2018 NFL Draft: Highlighting the always-fun small school sleeper prospects
Despite playing against lesser competition in college, these prospects have legit NFL-caliber ability
The 2018 NFL Draft class has a handful of appealing small-school prospects at a variety of positions. A few of them seem like Day Two locks, and one could find his way into the back end of the first round.
These are players who've had tremendous collegiate careers and -- outside of one guy -- showed they could play with the big boys in either the East-West Shrine Game or the Reese's Senior Bowl.
Here are seven small-school sleepers.
All of these prospects are combine participants. Marcus Davenport is not listed ... I wouldn't label as a sleeper anymore.
Dallas Goedert, TE, South Dakota State
Current Big Board ranking: No. 50
With a strong combine, Goedert has a legit chance to go in the first round. And it's all about the size and athleticism combination for this South Dakota State star. At the Senior Bowl, he measured in at 6-foot-4 and 1/2 inches, 260 pounds with huge 10 and 1/8 inch hand and long 33 and 3/8-inch arms. On the field, he runs like he's much smaller but plays exceptionally big in jump ball situations, especially in the red zone. The football looks like a softball in his hands. There's a lot of Travis Kelce to Goedert's game.
Darius Leonard, LB, South Carolina State
Current Big Board ranking: No. 52
Leonard is one of the key features in one of the best off-ball linebacker draft classes in a long time. After Roquan Smith, Leonard is probably the most impressive linebacker at a similar size -- he measured in at 6-2 and 229 pounds with 10 3/8-inch hands and unproportionally lengthy 34 1/8-inch arms at the Senior Bowl. Leonard exudes athleticism, and it shows with his quick striking ability on run plays and when he consistently meets backs before they turn the corner on the outside. And what might be most important -- Leonard is a star in coverage. In Mobile, he locked onto backs and tight ends down the field with ease. With his physical gifts, collegiate production, and almost unfathomable length, Leonard should go in the second round and have a long, successful NFL career.
Nathan Shepherd, DT, Fort Hays State
Current Big Board ranking: No. 108
At 6-3 and 310 pounds, Shepherd has an intriguing body type that lends itself to scheme versatility at the next level. He has the size to play end in an odd-man front, but he undoubtedly possesses the talent and refined skills to get upfield as an oversized interior pass-rusher. He had 38 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks as a senior after a 9.5 tackles-for-loss and three-sack junior campaign. Shepherd's film is loaded with quarterback pressures and offensive-linemen tosses. At the Senior Bowl, he was the only defensive lineman who registered multiple "wins" against UTEP's Will Hernandez in one-on-one drills. Shepherd's game is based on quickness-to-power and violent, heavy hand use en route to the backfield. A broken hand suffered in Mobile will likely keep him out of on-field work in Indianapolis later this month.
Roc Thomas, RB, Jacksonville State
Current Big Board ranking: No. 156
Thomas was 24/7 Sports' No. 7 overall running back in the now famed 2014 recruiting rankings. You know, the group that featured Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, Royce Freeman, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and Samaje Perine. (Joe Mixon and Christian McCaffrey were No. 1 and No. 2 in the site's "All Purpose Back" rankings that year). After two years at Auburn, Thomas decided to transfer to Jacksonville State instead of competing against Jovon Robinson and Kerryon Johnson for the Tigers' No. 1 running back role. As you can probably imagine, Thomas flourished at his new school. He averaged 6.1 yards per attempt over two seasons and scored 20 rushing touchdowns. He's not an elite home-run hitter, and he's not a lightning quick scat-back. He's somewhere in between. Thomas runs with outstanding balance, and his plus athleticism is apparent on basically every run.
Daurice Fountain, WR, Northern Iowa
Current Big Board ranking: No. 223
The 6-1, 210-pound wideout with long 34 1/2-inch arms was named the Offensive MVP of the East-West Shrine game in January after a three-catch, 61-yard performance and two punt returns for 40 yards. He had three years of quality production at Northern Iowa which culminated with a 66-grab, 943-yard, 12-touchdown senior season. And Fountain is in for a big combine. Don't be shocked if he broad jumps over 11 feet. Only five wideouts at last year's combine eclipsed the 11-foot mark. Fountain wins with pure explosiveness and downfield speed which is eye-opening at his size.
Current Big Board ranking: No. 225
Rolland-Jones was a star the moment he stepped on the field at Arkansas State. As a freshman in 2014, he recorded 7.5 sacks and 12.0 tackles for loss. After two years totaling 21.5 sacks and 32 tackles for loss, the star edge-rusher had 13 sacks and 19 tackles for loss in his final collegiate season. Talk about production. On film, Rolland-Jones is a rangy but polished pass-rush technician who almost always initiates contact and knows how to counter en route to the quarterback. And he's clearly an effective finisher. He's not the bendiest around the edge but uses his length -- 33-inch arms -- very well and plays with a high motor.
Justin Watson, WR, Penn
Current Big Board ranking: No. 249
Watson's the most accomplished wideout to come out of Penn. He's first in career receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns and second in total touchdowns. At almost 6-3, 213 pounds with 33 3/4-inch arms and 9 3/4-inch hands, Watson has No. 1 outside wideout size, and he plays to every inch of his measurements in contested-catch situations and in the red zone. As a route-runner, Watson gets in and out of his breaks with fluidity and has requisite body control near the sidelines. He's undoubtedly worth a draft selection and if he tests well at the combine, he could sneak into one of the middle rounds.
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