in this year's draft

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During the draft evaluation process there are numerical grades assigned to every player for height. Clubs look at players at every position usually over the last 10 years in the league and determine the ideal height by position.

In our system when I worked for the Jets, a grade of 10 was given to a player with the optimum height for his position. We reevaluated that grading system occasionally and I remember changing the scale for offensive tackles. In 1980 a tackle that was 6-foot-4 got a 10. By 1990 a tackle had to be 6-5 to get a 10 and by 2000 it took a measurement of 6-6 to get the top grade.

In many cases the height grade made it impossible for a great short player to ever achieve a grade that could put him in the first round. Under our system or most systems, it would be impossible to look at a guy like London Fletcher, who is under 5-10 and from John Carroll University, and ever draft him.

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Fletcher has started 208 games, recorded 1,243 tackles, 34 sacks, 18 interceptions and 18 forced fumbles. A significant number of men that runs drafts passed on Fletcher and have been fired since that mistake.

The late Sam Mills is another example of a short man that wasn't even drafted because of his height, yet managed to start 173 games with 971 tackles, 21 sacks, 11 interceptions and 22 forced fumbles.

Every year before the draft I go back and take one more look at the "little BIG men" in the draft class just to make sure they aren't being held back on draft day because of height.

This year I have five guys that need to be drafted higher than advertised because they play a lot bigger than their true height suggests they can.

One linebacker made such a big impression on me after watching his game tapes that I wonder if he's the next London Fletcher or Sam Mills. Is there a team out there smart enough to draft him early and ignore what the measurable chart says about him?

Here are my top five little big men that would be a mistake to pass up because of their lack of height.

Mychal Kendricks, LB, California: Even when I was done watching a few of his game tapes I reached for more just because I enjoyed watching him play. He measured at 5-foot-11, 239 pounds and plays like a guy 6-4, 250. His 39 ½' vertical and 10-7 broad jump are evident on tape as he explodes on every play. He is extremely difficult to block and in reality rarely even acknowledges the blocker while in pursuit of the ball. He regularly passes most of his teammates to the ball carrier. For those who think he's a liability in coverage, watch some more tape. He is comfortable in man coverage on backs and good in his key and diagnoses in zone drops. In the middle he is unblockable. On the edge he routinely took on 300-pound guards and beat them. In the last three years he has been in on 245 tackles, 14 sacks, and four interceptions. He is the shortest linebacker in the draft and I say, so what. He's a damn good football player.

Mike Martin, DT, Michigan: Martin measured out at 6-1, 306 pounds and is the fifth-shortest defensive lineman in the draft. I watched him for a week at the Senior Bowl, interviewed him twice and watched a number of game tapes. Martin is a one gap penetrating nose tackle with a wrestling background and it shows up when you study him. I have heard people say he lacks strength. 36 reps on the bench, a nonstop motor, a refuse-to-lose mentality and technique. Some say he doesn't have pass-rush skills, but then how does he have more sacks than Dontari Poe, Michael Brokers, and Josh Chapman combined? He's a football player!

Russell Wilson, QB, Wisconsin: Not only is Wilson the shortest QB in the draft, he is the 61st shortest player in the draft. The guy started 50 college games, threw 109 touchdown passes and ran for 23 touchdowns. At 5-10, 204 pounds not many teams are thinking he can play in the NFL, but I did find one coordinator that said, "At the very worst, he could have a Seneca Wallace career and would be great off the bench because of his intelligence and athletic ability." For such a short guy, how did he only throw four interceptions in 309 attempts this past season? How did he ever see well enough to throw 33 touchdown passes in his first year in the Wisconsin offense?

LaMichael James, RB, Oregon: He is officially the third-shortest player in the NFL draft at 5-8. He does have a 35-inch vertical and a 10-3 broad jump so he does explode and get big when he needs to. At 194 pounds he towers over Darren Sproles, who came out at 5-6, 190. A coach told me James was too tiny to take in the draft. How did the little man start 35 games, rush for 5,082 yards, 53 touchdowns and catch 51 balls? The coach said it was the system! Maybe it was, but I did say Sproles was the 130th pick in the 2005 draft because he was small but he's getting a number of coaches and personnel people fired.

Lavonte David, LB, Nebraska: David is the seventh-shortest linebacker in the draft at 6-0 and people like to describe him as a guy who might play safety. Watch him play, and you see a guy that is a natural Will linebacker, which means he's at his best stacked behind a defensive tackle so blockers can't get to him and he can fly to the ball. In two years at Nebraska he was in on 285 tackles, 28 tackles for a loss, 12 sacks, three forced fumbles, two interceptions and 10 passes defended. This guy has very good football instincts, and height will not be an issue. Oh, by the way, he's good enough in pass coverage that he can stay on the field against three wide receiver sets.

Finally, good teams have good football players. Looking good getting off the bus doesn't cut it in the NFL. Take the best players and take them a little earlier than everyone thinks you should.


Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.
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