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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Small Schools Still Have an Impact on the NFL Draft


As teams prepare for the upcoming NFL Draft, scouts and analysts have scoured the country to find the college football players who can provide an immediate impact for the 32 teams competing to reach Super Bowl XLIV next February. In a world of “draft experts” and the internet, there really is no such thing anymore as an “unknown.”

Every potential draft pick –no matter whether they played for a major college or a Division II school– has a Wikipedia page and his 40-time posted on multiple draft boards floating around the World Wide Web.


When the draft starts this weekend, most of the players selected will hail from schools with names that are familiar to college football fans, such as the University of Southern California, Penn State, Oklahoma and Georgia.


However, there will be a few players selected who attended schools that you need a Google map to find. Places such as Western Illinois, Central Arkansas, Liberty, Sam Houston State and Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo.


While today most of the players selected from these obscure schools will be chosen in the middle or late rounds, there was a time not so long ago when all NFL scouts were regularly finding future NFL stars in some out of the way places.


Since 1960, a total of 3,623 players (22% of all draft selections) have hailed from schools that were not classified as NCAA Division I-A (now known as the Football Bowl Subdivision). However, the percentage of small school players has significantly declined from 28.5% in the 1960s and 27.6% in the 1970s to only 10.3% in the current decade.


The list of great players from small schools is long and illustrious –including many Hall of Fame members and All-Pros. It would take pages to list all the great small school players, but among the names at the top of the list are Walter Payton (Jackson State), Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State), Gene Upshaw (Texas A&M-Kingsville), Don Maynard (Texas Western), Willie Davis (Grambling State), Art Shell (Maryland-Eastern Shore), and Willie Lanier (Morgan State).


Twice in the 1970s, the first pick in the NFL Draft was from a school that –at the time– was not a Division I-A school. Terry Bradshaw was chosen first overall in 1970 out of Louisiana Tech and Ed “Too Tall” Jones was the first pick in the 1974 draft from Tennessee State.


Overall, a total of 80 small college players have been selected in the first round of the draft since 1960. Like the overall number of picks, however, that number has steadily declined from 19 in the 1960s and 34 in the 1970s to only five in this decade (including Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Joe Flacco in 2008).


There are certainly a number of reasons that NFL rosters are regularly including fewer players from small schools.

Probably the most significant is that after decades of reluctance, the 1960s and 1970s saw many major football conferences finally start recruiting talented African American players. From the 1950s through the early 1970s, historically black colleges such as Grambling State, Jackson State and Morgan State became known as pipelines to the NFL as they offered talented athletes who could not find a scholarship at schools in the Southeastern Conference and other major Division I conferences a place to showcase their talents.

While major colleges once let future Hall of Famers such as Elvin Bethea, Buck Buchanon, Charlie Joiner and Lem Barney toil away at small schools, big-time programs are now eagerly scooping up all the top talent.


The past decade has also seen an influx of schools that previously competed at the I-AA (Football Championship Subdivision) level to Division I-A. This has slightly reduced the talent level at Division I-AA as many talented players who once fell to those schools are now going to Division I-A schools.


Another move that has increased the availability of Division I-A scholarships is the change over the last 20 years by the NFL to allow college players to enter the NFL before the completion of their college eligibility. This has increased the churn rate at some of the top colleges and had trickle-down impact at all college levels.


In 1993 the NFL cut the NFL Draft to eight rounds and the following year trimmed the draft to its currently size of seven rounds. It is apparent that the reduction in draft size has impacted the draft philosophy of many schools.


Whereas teams were once willing to spend low round picks on players from small schools, they are now choosing to use their lower round picks on players from major Division I-A conferences and instead sign players from non-BCS (Bowl Championship Series) and non-Division I-A schools as free agents.


In 1992, the final year of a 12-round draft, 36 players from non-I-A schools were chosen in the first seven rounds of the draft. The last three drafts have seen an average of 25 players from small schools chosen.

However, the impact of players from smaller schools on the NFL is still significant.

In addition to Rogers-Cromartie and Flacco, other players from recent NFL drafts that have made an impact in the NFL include Marques Colton (Hofstra), Donald Driver (Alcorn State), Brian Westbrook (Villanova), Aaron Smith (Northern Colorado), Antoine Bethea (Howard), Jahri Evans (Bloomsburg), Zak DeOssie (Brown), Rashean Mathis (Bethune-Cookman), Jared Allen (Idaho State), Robert Mathis (Alabama A&M) and Willie Colon (Hofstra).


In fact, of the 21 small college players selected in the 2006 draft, 20 made NFL rosters and 17 were still in the NFL in 2008. If the 2009 NFL Draft goes as expected, you will probably see about the same number of small college players chosen in the draft as in recent years.

It is doubtful that a non-I-A player will be picked in the first round this time, but after hearing all the big schools repeatedly called it will certainly be refreshing when the draft experts start talking about players from places like Richmond, Tennessee State, Furman and Stillman.


I just hope someone is ready to break out the maps.






Check out this list of the top Late Round Draft “Gems” from Small Colleges

1 comment:

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